Education: the next five years

A discussion held on 22 July 2004.

A letter to The Times sent on 17 July 2004 was first considered. This remarked on ‘impossible amounts of paperwork…decreasing attendance…increasing levels of violence…uncaring and aggressive parents’. The writer added that ‘as a nation it appears that we have something quite radically wrong with our attitude to education… historically effective deterrents to bad behaviour are made unenforceable by lack of parental support…there is no proper concern for the welfare of individual pupils…or for the purpose of education’. ‘Radical changes’ were urged, to encourage ‘family values in the wider sense’ and ‘trust in the ability of our excellent teachers to teach without the encumbrance of endless feedback requirements and countless changes to the curriculum’. The writer, despite ‘not being an expert in the field’, argued that ‘no expertise is required to see that the present trend is towards disaster’. Many of the points raised were touched upon in the following discussion.

Next considered were Government proposals published on 9 July 2004 outlining a plan for the next five years, embracing nursery, primary and secondary education.

Nursery education, to be called ‘educare’, would offer 12.5 hours of free education and childcare per week , over 33 weeks of each year.

Primary education would require 1000 schools to be open between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.., including breakfast clubs and after-school childcare, by 2008. By then 85% of 11-year-olds would be expected to reach set literacy and numeracy standards, although no other targets were mentioned. Diet and travel (by cycle or foot) strategies are to be encouraged. Two hours of P.E. per week and opportunities to learn a musical instrument are to be arranged, together with foreign language provision, by 2010. Given falling intakes, LEAs are urged to close poorly performing primary schools.

Secondary education retains the National Curriculum, but it must become ‘pacy, challenging, enjoyable’. English, Maths and Science must receive emphasis. Teachers should develop subject specialisms. A wider range of out-of-hours activities should be provided.

All schools should provide ‘excellence and choice for all’, but ‘independent specialist schools’ should provide secondary education choices to families, based upon pupil talent and interest. The Education Secretary declared that ‘We will not allow any extension of selection by ability’. There will be a ‘strong presumption’ in favour of expansion for successful schools, through a ‘fast-track process’, which will also encourage provision of sixth forms where none exist. LEAs will be expected to ‘ close failing schools without delay’ and replace the 200 worst with ‘city academies’ (sponsored by business and individuals) by 2010, thus providing 200,000 places. The 24,000 schools which currently receive £25 billions from local government through state grants (representing 75% of their funding, the rest coming from council tax) are now to receive ‘ring-fenced’ grants directly given to school heads for three-year budgets. LEAs are to ‘recast themselves as the commissioner and quality assurer of educational services, not the direct supplier’. Charities, parent groups and companies are to be encouraged to ‘replace weak services’. Uniforms and house systems are to be encouraged.

Responses – Opposition parties : The Conservatives want all schools to be able to select pupils and private school places to be financed. Their spokesman said that Blair ‘after 7 years in office, wants to recreate the grant-maintained schools he scrapped in his first term’. A Liberal Democrat spokesman claimed that ‘most parents do not have a choice, so the prerequisite must be to drive up standards in all schools. Labour’s answer is simply to move away from failure.’ The ‘local school’ should be the parent’s ‘first choice’ and an ‘admissions ombudsman’ should ensure ‘fair access’.

Local Councils: Since Councils lost health funding responsibilities in 1974, loss of education funding responsibilities (for schools, administration, transport and special needs) will threaten their ability to raise a Council Tax, they claim. (One LSE expert has suggested that ‘this could lead to the dismemberment of elected local government’).

Head teachers : The promised ‘ring-fenced’ grants are welcomed because they claim that at present one-third of state grants never reach the schools. Some have welcomed the ‘popular school’ expansion plans because the current ‘surplus places’ rule means that expansion is not allowed if a local poor school has empty places. That rule is now ‘not acceptable’ said Blair recently.

Unions : More stable funding and greater powers for head teachers are welcomed. The NUT General Secretary, however, has said that there are uncertainties- only 12 ‘city academies’ are in operation and are really untested, the plan does not indicate how admission arrangements would affect other schools locally, nor how ‘rogue sponsors’ would be avoided.

Parents : Some have complained that where closed school sites have been sold to developers (as in London, for example), Councils cannot find new sites for development or expansion. Others have said that ‘special needs’ children’s families often face lengthy costly legal battles and they should be offered a free choice of appropriate schools.

Press : The Times has carried differing points of view. A leader writer approved ‘specialism’ in the proposals, arguing that diversity in secondary schools and management opportunities for heads may aid ‘middle class parents’ in particular, but would provide ‘a critical mass of highly-motivated children and highly-focused parents’ which would ‘raise standards all round, including those thought less able’ and would enable easier ‘recruitment and retention of stimulating teachers’. He saw education becoming ‘more accountable and genuinely local’, but concluded that the main problem is whether the plans are ‘deliverable’.

The Education Editor of The Times, however, noted that when heads seek expansion they must deal with local committees of Council officials and other heads, who may object to either ‘elitism’ or ‘poaching’ of staff. He notes also that timescales for primary school P.E., music and foreign languages are not discussed in the plan. It is spelled out, however, that if grammar schools apply for expansion, they will not be favoured. One in five LEAs still have them (half being fully selective) and the number of their pupils has grown by over 40% in the last decade, so this must raise problems.

One contributor to The Times, Simon Jenkins, claims that the Conservatives have ‘rejected their own history’, since ‘lower middle-class Tory voters’ originally were ‘terrified by the prospect of rejection’ and campaigned against 11plus selection and the recent ‘obsession with choice’ is all ‘bunkum’. All parents, he claims, ‘choose the "best" local school and by definition they cannot all have it’. Under the Conservatives, he argues, schools will choose parents, not parents schools. Since the Treasury ‘never allows waste of spare capacity’ expansion is disallowed. Moreover, the current competitive league-table system is incompatible with ‘free choice’. In his view the Treasury has won control of funding and he cites 322 school circulars in support of 26 grant categories , ‘fair funding’ targets and admissions adjudication last year, whereas local authorities are now awarded responsibilities for ‘the rump of weak schools’ and those catering for ‘special needs’. He concludes: ‘Whitehall gets the glamour, local government gets the sinks...There is nothing needed that cannot be clamped on to the present comprehensive system…good schools in good areas are good already… it is poor schools in poor areas that need help’.

Discussion

Having regard to both the content of the government plans and the responses made to that date, the general response in the discussion was quite skeptical of the plans. Someone who had just completed a teacher training course reported back on the absolute rigidity of the imposed requirements. The various points made in the letter quoted at the outset of the session were confirmed by him and he could see no flexibility in the system either now or in what is envisaged. He remarked on the dominance of the National Curriculum, generally seen as an educational strait-jacket, which effectively removes any opportunity for teachers to be imaginative or innovative.

Another contributor saw classroom teaching as the main continuing problem, since that takes little account of individual needs and compels teachers either to bore able pupils or to overstretch the less able. His solution would be to allow individual pupils to study at their own rate, largely in their own time and place and to take suitable tests as and when they wish, aided by teachers only when they found it necessary. He believed that self-motivation would result, since when both pupils and teachers are freed from the stultifying disciplines of class timetables and classrooms, they would be free of ‘league-table’ type pressures and could seek credit for their own progress in their respective tasks. Teachers could serve their proper function as ‘mentors’ and pupils faced with simple ‘pass/fail’ situations would be able to build themselves a pattern of achievements as and when they found themselves able to move on. He conceded that the development of ‘city academies’is promising, but he favoured primarily the ‘charter’ schools now common in the US, which have a record both of freedom from state dominance and success in terms of educational opportunities.

Others argued that the dominance of the state system now is such that private schools are now becoming more like state schools and subject to the same centralized controls. In all areas of formal education, innovation and flexibility were considered now to be very difficult to achieve. Examples were given of attempts which have failed because local authorities were fearful of any innovation not approved by either government or parents. There are, however, isolated examples of innovative practices, representing radical change, such as the ‘Marlborough’ approach and others discussed at the recent one-day conference at the Institution organized by the Royal Society of Arts and BRLSI jointly – see BRLSI Proceedings, Vol.8 for October 2003.

The discussion concluded with an overall assessment that the government proposals are insufficiently radical enough to make any significant improvement to a very unsatisfactory formal educational system in this country, particularly with respect to secondary education. Since that sector is largely dominated itself by the continuing concept of extended university education, the role of the universities in setting the tone in schools is crucial to progress but not addressed in the recent plans. Teacher education is also a crucial factor, but again is conditioned by the domination of existing practice and requirements. Tinkering with the present system as indicated and approved by some commentators, is certainly not enough and really imaginative proposals, based upon sound educational principles, have yet to be seen generally and acted upon.