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Government's education policy is self-defeating, academics warn

The drive to reform Britain's education system, with frequent shifts in policy and the added burden of targets, is self-defeating and "working against the Government's own intentions", leading academics have warned ministers.

In a letter to today's Independent, four leading educationalists write: "We have come independently to the same conclusion, namely that government policy is no longer the solution to the difficulties we face but our greatest problem."

The four are Frank Coffield and Stephen Ball, both professors at the University of London's Institute of Education, Professor Richard Taylor, director of continuing education and lifelong learning at Cambridge University, and Professor Sir Peter Scott, the vice-chancellor of Kingston University in Surrey.

They cite examples such as offering pupils greater choice of schools – a move which has seen middle-class parents competing to get their children into better-performing schools, thereby increasing the attainment divide between these schools those in disadvantaged areas.

In addition, the academics argue, the academies programme has seen the new flagship schools excluding unruly pupils, who then have to be taken in by neighbouring schools. This also widens the attainment gap at a time when improving standards in poor areas is hailed by ministers as a top priority.

Further education colleges were set 86 improvement targets – but reacted by hiring policy advisers to read through the documents to outline targets that can be met, rather than employing more teachers, the professors state. Similarly, during Labour's first eight years in power, primary schools were sent 459 documents on how to improve literacy – taking time away from teachers to improve performance in the classroom.

On targets, the experts say the decision to rank schools in league tables, based on the percentage of students attaining five GCSEs at grades A* to C, means that teachers concentrate their efforts on those pupils considered borderline for a grade-D pass, rather than stretching the brightest or helping those who struggle the most.

At university level, the Government's decision to scrap funding for anyone pursuing a second qualification, either at the same or a lower level, to concentrate funding on first-time students has meant that hundreds of adults wanting to switch jobs cannot retrain for the necessary qualification, the academics add.

They write: "Despite significant additional investment in education since 1997 and many welcome measures in all phases of education, our research shows that government policy is now working against the Government's own intentions. The current frenetic pace of change must slow down to what is possible.

"We have become increasingly dismayed by ministers who are intent on permanent revolution of every aspect of the education system from structures to qualifications. In so acting, they demonstrate a deep lack of trust in the professional education community."