Professor Alan Smithers: We are heartily fed up with being spun to
Thursday 02 July 2009
We need yet another education White Paper like a hole in the head. At this stage of parliament it smacks of shameless electioneering. It also comes after 12 years of continual upheaval. The relentless push for change stems in part from the Government wanting to be seen to be making a difference. But, more importantly, it is because the big ideas and sweeping narratives do not always fit reality and so have disappointing outcomes.
The Government seems to have recognised this to some extent. It is rowing back from central bureaucratic control. Top-down education targets were never going to be truly effective as exam scores can be raised – by altering the requirements or teaching to the test – without the underlying education being improved. Hence the many complaints from secondary schools that children appearing to reach the required standard in primary school still cannot handle words and numbers properly.
But will the new narrative of empowerment, entitlement, and rights and responsibilities, be any more successful? It is good that teachers are to be treated once more as professionals and not the mere deliverers of teacher-proof materials. It is also good that children falling behind in English and maths are to be helped through intensive one-to-one tutoring. But given the country's indebtedness, where is the money to come from? Lawyers are also rubbing their hands. We seem set for numerous legal battles as parents of miscreants are taken to court and, in turn, parents seek to enforce their guarantees. I would be more convinced by entitlements if I could get a national health dentist.
League tables are to go the way of targets, with a school report card becoming the main means of public accountability. But is the proposed overall grading feasible or desirable? Who is going to want their son or daughter to go to a school graded F – or for that matter E, D or C? Either all schools are going to be given As with perhaps a few Bs, in which case the scale is meaningless, or there will be an almighty scramble to get into the top-rated places. There is also the questionable assumption that "well-being" is teachable and can be graded.
The present White Paper is no more grounded in reality than its immediate predecessors. Like them it fails to address three inconvenient truths: that parental choices can never exactly match the school places available; that the exam results of a school depend mainly on the children who go there; and that the abilities of children differ considerably.
In any education system running on parental choices there has to be some form of selection or else random allocation. Selection is taboo for the Government and it chooses to avert its eyes from the current covert social selection. Its attempts to avoid facing up to the "s-word" have brought us specialist schools that are not specialist, autonomous academies that are not autonomous, and vocational schools that are not vocational.
Now it reckons it has found a new way of avoiding the issue: mergers between popular and less popular schools, in the hope that parents missing out on the one will settle for the other. But parents are more canny than that. A good school for them depends crucially on who goes there. They know re-branding, sharing management and governance and pooling funding can only achieve so much. This re-launch of trust schools also runs the risk that successful schools will be distracted away from their core functions.
The Government is also inclined to engage in wishful thinking when it comes to pupils' abilities. It likes to believe that with Master's-degree-level teachers all children can be educated to achieve five good GCSEs, supposedly the standard of the former rarefied O-levels. But this romantic notion leaves some children struggling hopelessly and others completely bored.
Politicians prefer wishful thinking to hard reality – those in opposition as much as those in the Government – because they fear that the truth will frighten the voters. But as they campaign they should be left in no doubt that we are heartily fed up with being spun to. It is not easy to see what an education system embracing the inconvenient truths would look like, but it is for those who would govern us to set out their stall. Only when the policies are securely grounded will we see an end to the procession of unnecessary and misplaced initiatives, of which this week's White Paper contains but the latest examples.
The writer is director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham
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