Those who can, get on with it

4 Nov 05
MELISSA BENN | It’s been called a dog’s breakfast, a return to Tory policies, a reinvention of the wheel.

It’s been called a dog’s breakfast, a return to Tory policies, a reinvention of the wheel.

But perhaps the most noticeable thing about last week’s education white paper was that it reads as if it has been written by two different people.

In parts of the 120-page document the language is tough and clearly market-orientated. Schools are to be set free from over-controlling local authorities (although not from over-controlling central government).

Business and religious sponsors are to inject a much-needed dynamism into the system.

The new trust schools will be given freedom over their curricula and admissions policies along the lines of existing city academies.

Turn to a different part of the white paper, and an entirely different vision is laid before us, one putting more emphasis on community than on choice.

‘The best schools sit at the heart of their local community drawing strength and support from those they service.’ ‘Parents should choose schools, not schools choose parents.’

Extended schools, targeting support services, particularly for needy children, form the heart of this model.

Publicly, this is a government committed to a non-selective system. In practice, selection has increased over the past eight years and will continue to do so if this white paper becomes law.

But leaving aside the question of structures, the white paper is also a lost opportunity for constructive change. For several years a consensus has been growing among professionals (and many parents) concerning changes that would transform education and raise standards.

Many feel that the new emphasis on parent power is a distraction from these much-needed reforms. A September ‘Headspace’ poll, carried out for Education Guardian and EdComs by ICM, found that 57% of head teachers in England believe the government listens to few of their needs, while 27% say the government does not listen at all.

Interestingly, only 1% of head teachers want parents to have greater involvement in the management of schools, while 60% think parents should concentrate on teaching moral values and social skills at home.

So, here are just a few of the school-based changes that might make a radical difference.

First, smaller class sizes. The white paper talks a lot about tailored, personalised education. But the pupil-teacher ratio has barely changed in the past 20 years. Is it so outside the reach of state education to get class sizes down to 20?

Second, smaller schools. Here, the paper goes in the opposite direction, with much talk about expanding good schools. But a school’s success may be due to its manageable numbers.

According to Peter Hyman, formerly a Tony Blair adviser, now working in an inner London comprehensive, the government should promote smaller schools and also ‘schools within schools’ — the breaking down of large comprehensives into distinct schools for each key stage.

Third, a more relevant and flexible curriculum. All schools, not just those granted academy-style freedoms, should be able to tailor their approach to the curriculum, offering greater stretch to more academic children and catch-up classes for those who have fallen behind.

With the relentless emphasis on league tables, tests, standards and ‘contestability’, we have lost sight of a vision of education as an exciting, rather than merely bureaucratic, process. In Wales, schools have scrapped testing at Key Stages One Two and Three, yet their exam results are comparable to those in England.

Speaking last week, Sir Mike Tomlinson, whose proposals for a new curriculum were shelved by the government earlier this year, and himself a former teacher, talked of how the best teachers inevitably move ‘off message’ in the most creative of ways. Lives are much more likely to be changed by a teacher fizzing with enthusiasm than a string of paper results, however starry.

Fourth, more money. All these changes mean more resources.

When politicians like Blair praise the private system, they are partly praising what money can buy. Yet we spend less on education as a proportion of gross domestic product than we did in the 1970s.

Before Blair became prime minister, he talked about ‘the long, hard slog’ necessary to raise educational standards. The pity and irony is that eight years of power have robbed him of the memory of his own wisdom.

Sometimes you don’t need a revolution. Sometimes you just need consolidation, to undertake the ‘long, hard slog’. According to Peter Hyman: ‘This is the best generation of teachers ever’. So, why not give them what they say they need, and let them get on with the job?

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