Could do better, by Conor Ryan

18 Sep 08
Labour is giving its flagship Building Schools for the Future programme a makeover after criticisms of slow procurement, inner-city bias and poor building design

19 September 2008

Everyone agrees that poor discipline in failing schools is a major election issue. But next week's education white paper is unlikely to endorse reforms to the exam system that could cut truancy and improve the performance of disaffected pupils. Conor Ryan examines why

Last week, Tony Blair made the improvement of school discipline one of his party's key pledges for the forthcoming election. His promise followed reports suggesting that the government's progress in education reform had faltered.

The chief inspector of schools, David Bell, said that the number of failing schools was on the rise again, while one in ten was not making enough progress. A particular problem, according to Ofsted, was that there has been a decline in discipline since 1997, explained not by a rise in serious misbehaviour, but by a growth in the 'low level disruption', such as talking or texting in class, that makes the teacher's job harder. The proportion of secondary schools where behaviour was deemed 'good' or better fell from 76% in 1996/97 to 69% in 2003/04.

Meanwhile, the National Audit Office said that no progress had been made in tackling truancy, despite many costly initiatives. Opposition parties suggested that Labour's education policies had failed.

Nevertheless, a Times/Populus opinion poll conducted after those poor school reports showed Labour with a seven-point lead over the Tories on education. A fuller reading of the Ofsted report reveals why: although one in ten schools is not progressing, most schools are, with overall teaching standards and exam results improving since 1997. Bell says the education system as a whole is 'improving'. The rise in failing schools probably reflected tougher inspection criteria rather than a sudden downturn in standards. Moreover, party strategists believe parents can see a difference locally, with new school buildings and more nursery education.

The education spotlight now moves to the exam system. A white paper, due on February 23, will address the future of secondary school exams and the weaknesses of vocational education. As with asylum and crime, the prime minister is determined not to give the Tories any opportunity to suggest that his government is soft on standards.

So Education Secretary Ruth Kelly will reject moves to replace secondary school exams with an untried diploma, presenting herself as the defender of A-levels.

But with discipline centre stage in the election campaign, the government will be hoping that attention will focus on the reform of vocational education, which it sees as being key to reducing the boredom among teenagers that often leads to disruption and truancy.

The education drive won't end there. Policies to improve school choice might follow – with more freedom for popular schools to expand and greater student choice of subjects to study. A skills white paper due shortly is expected to propose new business-sponsored college-based academies to shake up further education.

Kelly, who replaced Charles Clarke in the December ministerial reshuffle, has already shifted ground on school discipline, an issue identified by both main parties as top of the voters' educational concerns. She has proposed to devolve the responsibility and the funding for difficult pupils to head teachers from 2007, alongside a promise of 'zero tolerance' of classroom disruption. This is intended to restore credibility to a controversial policy that was caricatured when it was launched as foisting troublesome teenagers on to top- stream grammar schools.

Heads could collectively use the money to set up additional new pupil referral units for troublesome pupils – akin to Tory plans for 'turnaround schools'. This means that the main difference in discipline policy between the two parties now bizarrely revolves around the fate of the 150 pupils a year who are expelled by heads but reinstated after successfully challenging their exclusion at independent appeal committees. The Conservatives introduced the committees when in power, but would now scrap them, while Labour, which made them more teacher-friendly, argues that the alternative is costly court cases.

Ministers are just as likely to leave little to choose between themselves and the Tories over A-levels and GCSEs, disappointing supporters of the four-stage diploma proposed by the former chief inspector of schools, Sir Mike Tomlinson.

Since Tomlinson's report was published in October, ministers have distanced themselves from his radical recommendations. His diploma would have replaced the two exams, and embraced both vocational and academic qualifications. By offering four levels of diploma, he believes his proposals would make it easier for young people to progress at their own pace. He suggested that, to reduce the level of external marking, schools could take more responsibility for assessing GCSE-standard exams.

But he failed to win the full backing of either Blair or Tory leader Michael Howard for his proposals: within hours of his report being published, both poured cold water on the diploma. Howard said a Tory government would keep A-levels. Blair told the Confederation of British Industry: 'GCSEs and A-levels will stay, so will externally marked exams.' Interviewed last month, Kelly added: 'We have to build on GCSEs and A-levels, which, after all, are recognised as very important and good exams out there by the general public, and by employers.'

Liberal Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis believes that if the government doesn't adopt Tomlinson's diploma, it will miss a big opportunity. 'If we are serious about tackling educational failure, promoting social cohesion and creating a world-class education and skills system, the Tomlinson reforms must be adopted in their entirety,' he says. 'The desire by the prime minister and others to retain A-levels as a gold standard rather than incorporate A-level courses within an extended diploma is threatening the integrity of the 14–19 proposals.'

Willis is not alone. Bell believes that implementing Tomlinson – including its opportunities for paced progress – could improve staying-on rates and reduce the boredom that causes such poor behaviour. 'If we don't say this is a sea-change for the education system as a whole, then we're going to miss an opportunity to devise an education system that meets the needs of all our young people,' he says.

Where Tomlinson could still make a real difference is in the reform of vocational education – something both parties see as key to reducing serious truancy and improving school discipline. But, while everybody agrees that good vocational education is important, there is less agreement on what it should mean, who should deliver it and how it should be described.

The Conservatives recently launched plans for a £1,000 voucher to help pay for vocational training for 14–16 year-olds. Tomlinson envisaged equivalent specialist vocational and academic diplomas within a single framework. But this is difficult: the most recent league tables were ridiculed for giving equal value to a 'cake decorating' distinction and an A grade in physics. Achieving such 'parity of esteem' also tends to add more paperwork to practical subjects. Tomlinson did not include apprenticeships within his framework, for fear of compromising their practicality.

The government could opt for a separate system of academic and vocational diplomas, according to some reports. This would anger those who fear that a two-tier system would be perpetuated. However, the current availability of both academic and vocational GCSEs and A-levels has yet to create the sort of parity hoped for by some.

So, the government's 'young apprenticeships' for 14–16 year-olds could be a model for those currently swapping truancy for traditional lessons. A thousand young people currently take part, with 2,000 places planned for next September, and further expansion promised in the white paper.

Ivan Lewis, the lifelong learning minister, says: 'This scheme brings vocational learning into the mainstream and offers talented youngsters a chance to experience learning in the environment which suits them best.' Some 90,000 young people already spend at least a day a week at local colleges on vocational courses. The Association of Colleges estimates that as many as 200,000 young people could do so in the future: it argues that some young people should be on college rather than school rolls from the age of 14, which would also mean transferring their funding to colleges. But, while apprenticeships may figure in the white paper, a big expansion would be costly – apprenticeships can cost £3,000 more than school places.

While A-levels and GCSEs are likely to stay, the white paper will probably adopt Tomlinson proposals that enjoy widespread support beyond the education establishment. Employers fret about school leavers' poor standards of English and maths – a fifth of 16-year-olds gaining five good GCSEs don't achieve a grade C in both subjects.

Business leaders back Tomlinson's proposal that 'functional literacy' and 'functional numeracy', as well as computing, should be compulsory: under his proposals, a successful A-level student would have to gain the equivalent of a grade C in English or maths, for example.

However, the main business organisations would keep the existing exams. The Confederation of British Industry says the white paper should focus on basic skills, and set a target that 70% of pupils get good GCSE passes in English and maths – the proportion getting both is around 40% now. And Richard Wilson, the Institute of Directors' head of business policy, says: 'The government should retain the essence of the existing structure, make improvements where necessary and focus on driving up literacy and numeracy skills.'

Other less contentious Tomlinson proposals include one to replace A-level coursework with an extended essay, an idea borrowed from the International Baccalaureate. Changes to A-level marking could both stretch able students and make it easier for universities to distinguish between those awarded an A grade, and may allow bright students to start university modules in the sixth form. But Tomlinson's proposal that GCSEs be marked in schools, under a system overseen by chartered examiners, specially trained teachers, is unlikely to be accepted, despite some head teacher support.

'It would make the examinations system more manageable and put faith in the expertise of the teaching profession,' insists Dr John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association. But ministers recognise that as long as tens of thousands of teenagers continue to leave school at 16, they need a worthwhile qualification: one marked by their own teachers won't impress employers.

The white paper will also address structural issues in 16–19 education, which have a strong political resonance. Decisions on sixth-form and college planning are supposed to be made by local Learning and Skills Councils, the further education and training quangos. Demographic change and higher staying-on rates could require 100,000 extra places for 16–19 year-olds by 2009. Previously it was assumed that sixth-form colleges, which offer a wider choice of subjects than schools, would be the main expansion route.

However, last year's Department for Education and Skills five-year plan promised to allow new sixth forms to develop in areas with little existing provision or 'low levels of participation or achievement' by 16–19 year-olds. While sixth-form colleges offer teachers entirely focused on teaching older teenagers, smaller sixth forms are often more popular with parents: their expansion could also be a lifeline to struggling 11–16 schools. Although the five-year plan envisaged the joint establishment of sixth-form colleges by head teachers, colleges worry that any presumption in favour of sixth forms would make it harder for existing colleges, whose students, according to the AoC, each attract 10% less in government funding than their counterparts in school sixth forms.

Many in the education world might be angry if the government rejects the full Tomlinson package. A Mori poll of 364 teachers for the Sutton Trust charity in January shows that 62% of teachers support the new diploma. But the government will be more concerned about the views of parents, students and the media – and Tomlinson's proposed diploma has not yet struck a chord there. Ministers are also wary of radical upheaval, after the experience of the last A-level reforms in 2000. Those changes initially enjoyed the backing of teachers and opposition parties: their support evaporated during the crisis that led to Estelle Morris's resignation as education secretary.

The white paper is crucial to Blair and Kelly's strategy of re-invigorating Labour's educational standards credentials while neutralising Tory attacks. But, after the recent critical media coverage, ministers must do more to reassure parents. Kelly will need to show greater resolve in tackling failing schools, to be seen to translate truancy initiatives into greater attendance and to win parental backing in restoring discipline to the classroom. Her ability to do so between now and a likely May poll will be crucial to Labour's re-election as the party of education, education, education. Next week's white paper will be a key part of that strategy.

Conor Ryan is co-author of Excellence in education: the making of great schools

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