"Not making the grade: the decades of failure of British government schools policy"

12 February 2013

 

THIS IS a speech that Natalie gave yesterday at Islington Green Party AGM in the Ecology Centre, Gillespire Park.

There are many areas of policymaking which most are content to leave to the specialists. You might have a general view about what the British military should look like, as I do – without Trident nuclear missiles for one thing - but you’re probably not going to have a specific view on the view of armed patrol vehicle Brand X versus Armoured Patrol Vehicle Brand Y. You might have a view, as I do, about the need for a publicly owned and publicly run NHS, but you’re unlikely to have a view on the virtues of operations versus drug treatment for a certain condition. You might, like me, think that the railways should be renationalised – an overwhelming case – but you’ve probably not got a view on the relative merits of electrifying this line or that line, or alternatively reopening some Beeching line victim.

Schooling is different, however. Practically everyone has experience of schooling, many people are concerned about their children’s schooling, nearly everyone has a view about what was right or wrong about their own and their children’s school days. That extends right down to the minutae of school life – uniforms, curriculums, what a classroom should look and sound like.

I confess I’m no different. I was, at around the age of 10, a child who didn’t just love school, but loved learning. I can even remember doing a big project, pages and pages, with laboriously hand-coloured drawings - on lung fish – just because I found the idea of an intermediate stage between marine and land living fascinating.

And yet I arrived at the end of six years or high school and four years of university, with high marks, and a first-class honours degree, with all interest in actual learning bored out of me. I’d been told, taught, so often, that the purpose of education was to pass exams, that I’d thoroughly absorbed it.

That’s one aspect of my experience that shapes my view of schooling. But it’s a general view – a belief that education should not be about teaching to the test, but about learning, learning to learn, exploring new ideas and experience – whether that be cooking a pancake, making a table or learning about lungfish. I’m not going to use it to say everyone should learn about lungfish – which is rather what I suspect Michael Gove would take from a similar experience.

I’m now a school governor, a role that’s given me a huge appreciation of the complexity of teachers’ jobs, huge respect for the work they do every day, a sense of amazement that any head teacher can keep in their head so many children’s names, so much understanding of their families’ problems, as well as the targets, the test results, the scores of rapidly acronyms (SIPs, DLOs, EOTAS, EYDP, LAP, LDP – no, I’m not going to run a quiz on this later) on which they’ll be judged, day by day, for their performance.

And “rapidly-changing” is an important, even critical, part of that listing – for teachers (like NHS workers) have seen themselves over the past couple of decades subjected to rapid, massive changes in the institutional structures in which they have to work, wrenching, sudden shifts in the methods by which their work is overseen and judged, a general sense (and reality) of standing on uncertain ground.  And they’ve seen their pay structures and pensions ripped apart, with understandable effects on morale and concerns about their futures.

We saw a huge example of that uncertain ground last week. Schools – and pupils and parents – have been scrambling to deal with the huge changes coming in the change from GCSEs to EBaccs – a momentous, suddenly announced change that rapidly, once it was understood, produced huge, rightful, protests. Those protests came from those who understood a narrow academic focus wouldn’t suit many pupils – and that many more would be at risk of leaving school without qualifications at all. They came from those who understood the renewed focus on end-of-year exams rather than coursework and continual assessment would harm many pupils, and add further stress to their over-assessed, over-regulated school lives. They came also from the creative and artistic communities about the disappearance of rightful attention for their subjects.

 Now I don’t want to attack Michael Gove for making a big U-turn on the subject last week in abandoning the Ebacc plan – U-turns have to be encouraged when they reverse a drive towards destruction – we’d love to see a U-turn on the government’s Energy Bill on the 2030 decarbonisation target, for example… but the swerving, the changing, driven by one man is one of the huge failures of education – the lack of policy stability. And in fact I’m not sure how much a U-turn this in – Gove’s claiming he’s still keeping many of his plans, just without the change of qualification title – the uncertainty continues.

One change of minister, one government brainwave, and teachers, pupils and parents are faced another massive change.

The other huge area of change has of course been in school structures. We’ve been with Labour through academies – that clearly less than grand idea that a rich businessperson, or a religious group, or a foundation of uncertain origins, could hand over a bit of their “small change” and grab a deciding place in the governing of a school.

 Then we got with the Tories to “free schools”. Now I don’t want to attack all free schools – or the many people who with good intentions – or a sense of desperation – have decided that the only way the needs of their children will be met is by setting up their own school, or teachers who are trying to fill what they see as a gap. And I know that local authorities are now trapped in a situation where when a baby bulge means they need a new school, by law the only option available is to manouevre the creation of a free school.

But I do want to attack the idea. Behind it is the principle of competition – that schools will contest against each other, a kind of survival of the fittest. That’s despite the fact that there’s strong evidence that cooperation among schools produces better results overall (There’s a good paper, Social inequality: can schools narrow the gap? From the British Educational Research Association that covers this well.) 

And despite the fact that we’re talking about huge amounts of public resources – and the future of our children – being effectively privatised; that’s even before we get to the actual privatisation that the Independent on Sunday reported yesterday was next on the agenda.

There’s going to be a great deal of instability in this arrangement. Some of these schools are going to collapse – they’re going to fall victim to incompetence,  fraud or even simple misfortune. It’s almost a pity we don’t have the News of the World any more to report in lurid detail the first case in which the chair of governors and head run off to the Bahamas together with all of the school funds – because that’s the sort of thing that is going to happen.

We’ve already seen pupils caught in such a trap with the “One In A Million Free School” which was to open in Bradford in September last year, yet had its funding withdrawn a week before it was due to open after it failed to attract enough. We can go to the BBC: “Parents said the decision was a "devastating blow".  And it’s the kind of blow, and worse, that the new system of free schools and academies is going to deliver.

More power to the elbow of those parents and communities resisting forced “free schoolisation” – what, one wonder, could be more at odds with the Tories’ professed belief in localism than that they have to fight those battles?

Ministers, governments, have been unable to resist dabbling in every aspect of education – big and small. Now I signed the petition calling for the inclusion of Mary Seacole in the national curriculum, since Michael Gove had wanted to cut it down to a “dead aristocratic white males” framework. Happily we seem to have won that one, but on another level, we shouldn’t be having to petition an  Education Secretary about the details of what pupils are going to be taught.

So I pledge to you that a Green Government would not be dictating any such detail of currciuclum – indeed we don’t believe in a national curriculum at all – although we do believe there should be a set of learning entitlements as a foundation for children. Just as schools should be under democratic local control, so decisions about the details of curriculum should be made locally and relevant to local conditions.

But there are some principles we believe must be made central to the education system.

To start at the beginning – starting school. Green Party policy “acknowledges that in many countries academic learning is not introduced before the age of seven”. We wouldn’t just arrive in government, say all change, and impose such a massive change at that, but we would would want to move towards  not early years education extending for a further year, towards age six. We want to look at ways we can ensure children aren’t pushed into over-formal learning environments, into tests and the risks of being labelled a failure simply because their rate of development of fine motor skills, of concentration, of overall intellectual development, are slower than others.

Education up to the age of seven should be laying foundations, not inculcating mindless drills – certainly we’re horrified, as I hope everyone in this room would be horrified, by a recent Times headline – “Prepare children for jobs, minister urges nurseries” . 

We also believe, and will fight for the principle of smaller-sized schools, with a maximum size of 700 for secondary schools. We also encourage and support existing small schools. Every child in an urban areas should be able to walk to a local school – and go to school with their peers from the neighrbouhood. I was speaking to voters in Redhill in Surrey with the Green councillors there recently, and they were telling me how on a new estate the lack of a local school meant that almost every child on a single street was going to different school. “They don’t know each other, they don’t play together and we don’t get to know each other,” one parent told me – local schools should be a critical part of local community glue – important for the pupils, but also their parents and the whole community.

Then we have a strong belief about the nature of assessment, which should include “a broad range of cumulative, formative and summative assessment, including self-assessment”. Assessment should be unobtrusive and in the interests of enhancing the learning of the individual child. That’s pretty well the opposite of what we have now.

And then there’s governance – to quote from our policies “considerable efforts to ensure that all parties are democratically involved in the running of the school through School Councils and Governing Bodies”. We believe in schools under strong local democratic control – that means in the first instance democratically elected local authorities – who are even under Michael Gove’s system be the final line left holding the children when privatised arrangements go wrong.

And we would tackle one of the primary sources of inequality in British education – the place of fee-paying schools.  Our policy says simply: “Schools which remain in the private sector would be classed as a business and have all charitable status removed; they would pay all relevant taxes such as VAT and Corporation Tax. All state sponsored scholarships would be directed to Local Authorities and remaining private schools would be asked to contribute to a national initial teacher training levy.”

Now that would certainly produce a huge amount of lobbying from the many people from public schools in high positions across our society – from the current Cabinet downwards, but if we’re going to rebalance our society, and our education system, we need to stop providing huge subsidies to organisations providing big benefits to the few.

All of that would mean massive change – and I acknowledge that’s difficult. But what we need is a government that sets the overall strategic direction of education – the means of travel – and then leaves the professionals to get on with delivering it, without ministers constantly saying “not that, but this”, “I don’t like that” about every detail.

I’m a builder’s daughter, and I know from my childhood that what used to drive my father mad was owners who as a building went up constantly changed their mind – “actually I’d like that window over there”, or “maybe that wall should be curved, not straight” – changes that vastly added to the cost and usually produced a disastrous outcome. Yet successive Education Secretaries and ministers have down to our entire education system.

Now that in the time available ti me is a sketch of the Green Party’s vision of a different kind of education system – a system that would, under local democratic control, gradually transform the nature of schooling in Britain.

But before I conclude there’s one final issue one final set of failures - that I want to highlight – the ways in which we fail our children far beyond schools policy. The fact that schools are being asked to do far, far too much to counteract the failings of other institutions, other structures in our society.

Children spend maybe up to a third of their life in schools – two-thirds outside. Schools can achieve an enormous amount, but they aren’t miracle workers. They can’t just wave a magic wand over a child and overcome huge economic disadvantage, material shortcomings at home, ill health and poor diets, abuse and neglect.

Huge areas of government policy have massive impact on children’s lives – and if we don’t get those right, schools will be facing an uphill struggle to deliver the education and the opportunities that children deserve.

First, and most important, is inequality. Both Tory and Labour governments have swept into the corner one clear correlation – the fact that the high level of inequality of educational outcomes in Britain reflects the high (and increasing) level of economic inequality in Britain.

And this is only going to grow – the so-called “bedroom tax” is going to force more and more poor children to share bedrooms; what a contrast, the poor child struggling to complete their homework while a younger brother or sister tugs at their ankles or waiting in the library (if they’re lucky enough to still have a local one) for their turn on the ageing desktop, with the rich child in their own bedroom, high-speed internet and latest laptop at their elbow.

All of the cuts to benefits to poorer families – the Universal Credit, the benefits cap, the child benefit cuts, the maternity cuts, and the cuts to services on which they depend – from libraries to Sure Start to swimming pools – are only likely to enhance the impact of inequality on pupils’ results – far beyond the ability of schools to intervene.

I haven’t hear got time to set out the Green Party’s approach to tackling inequality – that’s another speech in its own right – in short we need to restructure away from our low-wage, low-jobs economy, towards one where the minimum wage is a living wage, where there are decent benefits for all who need them.

Then there’s policy issues that have an impact on all children, advantaged and disadvantaged -  like road safety and transport.  Making our roads “living streets”, as the campaign group calls itself – places where children can walk and cycle, to school, to meet their friends, to visit family, to run errands, to learn independence – is a clear and pressing imperative. That would help our children (and the rest of us) live healthier lives.  

Another example – food policy. Horseburgers really is all I need to say – our industrial food system is failing to deliver affordable, trustworthy, healthy food. Jumping off the current bandwagon, I can also point to the fact that fruit consumption by the poorest 20% of households has dropped precipitously, as our almost entirely imported supplies have leapt in cost.

So we’ve seen three sets of failures of our children. The first failure is that we’ve had education secretaries and ministers allowed to run with their pet schemes, their favourite hobby horses, the views of one special adviser who had their ear.

The second set of failures is that we’ve failed to acknowledge the evidence that we have about what works for the education system – driven often by neoliberal ideologies of competition and contest, rather than the cooperation the evidence shows is more likely to be effective – at least in education.

And the third set of failures is more general – we’ve failed to tackle the fast-growing social inequality that has left many children unable to fulfil their potential, to set up their lives with the skills, knowledge and qualifications to get along in the world.

We in the Green Party have a vision of a different kind of schooling system, built around small, local schools serving the children who live within walking or cycling distance around them, democratically controlled by that community, well resourced, with a robust but unpressured system of assessment that assists children’s progress, rather than pressuring them to swot for exams, an equal schooling system, in which everyone has a chance to shine, whether their skills be with their hands, with their language ability, or any other natural talent at all.

I’ve had time tonight only to set this out briefly – but while I’ve focused on the wrong kind of changes we’ve seen over the past few decades of Labour and Conservative governments, we do need change – big changes, based on evidence of what works in schools. The wellbeing of our children demands it.


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