Friday, 11 October 2013

All parties to blame for England's educational failings

There was understandable consternation and concern when the OECD published a report this week which showed 16 to 24-year-olds in England have amongst the worst numeracy and literacy skills in Europe.
The study placed England 21st for numeracy and 22nd for literacy out of 24 countries. This is undeniably damning and poses a serious threat to the long term health of Britain's economy and social fabric.
But the following comment from the fiercely tribal education minister Matthew Hancock was palpably stupid and unhelpful:
‘These are Labour's children, educated under a Labour government and force-fed a diet of dumbing down and low expectations.’
The simple fact is that it is far too soon to say what long term impact Labour had on the education system. Any child born in 1998 and after, therefore not starting full-time schooling until 2003, is not covered at all by this survey. And children born as far back as 1989, starting their schooling during the crucially formative early years in 1994, are included.
It is quite true that, between 1997 and 2010, Labour introduced a dizzying number of educational reforms. Please bear with me, this is a bit of a long list. 

  • Their first Education Act gained Royal Assent in 1997. It abolished the Assisted Places Scheme.  
  • Beacon Schools were introduced in 1998, Ofsted inspections of education authorities began, national targets for key stages 1-4 established.
  • In 1999, National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies started. 
  •  In 2000 we had the Learning and Skills Act in which the concept of Academy Schools emerged, the first opening in 2002.
  • Another Education Act passed in 2002 with vocational GCSEs replacing GNVQs and Ofsted was given enhanced powers.
  • In 2003, we saw the National Agreement on Raising Standards and in 2004 a five-year-strategy for children and learners. The Tomlinson Review of 14-19 year-olds’ education and skills was published and Building Schools for the Future started.
  • And another Education Act followed in 2005. This reformed teacher training and gave the Secretary of State greater powers of intervention in failing schools.
  • Not yet done, in 2006 the Education and Inspections Act passed. Ofsted got more powers and LEAs greater statutory responsibility for ensuring standards.
  • The following year was relatively quiet but in 2008 the Education and Skills Act passed. This major piece of legislation raised the school leaving age from 16 to 18 by 2015, A* grades for A Level was introduced and 16-18 year-olds were required to be in work, education or training.
  • The Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act passed in 2009.
  •  - and in 2010, well, Labour lost power
 Phew! It's exhausting just listing the highlights of their activities.

Labour suffered legislative diarrhoea when it came to education in the 13 years they held office, though perhaps this is not surprising considering their ‘education, education, education’ mantra. And it would be perfectly reasonable to argue that their meddling was counterproductive and hindered teachers’ ability to teach. 
But Labour, of course, was not the first or the last government to tinker enthusiastically with education. During the previous 18 years of Conservative rule we saw the introduction of the National Curriculum, the replacement of O-levels with GCSEs, the emergence of the Assisted Places Scheme and National Vocational Qualifications. All significant, but it is fair to say the Tories during these years were less zealous than their New Labour successors.
The other major detail in the OECD report is that young people were no better at the tests used in the survey than people aged between 55 and 65. England was the only country in the survey where the older age category did better than the younger. This indicates standards have been falling for several decades, under governments of all parties.
Even as I did my GCSEs, more than 20 years ago, many critics argued they lacked the rigour and challenge of the O-levels they replaced. Subsequent grade inflation - which really must be acknowledged and not foolishly denied - has not improved the situation. Lifelong learning provision in this country is inadequate. And, most concerning of all, poverty and social background is far too great an indicator of later educational achievement. 

With the expansion of academies under this government, what is now emerging is a very erratic pattern of education, where the notion of a National Curriculum - and with it, perhaps, the communication of a coherent cultural and social understanding - no longer needs to apply. Some of these academies will be outstanding while others will be narrow and fail. Just watching the problems at the Al Madinah free school recently highlights the dangers. 

And while there are now 3,364 academies in England, with a rising birth rate we still face the prosepct of too few schools for too many children; this could mean that we could fare even worse in a future, similar, OECD, study.
Rather than resort to the sort of cheap, shallow, remarks displayed by Matthew Hancock, parties of all colours need honestly to accept their mistakes, study how those countries at the top of the tables maintain such high standards and do their best to emulate their models. At the same time, they should also bear in mind the damaging impact of perpetual change. Education is just too important an issue for political point scoring.

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