Better Schools for All?

By Anwar Oduro-Kwarteng

Introduction

In the midst of the government’s ‘reform’ agenda in which the NHS, higher education, welfare, and schools are to be radically remodelled, it would appear the government is in a hurry to change the way we experience public services. State education is not immune from this, as evidenced by the Education White Paper and the wide-ranging reforms proposed in it. From the expansion of the academies programme, to the introduction of the ‘English Baccalaureate’, it is clear the government is anxious to reform an education system it feels is failing and falling behind international competitors by all accepted measures.

The education white paper, ‘The Importance of Teaching’, ambitiously sets out to halt this decline by altering the system completely, and learning from other countries, such as Finland, whose education systems fare better. It aims to de-centralise the system, streamline the curriculum, and empower the teaching profession to act on its own initiative. Freedom and autonomy are the key concepts in the paper, and the government claims that in tandem, they will produce educational excellence, and allow schools to provide the most stimulating educational experience that they possibly can.

Shamefully, many students in this country leave school without the most basic knowledge of maths, English, and science; the UK continues to slip alarmingly down the OECD PISA rankings, with the overwhelming majority of these poorly-achieving students being from low-income and deprived backgrounds. And so it is imperative that the government’s proposals address the existing problems, and find a way of ensuring a higher general level of educational engagement and attainment for all within the state system.

Central to the government’s proposals is addressing the disparity between rich and poor in the education system. For many years, it has been apparent that the outcome of one’s education has been closely linked to socio-economic circumstances. Those from better off backgrounds overwhelmingly outperform their poorer contemporaries at every level, leading to a number of other inequalities in job prospects, income, and access to higher education.

Attainment is the main criteria the government uses to measure educational inequality, and so I too will use the potential effect on attainment as the criterion by which to judge the policies. And although it is problematic and perhaps simplistic to understand inequality purely through the prism of attainment, it is clear that there is a definite disparity in achievement between rich and poor within the state system. And so whilst this approach has its limits, it does give us the opportunity to compare empirical data which is both measurable and observable and offers insight into this complex issue.

Thus, in order to discern whether or not the Education Bill is equipped to narrow the attainment gap, this paper will look at three key areas of reform and assess how far they deal with this vital problem:

1) The change of curriculum—the implementation of the new ‘English Baccalaureate’ as the gold standard of educational achievement.

2) Widening the Academies programme—the extension of the existing programme, this enables any ‘outstanding’ school to achieve academy status and freedom from local education authority (LEA) control. Together with this, the government aim to include primary and special schools for the first time.

3) Extension of Teach First and reform to teacher training and development.

1) Curriculum Reform

Within the Education White Paper, the streamlining of the syllabus and the introduction of the ‘English Baccalaureate’ are key components in the government’s drive to improve standards in schools. Concern has been growing for a number of years over the perceived diminishing of standards within the curriculum. Evidence of this erosion is said to be shown in the way that more students are achieving A grades at GCSE and A-level, ultimately resulting in the recent introduction of the A* grade at A-Level so that universities can distinguish between the very best students and the rest. Whether the curriculum has been ‘dumbed down’ or not is difficult to ascertain, but the government claims that too much ‘unnecessary’ knowledge is been taught in schools. And as part of their proposals, there will be more of an onus on teachers to concentrate on core subjects, and in making sure that pupils have a better grasp of ‘essential’ knowledge.

By introducing the ‘English Baccalaureate’, which will be obtained if a student attains a grade A*-C in maths, English, science, a language, and a humanity, the government is hoping to focus teaching on these core academic subjects. The logic for this is clear: attainment in these subjects is poor in the state system, with fewer than 15% of pupils achieving A*-C grades in these subjects at GCSE, and just 4% of students eligible for free school meals doing so. Obviously this is not good enough, and is a cause for concern which urgently needs to be addressed. However, the problem is not that all state school pupils are attaining poorly. Rather, the problem is the glaring disparity between those that perform well, and those who do not. And the majority of those achieving poorly are from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, whereas those performing well are from more affluent ones. This gap is simply too large.

That said, it is questionable whether prescribing which subjects are preferable to study is the way to go about achieving better results, if this is indeed the aim. The most likely outcome of this policy in its current form is that it will encourage schools to focus on those students who are most likely to attain the Baccalaureate, as this will reflect positively on the school in league tables. An alternative way to deal with poor attainment in the state system would be to learn from the model used in Alberta Canada, which is the highest-ranked English speaking region in the PISA assessment.

Here, instead of stipulating which combination of subjects is preferable, they have a holistic approach to the curriculum. Obviously, students have to take the traditional subjects and pass them, but students of all abilities are encouraged to take a host of other subjects, including vocational and technical ones, which allows the schools to engage all of the students by holding all subjects in the same esteem.

The success of this approach, however, is predicated on the insistence that all subjects are taught to the highest possible standard, regardless of whether they are vocational or academic. In this way, schools and parents can be sure that whatever choices the students make, the quality of teaching, and the academic demands are as high as they can be. This also relies on teachers having the in-depth, specific knowledge of their subject, as well as the rigorous curriculum content that allows them to use this knowledge in the most effective way possible.

Nevertheless, the danger of implementing the English Baccalaureate is that certain subjects will be prioritised over others, meaning that a situation could arise where student X attains A*-C grades in English, maths, science, languages, and either history or geography, but does poorly in all of their other subjects. In this scenario, the poor attainment in the other subjects is irrelevant, because the Baccalaureate subjects are the priority. And as a result, this student will get the extra qualification that the Baccalaureate provides—whilst student Y gets A*-C grades in 3 Baccalaureate subjects as well as 5 others, and does not get this extra qualification because theirs is not deemed to be as worthy an achievement as that of student X.

A more equitable way to drive up standards for all and proactively tackle the attainment gap would be if league tables reflected the number of students that a school lifted from below a C grade to a C or above in their 5 traditional GCSEs. This would be a more thorough evaluation of the performance of the system, because a school that helps a whole host of students go from D to B grades should be more praiseworthy than a school that just concentrates on ensuring that B grade students attain B grades for example.

But more importantly, this would ensure that the league tables acknowledge the contribution that schools make towards improving the attainment for all of its pupils. As simply stating in the league tables the number of Baccalaureate awards that a school attains, and then using that as a measure of success, does not necessarily provide an accurate snapshot of a school’s overall performance with regards to its entire student population, or press forward the governments stated aim of creating a more equitable system.

Moving on, another area of concern is the confused message delivered by the government on vocational education. The White Paper, on the one hand, notes with disparaging alarm that the number of vocational courses has risen 3,800% in 6 years, from 15,000 in 2004, to 575,000 in 2010, whilst simultaneously stating that they are immensely important and play a key role in the education system.

The danger is that the government risks undermining vocational or technical subjects through a negative attitude, which suggests that those students that may wish to take a more vocational route are having an easier time of it than their peers following a more traditional path. This is a very practical problem, because these perceptions have the potential to feed into the mindset of teachers and students, and if the culture in the system reflects these thoughts, then the esteem in which vocational subjects and those that wish to study them would always be in question.

To be fair however, this government is treading a familiar path. As the previous government was just as impotent, presiding over a system in which vocational subjects were seen by many schools as an easy way to boost performance in league tables, rather than a genuinely rigorous alternative and addition to traditional subjects. This attitude must change, and so if it is the case that these subjects are not taught to the same standard as the rest of the curriculum as the government suggests, then the upcoming review on vocational education will hopefully offer some guidance on this issue, and its recommendations will be key to any further and much-needed improvement in this area.

2) Academies

The academies programme has perhaps been the most contentious issue within the White Paper. It proposes that all ‘outstanding’ schools should be able to gain fast track academy status, and thus remove themselves from the control of LEAs. The government cite Sweden and Finland as countries in which freedom and choice have meant an improvement in standards, and as such see this autonomy and freedom as the medicine to cure all the ills of our education system. Thus far, academies, which were first introduced by Labour in 2002 to address the issue of failing schools, have been on the whole successful in improving attainment in many instances, with OFSTED stating that 26% of academies were ‘outstanding’, compared to just 18% of maintained schools in 2010.

Nevertheless, the modification of this policy risks further widening the achievement gap between rich and poor, and not closing it. This is because originally, the academies programme was explicitly aimed at the improvement of standards and attainment in some of the most poorly performing schools in the country, and has been largely successful in doing so. But the government have reversed this policy, and now only the top comprehensives will be able to convert initially. And as a result, one struggles to understand how this re-prioritising of academy status to already successful schools will help the most disadvantaged.

As well as this, the government claims that the extension of academies and Free Schools will provide more choice in the system, but they fail to acknowledge that the ability to exercise choice is not equally shared. And to reinforce this point, research commissioned by The Sutton Trust suggests that the majority of the best comprehensives already have a disproportionately-large middle class demographic, regardless of the socio-economic makeup of the areas that the schools are in. This suggests that currently, some parents are better able to exercise their choices in the state system than others.

Two main reasons can be given for this; the first of which being that these parents have the financial resources that enable them to buy into the catchment areas where the most desirable schools are found. And secondly, and perhaps more importantly, as a recent RSA report observes, they have the cultural capital to navigate the admissions process with confidence and effectiveness, as well as being able to draw on their educational experiences and professional networks to help them. This is not the case with lower-income families, who according to research by Simon Burgess et al, are far less likely to gain a place for their children at their 1st choice school than their middle class peers.

But worryingly for the government in their pursuit of educational equality through the expansion of the academies programme, social attainment disparities within academies are already rife. Evidence from the National Audit Offices 2010 report on the academies opened by the Labour government states that, ‘On average, the gap in attainment between more disadvantaged pupils and others has grown wider in academies than in comparable maintained schools’. They go on to propose that this may be caused by the fact that pupils from better off backgrounds benefit faster from the improved standards than the more disadvantaged, and conclude that, ‘This suggests that it is the substantial improvements by the less disadvantaged pupils that are driving the academies improved performance overall’. Thus, taken at face value, this questions how far academies help improve standards for all students, and whether their proliferation will do anything to seriously change the trend of class inequality and attainment within the school system.

We must however be even handed; offering more choice within the system is not a bad thing in itself. The problems arise when there are not the checks and balances as well as incentives to make sure that these choices are open to everyone and not just those with enough nous to navigate the system. And this must be done through fair and transparent admissions procedures, and overseen by local LEAs, which have been disempowered to a large extent in this Bill, but must still play a crucial supervisory role within the system if it is to be truly equitable. Angus McBeath, the former Superintendent for Edmonton Schools in Canada, highlights the care that needs to be taken when introducing more choice into the system when he notes; ‘You can make choice schools that benefit only the middle classes and above, or you can design a choice system that benefits all students.’ and this is something that the government needs to be mindful of in its proposals.

On the issue of autonomy, the government claims that it is a prerequisite for a successful schools system. They cite Finland, Sweden, and the existing academies programme in England as examples of the impact that it can have on the attainment of pupils in these schools. And the available evidence does indeed suggest that the ability of a school to set its own destiny, free from arbitrary control does help raise attainment to some degree over time. But we must however be cautious not to overestimate its effect on narrowing the gap between rich and poor. As in Alberta, where all state schools have the freedom to choose their curriculum, and manage their own budgets, autonomy in itself, although beneficial, is not seen as the educational panacea that it is here. This is exemplified by Edgar Schmidt, the Superintendent for Edmonton Schools, when he notes that, ‘Autonomy is simply a management process, and has very little impact on achievement and results’.

Instead, they place far more emphasis on collaboration between schools and teachers, so that there is a sense of collective accountability for the system, rather than one of competition within it. This allows the system to improve as a whole, to the benefit of everyone, as opposed to a climate in which one school may prosper to the detriment of a neighbouring one. It is this pervading sense of collaboration rather than pure competition that brings success, and so we must welcome with caution the government’s attempt to go some way towards encouraging collaboration in the system through federations of schools, but more needs to be done if this ethos is to successfully permeate throughout the system.

Teaching Reform

Evidence suggests that the subject knowledge of teachers has a huge impact on the eventual level of attainment in the student body. And so, the government must be praised for extending the successful Teach First programme, which aims to attract top graduates into the profession. Together with this, they will no longer fund teacher training for those students who do not attain at least a 2:2 in their degree, which is part of the attempt to ensure that teaching is seen as a prestigious profession, thus attracting the most able graduates. This is a step in the right direction, because if we look to other countries that achieve highly in the PISA rankings such as South Korea, they recruit from the top 5% of their graduates, whilst Finland recruits from the top 10%, and research suggests that the educational attainment and academic ability of a candidate has a significant bearing on their potential as a teacher, together with other traits such as communication skills and resilience.

Crucially, the proposal to create a national network of Teaching Schools is one that has the potential to have a positive impact with regards to the standard of teaching. Taken from the model of Teaching Hospitals, these schools will be rated as outstanding, and will adopt the role of creating an atmosphere of professional excellence throughout the system as a whole. This should continue the progress that has been made over recent years, in which much more of the initial training has been conducted within the school environment, allowing teachers to gain more confidence and practical experience. As well as this, the steps to increase the level of professional development throughout the course of a teaching career are also to be welcomed.

As mentioned in the introduction, one of the main themes running through this White Paper is freedom. And the freedom for teachers to find innovative and practical ways to impart knowledge is one of the government’s main priorities. They claim that teachers have been unduly stifled by targets and prescription both in terms of the requirements made of them, and more fundamentally in terms of how they are meant to teach the curriculum. Thus, they aim to free teachers from central target setting, and allow them to plan for their lessons in their own way, which seems eminently reasonable, and should allow teachers to engage with their students in more creative ways. This is also to be welcomed.

The quality of teaching within schools is the key component of any attempt to raise standards. With poor teaching will come poor results, regardless of whether it is a Free School, academy, or otherwise. And as such, any attempt to strengthen the recruitment processes and training, as well as professional development, are important, and the government has made some positive moves in this regard.

Conclusion

The government has made some important proposals, such as refocusing on teacher quality as the key determinant of educational attainment. And the attempt to streamline processes and cut out unneeded bureaucracy is also to be welcomed. But this good work is in danger of being undone by the overly prescriptive and quixotic nature of the curriculum changes, and the proliferation of market forces into the state schools system. The aim should not merely be to have good schools, but instead, a good schools system, so that all pupils regardless of their background and where they live have the chance to progress in a stimulating and challenging environment.

And by reserving special praise for those who achieve well in Baccalaureate subjects, rather than concentrating on engaging all students with a wide and challenging set of curriculum choices that are taught to a high standard and held in equal esteem, the government risks alienating a section of pupils through its reforms. In this way, there is little point in speaking about choice within the system, as the government has made it clear through the Baccalaureate, that some academic choices are held in higher regard than others.

This is a concern, as education and the acquisition of knowledge are ends in themselves. And the state education system should reflect this by ensuring that all subjects are taught to the highest possible standard, in order to accommodate and engage the differing talents and aspirations of all its students. Instead of attempting to distinguish between what constitutes essential knowledge and what is unessential, the government should concentrate on ensuring that all knowledge taught in school is to a higher standard than it currently is.

Insisting on higher standards with regards to subject knowledge is not a bad thing in itself. Indeed it is to be welcomed. But it should apply to all subjects, not a select few. It is this kind of disjointed thinking that has created a system in which non-traditional subjects are not held to the same standard as the rest of the curriculum. Resulting in them being seen as lesser, easier options—thus discrediting them entirely from an academic point of view. With this in mind, one hopes that the government is serious about reforming the way in which vocational subjects are administered, as this would really make a difference in the quality and breadth of the curriculum as it stands.

Furthermore, the widening of the academies programme will do little to address the attainment gap, because new academies are now likely to be already highly achieving schools, and so it is unclear how this will improve attainment for the poorest students, in poorly-attaining schools in deprived areas. And the National Audit Office make clear that extending the programme beyond its intended remit will not necessarily yield the improvements that it does in its current form. As such, the academies programme needs to be redefined: if its primary aim is still to improve standards in the most deprived schools, then the government must explain why it is that the best schools will take priority in the new arrangement, and not the poorest. This development is incoherent, and the contribution that it will make towards its stated aim of narrowing the attainment gap between rich and poor is certainly in question.

As well as this, the Pupil Premium, which is the government’s flagship measure to address inequality in the system, has serious flaws. It is undoubtedly an important proposal, but the fact that schools can use the extra funding in any way that they see fit means there is no guarantee that it will filter down to those for whom it is meant. But, if implemented correctly, by funding more one to one teaching and catch up lessons for example, the Pupil Premium has the potential to make a real difference to the most deprived students in the schools system, and go some way towards the government’s aim of narrowing the attainment gap.

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Written under a Creative Commons License, with edits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/