Barking up the wrong educational tree…
Politicians are drawn to Education like bees to honey. It’s irresistible. But it’s always stickier than they expect. They may struggle to fix the deficit or solve the problems of the National Health Service. But they always seem to know exactly what needs to change in Education. Michael Gove launched so many changes that headteachers barely knew where to look next. Now Mrs May’s government has discovered that the real answer is Free Schools, Grammar Schools, anything but our existing schools. And that grumbling in the background? Well, that’s an old political favourite finding its voice again: resentment against the independent sector, easy shot-taking against charitable status that benefits the “privileged few”.
Whatever you thought of his policies, Michael Gove was certainly active at the Department of Education where he made a clear decision to focus on public exam reform – a relatively easy policy lever for the Secretary of State to pull. This heralded a new age of reformed linear A levels, whilst the grading structure of GCSEs was changed.
But no amount of weighing ever fattened a pig. Changing the timing and structure of exams does not in itself improve learning. That’s achieved through better lessons, and these, in turn, need skilled, well-resourced teachers. In fact exam reforms can get in the way of better teaching as overstretched teachers grapple with the intricacies of new assessment criteria rather than plan better lessons and resources.
Politicians are masters of the unintended consequence, and Michael Gove was no exception. I’m sure he never really intended to shrink the curriculum, or to limit the scope and quality of pupils’ learning. But that’s what he achieved. Exam boards had to spend so much money on the reform process that they were forced to find ways to cut costs. So they sacrificed small entry subjects. At the same time schools and colleges were feeling the heat. Already under growing financial pressure, they too were forced into reluctant cost savings. For many, the answer was to retreat from the 4 AS subject lower sixth (under the modular format), and settle for a 3 A-level linear programme. The quite startling result is that for many students 25% of the lower sixth curriculum has been removed. I’m sure that this was not what Mr Gove had ever wanted. But it was the result of his actions. Unintended consequences – the politician’s nemesis.
Now, the educational focus has moved onto school structures and types. The government is keen to create more ‘free schools’ some of which could be new grammar schools. Underpinning this ambition is a belief that school type (grammar, comprehensive, free school, academy) influences educational performance. But there is no direct causal link between school type and performance. When The Perse went co-educational there were endless debates about whether co-ed schools were inherently better than single sex schools or vice versa. It was an irrelevant debate. Good and bad schools come in all shapes and sizes and there are outstanding and failing examples of each and every school type. It is not school type that directly shapes the quality of educational attainment but the quality of school leadership.
So the key focuses in recent government education policy – exam reform and school type may both be examples of barking up the wrong educational tree. Many in education would agree that meaningful and sustained improvements in learning and achievement require well led, well resourced, well motivated and well trained teachers. It is as simple as that.
To take a break from metaphorical tree climbing, politicians have now returned to kicking the independent school ‘football’. Seemingly, problems in state education are due to insufficient public benefit work by the independent sector. Independent schools and the parents who pay their fees, educate around 625,000 children at no cost to the tax payer. If independent schools did not exist, these children would be transferred back to the state sector at a cost approaching £4 billion a year. The existing state education budget would have to be spread further, and per capita student funding would fall which is unlikely to improve the condition of state schools.
Charitable independent schools like The Perse, have a long track record of public benefit which includes providing free or subsidised places on a means tested basis, as well as partnership programmes with state schools, school sponsorship arrangements, and sharing of teachers, best practice, and resources. Many independent schools already deliver a public benefit worth far more than the tax relief they get from their charitable status.
The current focus on public benefit in independent schools is a distraction from the main business of improving state education. If the government is serious about giving all children a first class education then it will need to invest more in schools, maintain a resolute focus on the quality of teaching and school leadership, and bring stability to school structures, the curriculum and exam systems. Given that independent schools only educate 6.5% of school aged children in the UK, and that many independent schools have limited free resources, the scale of their public benefit intervention will not be enough to transform state education. The question of public benefit and charitable status for independent schools is an entertaining football for politicians to kick around but not a game changer.