Professor Alan Smithers: We are heartily fed up with being spun to

The Government seems to have recognised this to some extent. It is rowing back
from central bureaucratic control. Top-down education targets were never
going to be truly effective as exam scores can be raised ? by altering the
requirements or teaching to the test ? without the underlying education
being improved. Hence the many complaints from secondary schools that
children appearing to reach the required standard in primary school still
cannot handle words and numbers properly.

But will the new narrative of empowerment, entitlement, and rights and
responsibilities, be any more successful? It is good that teachers are to be
treated once more as professionals and not the mere deliverers of
teacher-proof materials. It is also good that children falling behind in
English and maths are to be helped through intensive one-to-one tutoring.
But given the country’s indebtedness, where is the money to come from?
Lawyers are also rubbing their hands. We seem set for numerous legal battles
as parents of miscreants are taken to court and, in turn, parents seek to
enforce their guarantees. I would be more convinced by entitlements if I
could get a national health dentist.

League tables are to go the way of targets, with a school report card becoming
the main means of public accountability. But is the proposed overall grading
feasible or desirable? Who is going to want their son or daughter to go to a
school graded F ? or for that matter E, D or C? Either all schools are going
to be given As with perhaps a few Bs, in which case the scale is
meaningless, or there will be an almighty scramble to get into the top-rated
places. There is also the questionable assumption that “well-being”
is teachable and can be graded.

The present White Paper is no more grounded in reality than its immediate
predecessors. Like them it fails to address three inconvenient truths: that
parental choices can never exactly match the school places available; that
the exam results of a school depend mainly on the children who go there; and
that the abilities of children differ considerably.

In any education system running on parental choices there has to be some form
of selection or else random allocation. Selection is taboo for the
Government and it chooses to avert its eyes from the current covert social
selection. Its attempts to avoid facing up to the “s-word” have
brought us specialist schools that are not specialist, autonomous academies
that are not autonomous, and vocational schools that are not vocational.

Now it reckons it has found a new way of avoiding the issue: mergers between
popular and less popular schools, in the hope that parents missing out on
the one will settle for the other. But parents are more canny than that. A
good school for them depends crucially on who goes there. They know
re-branding, sharing management and governance and pooling funding can only
achieve so much. This re-launch of trust schools also runs the risk that
successful schools will be distracted away from their core functions.

The Government is also inclined to engage in wishful thinking when it comes to
pupils’ abilities. It likes to believe that with Master’s-degree-level
teachers all children can be educated to achieve five good GCSEs, supposedly
the standard of the former rarefied O-levels. But this romantic notion
leaves some children struggling hopelessly and others completely bored.

Politicians prefer wishful thinking to hard reality ? those in opposition as
much as those in the Government ? because they fear that the truth will
frighten the voters. But as they campaign they should be left in no doubt
that we are heartily fed up with being spun to. It is not easy to see what
an education system embracing the inconvenient truths would look like, but
it is for those who would govern us to set out their stall. Only when the
policies are securely grounded will we see an end to the procession of
unnecessary and misplaced initiatives, of which this week’s White Paper
contains but the latest examples.

The writer is director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research
at the University of Buckingham

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