Teachers vs Government: Seventy Years of Education Policy

BBC Radio 4 this week broadcast Teachers vs Government: Seventy Years of Education Policy.  Roy Blatchford, Director of the National Education Trust tells the story of developments in education policy over the seventy years since the Education Act of 1944. The half-hour broadcast can only be a brief overview of the key moments in education policy rather than an in-depth policy analysis.  However,  while useful as a documentary in that it provides an overview of key developments and asks key questions, this broadcast draws on and perpetuates some myths about the development of education after 1944.

Blatchford begins with the claim that the 1944 Act was a  “fundamental reform of the English education system”. Arguably, this was the case.  The legislation provided for universal, free, secondary education and this was distinct from what had existed previously when a secondary education was not an entitlement, but was largely rationed according to the ability to pay or obtain a scholarship through the passing of an 11+ style exam.

Blatchford goes on to describe how the new legislation “…meant pupils would  have a choice between a grammar, a secondary modern and a technical education”  which is only partially accurate.  The tripartite system to which he is referring reflects the ways in which the Act was implemented into existing contexts, rather than the Act itself, which did not prescribe specific secondary school types.

The broadcast also draws on the idea of a ‘post-war consensus’ claiming that “there was certainly a strong political consensus around the ambitions of the 44 Act” though, in relation to the aftermath of the 1944 Act at least, this has been contested (see for example, Jones, 1990).  Blatchford continues:

“What then disturbed the postwar consensus was a seemingly mild but radical request from the Labour Government in 1965 in the form of the infamous circular 10/65, a request to abolish selection at 11+ and end the divide between secondary moderns and grammar schools.”

However, this oversimplifies the process by which comprehensivation became a popular means for LEAs to organise secondary education.   Circular 10/65 did request that LEAs submit plans for comprehensivisation but there is evidence to support the claim that “[t]he drive for comprehensive education in England and Wales was a ‘bottom up’, rather than ‘top down’ initiative” (Crook, 2002: p. 257).

Nevertheless, featuring interviews with former Ministers and LEA  personnel the documentary offers some interesting insights to key policy developments.  It is broadcast again on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 27th April at 17.00 and is available to listen to here.

Continue reading “Teachers vs Government: Seventy Years of Education Policy”

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A “radical overhaul of school league tables”?

This is how Anushka Asthana and Toby Helm, in the Guardian described the new coalition’s plans for school league tables.  In fact, it appears to be not so radical. 

League tables, providing statistical information on the ‘performance’ of pupils are published by the government’s education department (as in the illustration below), and reproduced in national newspapers. 

On the face of it, they provide robust, statistical information about the performance of a school.  Though deciphering the information will not be straightforward for everyone, the figures show what percentage of pupils attained a specified level.  It appears objective, scientific, unbiased.  However, the problem with these tables is that they only provide a partial picture; there is a lack of information on the social context  of the school, and, although there is now a contextual value added measure, there is little information on the attainment of pupils on entry to that key stage.  So, in short they do not compare like with like, and, are biased.

League tables were introduced to give parents information about schools in their areas.  They could use this information to make informed decisions about selecting the most appropriate school for their child.  Parents, thus became consumers in the education market place.  Further, it should be noted that this development was not introduced by the previous Labour administration, but by the previous Conservative government.  In particular, it was the 1988 Education Act which ushered in many changes which have resulted in the intensification of the education marketplace.

Now, we have the ConDem government intent on changing the league table system.  Plans, however, are at the ‘suggestion’ stage.   One suggestion, not a definite, is to group schools according to their socio-economic context.  So, schools in poor areas will be grouped with other poor schools. 

Is this radical?

No

  • There is nothing new in benchmarking schools, (or other public services for that matter), alongside other schools with a similar social context.
  • Benchmarking alongside schools with a similar proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals has been used to compare the ‘performance’ of schools.  There are, however problems with FSM data as it is only a ‘proxy’ for deprivation)
  • The last government also introduced a value added measure to take account of the intake of pupils

Is this suggestion a good idea?

It depends on the motivation of the government

  • The claims that the current government makes for achieving social justice through education reforms ring hollow.  Proposals for more academies, and for free schools are not about achieving social justice, but are about withdrawal of the state from the provision of education. Academies and Free Schools will be outside of LEA control, and so, in control of their own admissions.  League tables comparing ‘like with like’  are, more likely to mean one set of tables for ‘good’ schools, and another for ‘poorer’, underfunded, LEA schools.
  • Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg claims that this move will provide a more “honest picture” of schools’ performance. Again, it is possible to debate the level of honesty that statistical information can provide about any school.  However, any picture, honest or not, it is the impact that this change will have on the consumers of league tables, and the consequences that is important. So…

What are the consequences?

In short, inequality

  •  For parents, it depends on their social class, whether and how they use this information.  As Bowe et al[1] observe, it is too simplistic to assume that parents make school choice decisions on the basis of school performance data alone.
  •  Just as important in school choice decision-making are social networks.  See the research carried out by Ball and Vincent[2].
  • Crucially, Ball and Vincent found that, for working class parents, school choice was not an anxious process, largely because choices are limited, often attend the local school.  It is these parents who are unlikely to be pouring over any form of league table.
  • For those (mainly middle class) parents who do use league tables as part of their decision-making process, this change will simply remove from analysis, those schools which they would not wish to consider for their child (the ‘poor’ performing schools, the ones at the bottom of the league tables).  There will be a middle class league table, and one for the rest.
  • The educational market place will intensify, a greater disparity between schools ‘freed’ from LEA control; academies, and free schools and the remaining state schools will be evident. Greater social inequality is likely to result. 

Continue reading “A “radical overhaul of school league tables”?”

Comprehensive Schools are not comprehensive

This week, the Sutton Trust published a report: Worlds Apart: social variation among schools.  It reports on the social segregation within schools.  It found that many of the country’s ‘leading Comprehensive schools’ are more socially exclusive and less ethnically diverse than some Grammar schools. 

Many factors contribute to this, such as parental choice, and the selection by the schools themselves.  It is not solely because a Comprehensive School is located in, for example, a middle class neighbourhood.

These findings should be cause for concern. The Guardian picks up on the report and suggests that a ballot to allocate places at secondary school would be fairer.  it certainly would, as it would not enable middle class parents to use their cultural capital, or any other capital to ensure their child was offered a place at their preferred school.

The Daily Mail however, also expresses concern at the report.  Though their claim to be concerned about the social exclusivity of Comprehensives isn’t really credible.  They go on to use the findings of the report to suggest that a solution is an end to Comprehensives and a return to Grammar Schools.  So, in other words they are so concerned with this divisive state in Comprehensive Schools that they want to replace it with more divisiveness.  They still cling to this notion that Grammar Schools enabled social mobility, but only for ‘bright’ working class children.   Again, the evidence for this claim is pretty thin.  One has to question therefore the Daily Mail’s motive in running this story in the way that they did.  The article appears, on the face of it to be concerned with equality, but their enthusiasm for Grammar Schools reveals their real lack of concern.

Also interesting is the claim by the Daily Mail that this report is “groundbreaking”.  This is as good as saying that these findings are something that we were, hitherto, unaware of.

While the results from the Sutton Trust report are interesting, and significant in that they provide new data and add to the debate over school admissions (which have supposedly being tightened), the key fact that middle classes are able to ‘colonise’ some Comprehensive Schools is not  newly discovered. 

Middle class ‘colonisation’ of some Comprehensive Schools has been researched by sociologists and educational researchers for around 20 years.    Following the 1988 Education Act (which, amongst other things enshrined the rights of parents to choose a school for their child) studies have looked at the impact of the ‘educational market place’. 

Researchers have looked at ‘class strategies’ of parents and their behaviour when choosing a school.  The Daily Mail’s headline, for example was Selection by Mortgage, referring to the ability of middle class parents to secure a place at their preferred school by moving there, forcing up house prices, and therefore excluding children from poorer families.  Other reported strategies include attending church to secure a place at a church school.  Middle class parents are also better able to access and interpret a range of official and unofficial information about a school and use this to make an ‘informed’ choice about schools in their area.  And selection by the school itself, again not surprising given that schools will themselves want to maintain their position in the education market place. 

The result is, Comprehensive schools which aren’t comprehensive, and the reproduction of social class inequalities.  The solution is not more Grammar Schools.  The problem is the education market place. Continue reading “Comprehensive Schools are not comprehensive”

Middle class parents and prejudice against comprehensive schools

Professor David Woods, the Chief Adviser for London Schools this week criticised a number of middle class parents for their reluctance, often refusal to send their children to local comprehensives.

In London, the area his role is focused on, the problem of middle class parents abandoning the local comprehensive school is greater than in other parts of the country.

In the Guardian article which reports Woods’ concerns it is stated:

In London, the proportion of parents choosing private schools is higher than in the rest of the country, with 9% of 15-year-olds attending private schools. Across England, the number of 10-year-olds who attend state primary schools and transfer to a private secondary school is 2.3%, while in London it is 3.7%

Why are these parents abandoning the local comp?

Comprehensive Schools do not get a good press, especially in the Daily Mail as indicated by these headlines:

State pupils can be uncontrollable and are unlikely to achieve academically, says private schools chief

State pupils ‘miss out on university because of bad teaching, not bias’

These kind of headlines must contribute to and reinforce parents’ fears about the local comp.

In drama too, comprehensive schools just don’t appear to be very attractive.  Remember Grange Hill from the BBC?  According to the Daily Mail, again, it was cut because real comprehensives are worse than the fiction portrayed in that drama series.

Today we have Waterloo Road which as has been described elsewhere on this blog isn’t exactly attractive to middle class parents wanting the best educational experience and outcomes for their children.

Sociologists of education have studied the behaviour of middle class parents in the education market place that was created by the 1988 Education Act.  Most notably there is Stephen Ball.  Middle class parents employ strategies to get their children into the school of their choice, this can range from moving house to a different catchment area to secure a place at a more desireable school.  It can mean immersing themselves into the life of the local church in order to get their child into a church school.  Sociologists often refer to the ways in which middle class parents are able to use their cultural capital (see Bourdieu for more) in order to secure advantage in the education market.

The education system itself does little to discourage the use of cultural capital by parents, following the 1988 Education Act we have a quasi education market in which parents have (in theory) a choice over which school to send their child too, supported by a range of different school types, including comprehensive schools, grammar schools, specialist schools and academies.  For those who want out of the state system and can afford it there are private schools.  Choice may appear to be democratic, expect that some parents are better able to exercise a choice and get what they want than others are.  The result is that there are class advantages to be seen in education.  Those whose parents have little cultural capital and who can’t afford to move to ‘better’ catchment area have little choice to go to the apparently failing local comprehensive school.  Though in reality the local comp may not actually be failing, standards may be rising, and as educational attainment is related to social class, those who are in the ‘failing’ schools are more likely to be working class pupils who traditionally achieve lower grades than their middle class counterparts – this may go someway to explaining why ‘standards’ may appear to be low in these schools.

Professor Woods is right, however when education has become a commodity it is hardly surprising that parents will employ whatever they can to get their child into the school of their choice, even if that child would do equally as well at the local comp.

Continue reading “Middle class parents and prejudice against comprehensive schools”

School attendance linked to poverty – shocking new statistics reveal?

Over the recent festivities the UK Conservative Party issued a news story: Persistent truancy concentrated in deprived areas in which they apparently exposed the relationship between deprivation and school attendance.  The party’s analysis revealed that children living in the most deprived neighbourhoods were more than five times more likely to miss school than pupils living in the richest neighbourhoods.

Commenting on the analysis, Michael Gove the shadow education secretary highlighted the need to invest in schools in the most deprived neighbouhoods in an effort to tackle this problem.

Why is Michael Gove so surprised by these figures?

Though the figures may be shocking in that it indicates the existence of educational inequality (and therefore the existence of society – which a certain Conservative Prime Minister claimed did not exist) which is something to be concerned about as it damages both individuals and society, the  figures are not new. 

Any examination of the link between social class and education, whether it be participation in education, experience of education or attainment reveals a link, with children and young people from poorer backgrounds coming of worse than their more wealthy peers. 

Sociological understandings have sought to understand the complex relationship between social class (in itself a complex concept) and education.

A Level Student studying sociology might have been able to help out Michael Gove by referring to the work of J.W.B Douglas and the National Child Development study which indicated that a lack of material resources, such as physical space to work or a lack of books impacted on a child’s education. 

Sociologist might have also told Gove that material factors such as overcrowding and a poor diet may lead to increased incidences of ill health in deprived areas leading to increased rates of absence from school.  Or  perhaps a need for the child to take time off for caring responsibilities, again more likely to adversely impact on a child from a poor background.

Gove and the rest of the Conservatives probably know all this already, but they have attempted to use these figures to criticise the current Labour Government for failing to tackle the inequality which they helped to entrench in the first place.

Since coming to power the current Government have gone someway to tackling the link between poverty and educational outcomes, for example by the provision of Sure Start in deprived areas – working class children have been the least likely to attend nursery education and to start school behind their middle class peers.  It is likely to be years before the impact of this is to be seen. Educational Action Zones were set up to raise aspirations and attainment in working class areas.  Extra funding through specialist schools were steered to schools in deprived areas.  While these have been controversial (as I have discussed in other posts) they have been attempts to tackle the long term problem of poor educational experiences among children from the most deprived backgrounds.

Perhaps Michael Gove might like to consider the impact of the educational market place that his party introduced through the 1988 Education Act which allowed the further reproduction of class inequalities in education by allowing middle class parents to exercise their cultural capital and choose the best schools for their children while so called failing schools were unsurprisingly found in the most deprived neighbourhoods?

The Children, Schools and Families Bill

This Bill was introduced to the House of Commons on the 19th November this year. 

The bill sets out to reforms schools as well as other childrens’ services and sets out  a number of guarantees to parents and children as to what they can expect from the Schools system in the 21st century. 

In part, the Bill follows on from the Rose Review by implementing many of the recommendations found in that report and introduces curriculum reforms. No long will children be taught separate subjects, but the primary school curriculum will be divided into 6 areas.  So, for example skills in literacy and numeracy can be developed in a range of subjects such as history.  This is a move seen in other Western European countries, yet it hardly seems radical to apply the basic skills such as literacy and numeracy to an understanding of history, geography and mathematics. 

The national curriculum will  become less centralised, this having been a criticism of the National Curriculum as well as Labour Governments in general.  Although of course the National Curriculum came into force in 1988 under a Conservative administration, which had apparently rolled back the state.  Now, schools and teachers are to be trusted to make decisions on how best to teach subjects like Maths and English, although basic skills and knowledge are to underpin everything learnt in school.  While history is to be taught under a ‘historical, social and geographical’ theme, British history is  to become a feature of primary school pupil’s learning,    

The bill contains guarantees including a commitment to one-to-one tuition for pupils who are falling behind their peers.  Parents have a right to redress if such guarantees are not met, perhaps allowing greater ‘parentocracy’ and the inequalities associated with that.

Teachers will be subject to a license to practice and they will be required to demonstrate their fitness to teach at designated intervals.  This could be an attempt to tackle the ‘problem’ of incompetent teachers.  In fiction we have them in the form of Steph Haydock and  Grantly Budgen in Waterloo Road.  A ‘discourse of derision’ (as identified by Stephen Ball)  where the problem of incompetent teachers is evident in parts of the popular press  (see for example this article in the Daily Mail). Surely this development, introduced in this Bill is exactly what these critics want?

Another significant development arising from this new Bill is the introduction of a register of home educated pupils.  This can be seen as the state interfering in the private lives of those who wish to educate their children themselves, but yet is designed to protect children as in some case home education is used as a cover for child abuse.  Again, those who claim the Government should be doing more to protect vulnerable children will welcome this?

The impact of parental choice on school admissions

One of the principles introduced under the 1988 Education Act by the then Conservative Government was the notion of parental choice in selecting a school for their child.  The idea behind this was that the market would drive up standards in education, good schools would be the popular schools while bad schools would be forced to improve or squeezed out of the market altogether as parents sent their children elsewhere. League tables became important as parents could digest these and make informed decisions about which was the best school for their child.  This all sounds well and good….no-one would want to send their child to a failing school, therefore pupils would go to the better schools and standards would be driven up as bad schools improved in order to compete and retain pupils.

In reality, it is quite different.  Sociological research has examined the strategies and resources that middle class parents employ in order to get their child into the school of their choice.  For example writers including Reay, Lucey, Bowe, Ball and Gerwitz have all identified a range of strategies that middle class parents use. 

More recently, as reported in The Guardian,  Simon Burgess, Ellen Greaves, Anna Vignoles and Deborah Wilson have produced a report through Bristol University’s Centre for Market and Public Organisation which finds that social class segregation  at primary school is being fuelled by the policy of parental choice. One of the key factors for poorer parents was the proximity of the primary school. In other words they are likely to choose a school for their child because it is close.  Middle class parents, of course have more resources (i.e a car) to ensure that their child is able to attend a school at a distance from home. 

The solution that the authors suggest is a lottery.   At secondary school level this has already been tried, in Brighton as reported by the BBC provoking angry responses from some parents.  The lottery meant, of course that parents could not employ strategies to get their child into the school of their choice, instead the process was replaced by a system that treated everyone the same.  The authors of this latest report add to this, arguing that a lottery would be a means of ensuring a greater social mix and less social segregation in our schools.