The education reforms we need to see beyond 2015

David Cowan 9.01am

Our education system is a national scandal. State education is supposed to ensure that everyone has free and fair access to a good education, encouraging social mobility, improving the physical and moral health of the nation’s children and, most importantly, passing down knowledge from one generation to the next. Too many schools fail to achieve these aims.

Standards have been falling for decades. According to an OECD PISA report the United Kingdom has fallen to the rank of 25th for reading, 28th for maths and 16th for science. Despite the rampant grade inflation of the past 13 years, 216 schools still failed to reach the minimum overall target for GCSE’s this year. Many UK independent schools are adopting international qualifications since countries, like Singapore, refuse to recognise GCSE’s. Furthermore, 22% of UK teenagers cannot even reach the basic literacy and numeracy levels. Alongside this decline in standards we have seen an increase in inequality. The United Kingdom has now fallen to 26th place on the UN human development index and is below the OECD average.

This increase in educational failure and inequality has also been accompanied by a serious decline in moral standards. Youth crime has risen by 20% over the past four years and is now costing us £1.2 billion. In 2009 alone there were 38,259 teenage pregnancies. This kind of behaviour often starts in our schools with 20% of children aged 10 to 15 being frightened of bullying, and one in three teachers finding themselves bullied by abusive pupils. Anti-social behaviour and binge drinking amongst teenagers have also become significant problems.

These failings have occurred despite a hefty £57.2 billion budget and £54,000 being spent per pupil. However, much of the budget is wasted on numerous regulators, quangos, and bureaucrats in the Department for Education and the Local Education Authorities (LEA).

There is a clear need for reform. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has made a strong start by expanding the academy and free school programme. However, the Liberal Democrats have acted as a brake on the Coalition’s reforming zeal, as the Health and Social Care Bill has proven, and are less than enthusiastic for the free schools programme. The Conservative Party should aim for a majority in 2015 and can only do so if the cause of educational reform is carried on. I would strongly argue in favour of the following suggestions.

Firstly, there should be a School Autonomy Bill, which would give all state schools, within five years, complete freedom over setting pay and conditions for staff, work hours, budgets, the length and terms of school days, school and class sizes, school discipline, who they can hire and fire, contracting services, and employing people without Qualified Teacher Status. All state schools would also be granted the same legal status as an independent company under the law, thus making it easier for new schools to be established within the state system without interference from the DfE. The national curriculum should be abolished, thus allowing teachers to be accountable to parents over what they teach in class. GCSE’s and A-Levels would be dismantled so that the examination system can become more decentralised. Headteachers would be able to choose from a wide range such as iGCSE’s, the IB, and the Cambridge Pre-U. Furthermore, the government would no longer construct league tables. The Academies project would reach full circle.

There is also the controversial debate over school selection. It would be better if headteachers were able to decide whether or not to become selective and to set their own admissions criteria. This would allow more state schools to become centres of excellence and engines of social mobility. Schools should also be able to become ‘for profit’ so that entrepreneurs can establish more schools, and headteachers can have greater incentives. For those who doubt that ‘for profit schools can benefit the United Kingdom’s poorest parents I would recommend the Institute of Economic Affairs’ ‘Schooling for Money' report.

Secondly, a Teachers’ Freedom Bill has to deal with the training of teachers. There just are not enough teachers, at least not in the right subjects, these days. This is difficult to believe when the total workforce in English education rose from 568,000 in 2000 to 811,000 in 2010, while the number of pupils declined. This increase has mainly been caused by the dramatic increase in administrative staff. The supply of actual teachers is being constrained by the high entry barriers established by the teaching unions and the state. Instead of removing these barriers there has been a plethora of state funded teacher recruitment schemes and teacher training centres. People training for the profession are taught ‘how to teach’ instead of focusing on a chosen subject. They are told that they must allow children to learn ‘naturally’, be ‘creative’ and ‘fun’, instead of focusing on real learning techniques, such as ‘phonics’, and encouraging discipline.

The bureaucracy in state education needs to be swept away if headteachers and their staff are to be liberated from the mountains of paperwork which is keeping them out of the classroom, and if the supply of teachers is to be increased. Full school autonomy would enable the abolition of this bureaucracy, such as the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency; Ofqual; the Teaching Development Agency; the National College of School Leadership; the General Teaching Council; and the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust. The inspection of school standards would remain in the hands of a restructured Ofsted which would focus on learning and discipline, and the frequency of inspection would depend on the quality of the school.

Quality amongst the teaching profession would still be maintained as headteachers are hardly likely to employ individuals who do not know their subject and are not up to the job. This would make it simpler, quicker and less intimidating for a wider range of talented people to become teachers, thus increasing the supply of teachers and the quality of state education. Then when people become teachers, they would not be suffocated by Whitehall diktats and can actually get on with their jobs.

Finally, if these changes were to be made then the DfE and LEA’s would no longer be necessary and could be abolished. Responsibility for early years intervention and family policy would be transferred to the Department for Work and Pensions. An Education Funding Bill would then change the system of school funding. Headteachers would receive public money directly from the Treasury, and funding would be dictated according to the number of pupils a school attracts or retains. This would produce a more cost effective and decentralised system of funding which would provide incentives and prevent failing schools from draining taxpayers’ money. Indeed, failing schools should be allowed to fail as it an absolute travesty that poorer parents currently have no choice but to send their children to schools which they know to be inadequate. 

When it has come to education there has been a constant fear of failure. This fear is so great that failure has become institutionalised. Grade inflation, comprehensive education, and a lack of academic rigour has been used to prevent failure, but at the cost of success. Tory reformers must overcome this institutionalised ‘failure’ and encourage excellence, ambition, and even ‘elitism’ as David Cameron has put it recently. This process of reform will require the daunting challenge of taking on both state bureaucracy and union power. However, it is about time that we made good on Tony Blair’s promise for a “world class education system” which is free, rigorous, disciplined, and universal.

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