The education system’s betrayal of bright pupils

Giles Marshall 9.00am

How often is it possible to bemoan the same problem and consistently avoid the obvious solution? Plenty, it would appear, if the problem is how to support bright children in the state education system.

Ofsted have today reported that thousands of bright youngsters are failing to achieve their potential in secondary schools. They have issued some shocking figures. Take English: of the children who achieved Level 5 in English in their primary schools and went on to the standard non-selective secondary school, 62 per cent failed to gain a grade A or A* in the subject at GCSE. Even taking into account the natural decline in learning that some children experience in the secondary school years, that is a lamentable figure.

More than a quarter of previously high attaining pupils failed to gain a grade B or A in Maths or English. The bright, eager primary school pupil with ability to nurture is being betrayed by what Ofsted have described as a “culture of low expectations” in secondary schools.

Of course, it is no easy job to encourage the bright students when you are teaching a class of thirty students whose abilities range right across the spectrum and who contain a fair share of the educationally discontented amongst them. Blaming the schools and their teachers is all very well, but the demands we make by our present system are huge.

The problem of the mixed education system was well identified by a prominent academic in an article in the New York Review of Books in 2010, entitled simply “Meritocrats”.  He furiously denounced what had been happening to secondary education when he wrote:

"For forty years, British education has been subjected to a catastrophic sequence of “reforms” aimed at curbing its elitist inheritance and institutionalizing “equality.”…. Intent upon destroying the selective state schools that afforded my generation a first-rate education at public expense, politicians have foisted upon the state sector a system of enforced downward uniformity."

He was not the first critic. In the Black Papers of 1975, one author argued:

"Selection must and will take place in education and those who banish rational methods of selection are simply favouring irrational and accidental ones.  The children who will be lost forever are the poor clever children with an illiterate background….Why should socialist policy, of all things, be so grossly unjust to the under-privileged clever child, avid to learn, able to learn, and under non-selective education likely to pass in relaxed idle boredom those precious years when strenuous learning is a joy and the whole intellectual and moral future of the human being is at stake?"

These were strong words, and the interesting thing in both cases is that they came from the pens of bona fide left-wing thinkers: Tony Judt and Iris Murdoch respectively.

They correctly identified where the real victims of the comprehensive reform of state secondary education would lie, and while articulate middle class parents push their way into the catchments of the few remaining grammars, everyone else has to put up with the “culture of low expectations”.  

Oddly, for all his reforming zeal, Michael Gove has steered well clear of the grammar school debate. Happy to push for elitism in the form of exams; presumably happy to maintain the elitism required for the university system to thrive (because yes, they select students based on academic ability), he has made no pronouncement whatsoever on grammar schools. Free Schools and academies are hamstrung in one significant way – they cannot select on the basis of academic ability alone.

Perhaps Conservatives - more likely to be able to use the private selective school system, or ensure residence in a catchment area for a state selective school, or able to take advantage of the free school opportunity – don’t really have any motivation to push for a fully selective system on the state. Maybe their opposition to state control of education stands in the way of advocating a directed system of educational elitism to aid the aspirations of the poor and disadvantaged.  

If so, is it entirely outside the bounds of political credibility for the Labour party to rediscover its commitment to social mobility, and advocate the return of a grammar school system? In one bound, they could pull the rug from under the feet of the wimpy Conservatives who have avoided this toxic issue for so long. They could, indeed, listen to Tony Judt’s closing plea not to accept the disastrous status quo:

"Equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are not the same thing. A society divided by wealth and inheritance cannot redress this injustice by camouflaging it in educational institutions—by denying distinctions of ability or by restricting selective opportunity—while favoring a steadily widening income gap in the name of the free market. This is mere cant and hypocrisy."

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesmarshall

The Failure of Universities

Giles Marshall 11.30am


So finally a university lecturer has had a go at students for not attending lectures.  The highly regarded medieval historian Guy Halsall, who adorns the York history department, apparently let loose something of a rant that involved his expression of displeasure that too few students bothered turning up for his lectures.  He posted his views online, on the university’s virtual learning system, telling students that they had missed the chance of hearing from one of the premier medieval historians in the world, to whom conferences pay large sums of money when he goes and guest lectures.  Professor Halsall intimated that the vast sums of money being spent on a university education were being wasted.

He has a point, of course.  The fees of £9,000 a year should be starting to focus students’ attention on the real value of university education.  And while his comments may seem a little too self-regarding (although one could equally ask, why shouldn’t they?) they raise the thorny issue of just what university education is actually for.

In the great debate about school exams, we often hear media pundits and politicians suggest that it would be a rather good idea to get the input of university departments when constructing the secondary school curriculum and examinations system.  Yet it seems that university departments have enough to do sorting out their own provision rather than being used as experts for an age group they don’t teach or deal with.  The imposition of high tuition fees has focused attention on what universities are actually providing for their undergraduate students. The feedback from numerous recent undergraduates is less than inspiring.  I hear plenty of tales of poor lecturers, seminars being given by graduate students and irregular and superficial essay supervision.  On the arts side, the contact time between student and lecturer is minimal, often amounting to a total of just six hours a week (split between several lecturers) for students.  This usually includes three or four hours of lectures to large audiences, so the small group sessions may be a mere one or two hours a week.  The only exceptions are Oxford and Cambridge, who at least provide weekly tutorial or supervision sessions of one to one (or one to two) for their undergraduate students.  Compare all of this with the much maligned secondary school system, where even an undemanding A-level system requires two or three hours of lesson delivery a day, and frequently more depending on timetable vagaries. 

There were apparently some 11,000 unfilled university places in the last application cycle.  For those places that were filled, it would be surprising if there weren’t more attention being paid to just how the universities fulfil their teaching mission.

Professor Halsall’s frustration is also an interesting reflection on the student regard for university education.  For all of the violent protests against the imposition of fees, it seems that students still cannot be bothered to turn up to a lecture by an international authority in his field.  If students really were bothered about their value for money, the least they would be doing would be attending the specific lectures and seminars laid on for them.  Perhaps, after all, the fact that such fees won’t be paid until well into their working life has engendered a sense of ennui towards their academic studies?  Perhaps too the universities should stop putting lectures online and demand physical attendance instead, much as the school system does?  Are they worried that such demands might reduce even further the number of students who survive to graduate at the end of a third year?

We clearly haven’t got the university system right.  The teaching in too many is abysmal and the reaction from students seems to be to limit their exposure to it as much as possible, whilst happily committing themselves to their eventual £27,000 pay back.  Outside Oxford and Cambridge, it is rare to hear of students extolling the virtues of their academic studies.  More is learnt in the clubs and the bars than in the lecture halls.  We may wonder indeed just what the virtue of a university education is. 

Perhaps instead of constantly sniping at secondary schools, who are at least delivering education to the nation’s under-18s on a daily basis, it would also be worth reviewing the set-up of the education that the state expects to be provided after 18.  It would save an awful lot of money if we finally regarded it as being unnecessary.

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesmarshall

New charity to offer boarding school places to disadvantaged pupils - good, we need more of the same

Nik Darlington 11.26am

Boarding schools have many detractors. They also have many supporters. Singer James Blunt said being sent away to boarding school aged 7, “is as great an inspiration as any songwriter could have”. Actor Ruper Everett, on the other hand, said he went to boarding school aged 7, “and cried and cried”.

Each to their own.

The closest I got to writing songs was some ropey piano and guitar playing and producing an album for a band named after a rubefacient menthol sports spray. Life skills.

Yet I’m in the Blunt camp. Boarding school was a wonderful experience and I’d recommend it to anyone.

Coming from something of a different angle is former Labour education minister Lord Adonis in this morning’s Times (£):

"Boarding schools…offer a unique type of education - security, structure, pastoral care, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I know from my own experience that boarding schools can make all the difference to children who are in care or who are growing up in chaotic or floundering families."

Perhaps that is why it has always been the schooling of choice for the aristocracy.

Lord Adonis argues the virtues of a boarding school education need to be offered to a wider number of pupils, from all walks of life.

"But too few children who could benefit get the chance of a boarding education. There are only a few dozen state boarding schools and only a tiny number of private boarding schools, such as Christ’s Hospital, in Horsham, with charitable foundations able to pay the fees of large numbers of poorer students."

The Labour party spitefully abolished the Assisted Places Scheme in 1997, so denying an opportunity to thousands of children (80,000 participated in the scheme between 1980 and 1997).

Thankfully, numerous independent schools and charities are stepping in to offer bursaries. Lord Adonis praises Rugby School’s pioneering Arnold Foundation (I declare an interest as a committee member), which since its launch in 2003 has provided full bursaries to scores of youngsters. The aim is to have 10 per cent of Rugby School pupils supported via the Arnold Foundation (for boarders) or the Lawrence Sheriff Bequest (day pupils) within the next decade.

Lord Adonis also mentions a new charity launched today called SpringBoard, based on the Arnold Foundation, which will offer hundreds of boarding school places to disadvantaged pupils. SpringBoard hopes to be assisting 2,000 pupils within a decade.

The snobs of the education establishment will hate it, but ignore them. For many children who have not been born into privilege, and who otherwise see little future for themselves, a boarding school education could be the best thing that has ever happened to them. To deny them the chance is to deny potential, and organisations such as SpringBoard are to be applauded for offering it.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

Many teachers are still wary about the need to raise exam standards - they mustn’t be

Nik Darlington 11.03am

Half of teachers in England oppose Michael Gove’s plan to replace GCSEs with a new English Baccalaureate (EBacc), according to polling by YouGov.

Nearly three-quarters (74 per cent) believe that grades should be based on a combination of final exams and coursework, as is currently the case with GCSEs but wouldn’t be under the proposed EBacc.

However, both teachers (77 per cent) and the public (82 per cent) agree with the Government in one respect: having one exam board per subject. I have criticised the current exam boards arrangement in the past, on these pages and elsewhere, as a corrupt and harmful presence in our education system. I have even claimed that the free market is failing the country’s children. So evidently I welcome this support for abolishing the practice of multiple competing exam boards.

There should be some concerns about YouGov’s sample size: at fewer than 700 hundred teachers in England, it is unimpressive. Factor in that this includes primary school teachers, with no direct involvement in GCSEs, and it looks threadbare.

We should also remember that while half (50 per cent) of teachers oppose the changes, that means the other half do not oppose the changes. True, only 22 per cent state they actively support them; but it is hard to form a definite opinion on something until you’ve seen what it is. The EBacc is still an idea, not an exam.

Much of the concern in the teaching profession seems, anecdotally at least, to be based on the likelihood of fewer children passing exams. The real issue here is one of raising standards, not necessarily pass rates. And if a new exam system raises standards to a comparable level with superior systems abroad, at the loss of higher pass rates, in the long-run it is a price worth paying.

I am told by one teacher with many overseas children in their classes that a mere glance at their textbooks demonstrates just how far behind our GCSEs are compared to the exams they would sit in their home country: “their GCSEs are equivalent to our AS levels”.

Significant parts of the teaching profession might be in denial or opposition of Mr Gove’s suggested reforms. And often with good intentions, I don’t doubt. But if we are to do the best for Britain’s children, we cannot continue to cheat them the opportunity of as rigorous an education as their peers overseas. In a globalised economy, this becomes ever more crucial every year.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

The School Sports Debacle - Who Is Really At Fault?

Giles Marshall 9.43am

It’s great that David Cameron has been attending the London Olympics, and even better that he has been sufficiently enthused by the tremendous success of British athletes to call for more competitive sport in schools.

But is Mr Cameron naïve to put the blame for a ‘lack of competitive ethos’ on to teachers?

Or is he simply the latest in a line of Prime Ministers since Margaret Thatcher to pay lip service to the idea of sports in state schools while simultaneously cutting the funding that makes it possible?

The problem, as ever, lies with both government and school leaders. Since the education revolution of the 1980s, government has been immensely successful in focussing attention on academic results. The annual publication of exam league tables has forced schools into an ever more intense cycle of relentless grade chasing.

Good, you might think, for the academic side of education. Not so good, however, for all the other aspects of school life. School leaders have certainly got to grips with the idea that they need to show year-on-year consistent examination success. Sadly too many of them have taken a rather one-paced, narrow perspective, making exams their focus at the expense of other, broader aspects of a decent liberal education. The most significant casualty has probably been school sports, with trips and visits not far behind.

It isn’t directly any government’s fault that too many schools’ senior management teams hide behind a ‘watch my back’ culture of more detailed, time-consuming and off-putting bureaucracy. Too few heads and deputies are willing to support their staff who run after-school sports, or arranging fixtures, putting lengthy forms in the way of keen teachers and taking weeks to pass even the simplest request to run an extra-curricular activity.

One friend - newly qualified and teaching in a state school - commented in despair at the fact that she had to fill in a lengthy risk assessment in order to take her PE class into the park for a class session. The park was opposite the school. Her risk-averse head took two weeks before he decided he could agree with her several page risk assessment, and demanded parental consents and health forms from every parent before the lesson could be conducted. Lesser teachers would have given up long before.

Plenty of heads, too, insist that their sports staff attend tedious after-school inset sessions over running school sports fixtures.  It is little wonder that teachers who might once have been enthusiastic over the idea of running extra-curricular sports give up in the face of the mountains of cowardly, pass the blame bureaucracy put in their paths by senior staff.

I should incidentally declare an interest. I am a rarity among teachers, working as I do for a head who positively encourages extra-curricular activities and ensures a can-do atmosphere in his school, happily taking the ultimate responsibility on himself and giving his staff a high degree of leeway to run things. Why? Quite simply he trusts their professionalism, and he understands that responsible leadership involves supporting rather than hindering them.

But behind this school problem is a government problem, and whatever he says now, Mr Cameron cannot honestly claim to have supported the revitalised sports culture he now wants to see in state schools. His Education Secretary, Michael Gove, cut the funding to the School Sports Partnership (then had to perform a hasty U-turn on it) and devised a Sixth Form funding formula for state schools that removed financing for extra-curricular sports. Only academic A-levels are deemed worthy of government funding in the state sector. As a way of hindering sport in schools, that was pretty good going. And, of course, if you are going to inculcate a blame culture for poor exam results, you can hardly act surprised if your head teachers choose to ignore the poor relation – sports.

The independent sector has a distinguished sporting record because its schools invest considerable sums in their sports provision. They pay for professional coaches, offer generous sports scholarships and possess state of the art facilities.  None of that is available for state schools and sports professionals who can command considerable salaries are not likely to respond to a ‘big society’ call to work free of charge.

If Mr Cameron’s commitment to long-term sports provision for the majority of British students is more than simply the passing enthusiasm of an Olympics fan, then he needs to encourage an ethos of support, accompanied by appropriate funding - first and foremost from the Department for Education.

Otherwise, he might be best advised to avoid the debate altogether.

Giles Marshall is head of politics in a London grammar school. Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesmarshall

By reforming Britain’s already “two-tier” exam system, Michael Gove continues to put interests of pupils first

Nik Darlington 11.08am

Michael Gove has form in sending hearts aflutter among the education establishment, for better or for worse.

To some, he is a godsend. A radical reformer with one guiding principle - put the rigorous education of children ahead of all else. To others, he is a hate figure.

His insistence that it should be easier to sack badly performing teachers, for example, went down - among teachers at least - like a fart in an elevator.

But few expected what came to light last week. An internal departmental paper, detailing the Education Secretary’s plan to abolish GCSE exams for ‘core subjects’ in the next few years, found its way into the hands of the Daily Mail. The final exams would be sat in 2015 and GCSE results would no longer appear in league tables from the following year. Predictably enough, Labour, the Lib Dems and the teaching unions cried foul.

On Friday, Giles explained why Mr Gove is correct to want to replace the current format of GCSEs, which “are predicated on the flawed educational ideology of one size fits all, whether that be schools or exams”. A teacher himself, Giles says that “deception is at the heart of the GCSE system”, with thousands of pupils being dragooned down the wrong educational path. Importantly, Giles points out that a return to a traditional O-levels format does not mean abandoning the advances made in teaching approaches in recent years.

Other teacher seem to agree, one telling me that it cannot be right to “cram” children up to a 20 per cent C-grade in order to pass GCSE Mathematics. A “more appropriate course” is needed. They also say an entire review of the GCSE set-up is needed, as Britain is “becoming a bit of a laughing stock” globally.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, effectively vetoed his Cabinet colleague’s plans, claiming they would create a “two-tier” exam system, which was either sloppy or wilfully deceitful.

This country already has a two-tier exam system of GCSEs, taken by the many, and IGCSEs, taken by the few - i.e. leading independent schools and, since this Government lifted a ban on their doing so, several of the better and more ambitious state schools. It has, according to the same source, left an “underclass” with a poor exam and poor preparation for A-levels.

There is, of course, a downside. What to do with those pupils perceived at age 14 unable to cope with a more difficult course? As admirable and right as it is to want to offer premium education to as many pupils as possible, there will still be thousands deemed unable to make the cut. And, even more controversially, the minority straddling the borderline between ‘Gove-levels’ and lower ranks.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

A One Nation defence of the Church of England

David Cowan 6.01am

At the beginning of Holy Week this year, David Cameron made another foray into religious affairs. It was a rare glimpse of that elusive aspect of the Prime Minister’s character - his Christian faith.

Mr Cameron’s most significant defence of Christianity to date was during the celebrations for the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible (see Jack’s and Daniel’s comments). He claimed:

"Britain is a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so… the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today."

It is Christianity’s conceptualisation of the nation that is at the heart of Mr Cameron’s moral code. This is evident in his vision for a ‘Big Society’, where responsibility, duty and community are most valued. And of course the institution that upholds the Christian faith and defends these values is the Church of England.

The local church is often at the heart of our communities. It provides spiritual support as well as voluntary assistance to charities, social enterprises and, importantly, schools.

The Church of England currently educates one million children in 4,800 schools, making it the biggest single provider of education in this country. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has reaffirmed the Conservative party’s commitment to supporting faith schools by urging the Church to run more academies.

Throughout the Conservative party’s long history, the defence of the established Church has been second nature. Christian morality has been a significant guide for many One Nation Conservatives, including Harold Macmillan, who said:

"If you don’t believe in God, all you have to believe in is decency. Decency is very good. Better decent than indecent. But I don’t think it’s enough."

A Christian ‘fightback’ should be supported by One Nation Conservatives within the context of greater toleration. We live in a pluralistic society. Other cultures must be respected. Yet Christians have become somehow exempted from the toleration afforded to others and fair game for discrimination by aggressive secularists.

Wearing a cross at work, holding town hall prayers (see Jack’s comments on these pages), Norwich County Council’s banning of a local church from a community centre.

It is appalling that this victimisation of ordinary Christians is happening at the same time that Yusuf al-Qaradawi is allowed to stay in this country, be embraced by Labour’s London mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone, and defend suicide bombing, wife beating and the violent persecution of Jews and homosexuals.

Discrimination against Christians has also been a defining feature of the debate about same-sex marriage, in which opponents are brazenly dismissed as homophobes. The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, for instance, is opposed to gay marriage but supports civil partnerships and has certainly not expressed hatred towards homosexuals.

It also says a lot about the current state of the debate that the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is forced to ban “gay cure” adverts from the capital’s red buses, while Christians offended by gay rights charity Stonewall’s campaign are denounced as bigots.

How can we possibly have a grown-up debate about an important subject such as same-sex marriage if senseless demonisation is allowed to trump rational discussion?

Whatever side you take, there is a principle at stake here. Toleration has to incorporate toleration of those people who we disagree with or believe to hold intolerant views. It is time for toleration in Britain to live up to Voltaire’s famous and apocryphal quotation: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Regrettably, Mr Cameron’s attempts to tackle aggressive secularism have been undermined by George Osborne’s recent blunders over the so-called 'charity tax' and 'heritage tax'.

The Government is launching a formal consultation on charity tax relief and will hopefully heed the advice given by Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister, on BBC’s Newsnight recently.

But we have yet to see if the Government will reverse its decision to slap a VAT bill of £20 billion on the 12,500 listed church buildings. There is already an e-petition with a growing number of signatures demanding that the VAT zero rate on alterations to listed buildings be revived.

This hit to charitable giving and listed buildings threatens irreparable and unnecessary harm to churches such as Wakefield Cathedral. Many churches stand as bastions of beauty and monuments to tradition. Several have stood since Norman times. It would be a crime against our common heritage to allow these tax policies to continue.

Once upon a time it could be said, with some truth, that the Church of England was ‘the Tory party at prayer’. David Cameron and other One Nation Conservatives should have the courage of their convictions to defend and praise the established Church’s role in the spiritual life of the nation and the wellbeing of communities; to fight for full religious toleration; and to conserve our precious buildings.

Follow David on Twitter @david_cowan

Who governs the school governors?

Neil Carmichael MP 11.32am

Applications for free schools and academy status have become a daily part of the coalition era. Widening choice, removing stifling bureaucracy and creating new opportunities for our children are fundamental Conservative principles and are at the heart of the Education Act.

Yet one area that is even more fundamental in the new landscape than before is the growing importance of school governors. That is the issue I addressed in my report with Edward Wild, Who Governs the Governors?: School Governance in the Twenty First Century.

The report assesses the opportunities created by our education reforms and asks some fundamental questions about how the quality of boards can be enhanced and their appeal widened.

There are more than half a million school governors in the UK across primary, secondary, state and independent schools. I regard them as being a core part of the community whose work is often overlooked or taken for granted. With the role of the local authorities diminishing, the role of governors will change.

I welcome the move from representative boards to skills and experiences based boards and believe lessons can be learned from other public sector and non-profit organisations in terms of how to improve the overall standard and quality of their work.

Some of the key conclusions of the report are as follows:

  • Key Skills: Boards will often evolve without full consideration of the breadth of skills and experience needed, which leads to the over-representation of certain professions or sectors. Key areas to be covered by all boards should include experience of eduction, finance, HR, property and communications.
  • Diversity: Ensuring a breadth of backgrounds and experience is important for boards to thrive. The time commitment is likely to increase as the role of LEAs is reduced. In common with housing providers and NHS boards, individual schools may wish to consider remuneration for chairs to widen the range of candidates attracted to serve.
  • National Advertising Campaign and Database: The role of school governors offers an opportunity to serve the community and to be part of the country’s education system. Never before have so many people wanted to join boards and develop their non-executive experience. We see schools as being a great opportunity to meet that need. Empowering schools and federations to find new governors and candidates through a database will accelerate the process of filling vacancies and, at the same time, enable candidates to update their own profile.
  • Composition: In common with federations and key academy providers, we concluded that smaller, skills based boards of around twelve members were ideal to ensure effective governance.
  • The role of the Chair: Strong and effective chairs who bring experience from other sectors and boards are ideal. Succession planning should be considered more both for future Chairs and new governors.
  • Fixed terms: Refreshing boards while ensuring continuity is vital. We recommend three year fixed terms with the possibility of a maximum term of nine years.
  • Accountability: In the event a governing body fails to deliver its obligations to the staff and pupils, then mechanisms should be in place to give the majority of parents the opportunity to vote to force a resignation of the Chair or - in extreme cases - full boards.

Finally, the formation of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Education Governance and Leadership, which I chair, is helping to follow through with these proposals and to develop new ideas.

This article originally appeared in the Autumn edition of Reformer, the TRG’s journal.