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 strikes are wrong, but Conservatives mustn’t ignore the fears of the public sector

Giles Marshall 7.50am

For the first time in over twenty years, the school I teach in will be hit by industrial action today.

About half of its teachers, my colleagues, will be sacrificing a day’s pay to make their protest against the whittling away of their promised pension.

None of them are natural activists. All of them are dedicated professionals who will not have taken the decision to lose a day’s teaching lightly.

And, of course, as we all know, they are not alone. Across the full panoply of public services, strike action is taking place, often at considerable inconvenience to others. The strike is wrong and misconceived, but it is important to understand why now, of all times, it has generated such extraordinary support.

There will be no shortage of Conservatives happy to accept that the strike action is wrong. Their opinions will range from the slightly head-banging approach that tars all public servants as time wasters and scheisters in overly secure jobs for limited working hours who wouldn’t know a day’s real work if it came and blatted them across the face, to those who believe public servants have a genuine grievance but have chosen completely the wrong method at completely the wrong time. As a state school teacher who is working today, I fall – not surprisingly – into the latter group.

I do not waver in my belief that the strike action is not only altogether mistaken, but that it also severely harms the reputation and image of public servants. At a time when those in the private sector are suffering job insecurity, frozen or reduced incomes and all the hardships that come with a lengthy economic recession, the image of the state’s workers downing tools and parading through cities to demand that more of the private sector’s cash should be invested in our pensions is jarring indeed.

That we have jobs with a hefty level of security, and that we have pension pots which, no matter how reduced, still exist and to which we pay only a proportion of the actual contributions, are all factors which striking public sector workers have put too readily to the back of their minds.

At best, my colleagues are guilty of naivety. At worst, they are reminiscent of the most blinkered of the Greek protestors who felt that it was possible to maintain a hugely generous state payment system without regard to the state’s actual wealth.

A feature of the pension that teachers and others have ignored is that they contribute barely 10 per cent towards it. The contrast with the private sector – or parts of it at any rate – will be seen tomorrow at my school. While some of my colleagues are striking to improve their state funded pension arrangements, the builders constructing a new classroom block will be in at their usual early hour to carry on with the work of construction. In the construction industry today, you don’t lightly surrender the work that you have.

However, having established why the strike is erroneous, it is also important to know that the reasons behind it are not without serious foundation. Not for nothing has this action encouraged thousands of hitherto mild public sector workers out on strike.

The comparisons with the private sector – unhealthily mythologised in some parts of the Tory party – wear thin. It is the private sector, and notably its banking arm, that has got us into this mess in the first place.

While the hitherto contractually agreed pension arrangements of public sector workers have been ransacked by the government to help shore up its faltering economics, the rate of vast private sector bonuses and rewards continues unabated, even in those banks which might be seen as the cause of all the trouble. It isn’t easy for a public sector worker on a comparatively low income watching all of this to understand why their pension pot should be reduced but the inflated salaries and bonuses of bankers and corporate chiefs should continue unabated.

If the strike is wrong, but the concerns of public sector workers are not without foundation, what then has gone so awry in the body politic as to bring back a level of state disruption which we thought had disappeared in the 80s?

The issue seems to be, at least in part, one of serious lack of communication from the government, coupled with a lack of empathy for the public sector (most leading Conservative figures have made their way in the various manifestations of the private sector, whether it is party bureaucracies, family companies or self-built businesses).

The failure to communicate the real value of the public sector pension is a first base error; I suspect few of today’s strikers really appreciate this. The failure to hold out some sort of reform of the private sector financial industry is another. Public sector workers could more readily accept the mantra that “we’re all in it together” if there was a more serious effort on the part of government to show that that in fact is the case.

David Cameron and George Osborne will not be seriously hurt by today’s action – at least not politically, whatever alternative arrangements they may have had to make for their children’s schooling today. But if they want to head off a long, simmering dispute with their huge public sector, they need to avoid the temptation to succumb to the public sector bashing that exists in our party, and try and engage constructively with the large number of public employees who genuinely do undertake their jobs as a commitment to service and are looking for some sign that they are not simply deficit fodder.

The strike is wrong-headed certainly; but that doesn’t mean the fears of the public sector should be ignored.

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

Why the Conservatives could lose in 2015 unless we value the public sector

Paul Abbott 6.03am

A defining moment of the 2010 general election was when George Osborne, at a private meeting of candidates and volunteers, said: "We didn’t lose in 1997, 2001 and 2005 because a few thousand people went to fringe parties. No. We lost because millions of people went to Labour."

This is the most basic and fundamental political insight for the Conservative party. It should be writ large on the wall of every Minister, Member, think-tanker and researcher. It should scroll across our PC screensavers, and be inscribed on our mobile phones.

Why? Because as soon as we forget it, we will all be back in Opposition again for another thirteen years.

There is a strain of language out there today that confuses a desire to cut the deficit with a dislike of the pubic sector. Thus we hear constant attacks on Civil Service salaries, or libertarian fantasies about a no-holds-barred economy. We hear endless calls for tax cuts for millionaires, but not enough about tax cuts for the millions of people on ordinary wages.

This has to stop. Many low-paid workers voted Conservative in 2010. 
In fact, in June 2009, of the public sector workers questioned who were “certain to vote”, Ipsos MORI reported that 32 per cent would vote Conservative, 29 per cent for Labour and 19 per cent for the Lib Dems.

Everyone wants the public sector to be good value for money. Of course this means thinning out the quangos and endless back office administration. But surely we are happy to pay for positive outcomes? What is wrong with higher salaries for nurses, teachers, university lecturers, immigration personnel and police officers, if they are doing a good job? If we do not pay good wages, how else can we persuade bright young graduates to become public servants, rather than City solicitors?

There will inevitably be some hardliners who say that this argument is soft, liberal sogginess. To them, I say this: remember 1997. And 2001. And 2005.

There is nothing socialist about standing up for the admirable parts of the public sector. One of Tony Blair’s great domestic triumphs was to rebuild the public realm, which had been neglected in the 1990s. This was a large part of his electoral appeal.

The first political office that Margaret Thatcher held was in the Conservative Trade Unionists. One of her first acts as Prime Minister was to increase the wages of rank-and-file police officers.

Too many dodgy PFI deals were struck and billions of pounds were wasted, but there was a genuine public appetite for things like better motorways and more police officers. Such public policies should not solely be championed by the Left.

This is so often merely a matter of emphasis. Many Conservative Ministers are already quietly finding ways to reward deserving public sector workers. Academies and Free Schools can pay good teachers more than the national union rate. Nurses can set up co-operatives and have a stake in the success of their clinic. George Osborne has protected the pensions of the lowest paid civil servants, and boosted their income by £250, despite a general pay-freeze. There are lots of other examples. But we need to make more of them. Champion them.

I accept that Britain is still too dominated by the public sector, and that we need to rebalance our economy. I accept that Labour wasted our money, and hopelessly ran up debts. I accept that Ed Balls in particular seems to have an almost criminal disregard for our financial stability.

But we are in Government now. It is our public sector. We should look after it.

Follow Paul on Twitter @Paul_t_abbott

Ending the pension time bomb

Alexander Clark 6.30am

David Cowan (of this parish) wrote a piece on Monday posing the idea of creating a ‘star chamber’ to conduct annual spending reviews. The purpose of the spending reviews would be to reduce government spending by five percent per year over a period of five years. Interestingly, David proposed that fifty percent of the composition of the chamber might consist of randomly selected UK citizens. This would serve to reflect the will of the people as well as to ensure that the Government prioritised spending on those things considered most important by the country as a whole.  Unfortunately recent experience has shown there are limits as to how far people are prepared to forgo their own personal interests for the sake of a collective interest.

 Last week’s public sector strikes provided a demonstration of the difficulties sometimes faced by democracies in resolving national problems (an even better example of this can be seen in Greece at present).  It is difficult to establish a political consensus in a society as diverse and fractured as the UK. Last week revealed a further fault line in our economy – the private vs. the public sector.  The economy is the key concern for the UK and consequently the size and cost of the public sector has now come under scrutiny by the increasingly cash-strapped taxpayer.

The UK economy is broadly characterised by a large private sector in south-east England, based on services that generate tax revenues which support other parts of the UK where the public sector is the main local employer.  This situation creates difficulties for any Government seeking to reduce spending in the public sector.  A sudden cut in jobs would cause wide-spread misery and hardship for many parts of the UK.  Consequently, the Government has sought to target a major fiscal liability whose reduction will not have an immediate effect on employment; public sector pensions.

 Having correctly identified the potential time bomb for the UK economy in the form of unfunded public sector pensions, the Government has now begun to implement changes in the way these pensions are funded and accrued.

Last week’s strikers were rightly concerned (from their perspective) that their pension provisions would soon go the way of dodo. Increasingly, public sector workers will find that their pension arrangements mirror those in the private sector. In other words, an end to final salary schemes, a reduction in employer (in this case the state) contributions and a raising of the retirement age.

Given the very high levels of debt facing the UK, one would hope that a rational person would conclude that government spending must be reduced as a priority.  Is it really rational for 600,000 public sector workers to dispute this? Of course, when challenged directly, the answer given is that public sector benefits should continue and that taxes should be raised or that the banking sector should be forced to pay.  This was the prevailing view amongst last week’s strikers, that their generous pensions must be paid by other people regardless of the impact such unfairness has on the rest of the country’s finances.  A debt star chamber made up of such narrow mindedness would exacerbate the country’s fiscal woes rather than diminish them. 

If left to continue down its present course, the public sector pensions burden will continue to grow and take up an ever increasing portion of government spending. In the long-term, this is neither in the interests of public sector workers nor those in the rest of the economy. It remains to be seen whether the Government and trade unions will be able to reach an amicable agreement or whether the empty public purse will dictate a more realistic solution.

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Damaging strikes

Alexander Pannett 7.00am

Today it is estimated that about 600,000 civil servants and teachers will be striking over planned pension changes that will require them to work longer and pay more to pensions.  A third of schools will be open, a third of schools with be partially affected and a third of schools will be closed.

On Tuesday’s debate in the House of Commons, Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, made the following statement about the strikes.

The Government are currently in discussion with trade unions representing public sector workers to reach a fair deal on pension reform. Our proposals draw on the widely praised report from Lord Hutton, who was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions under the previous Government. The state of the economy that we inherited and major demographic changes mean that reform is vital. We want to ensure that all public sector workers enjoy pensions that are among the best available, but we need to balance that with fairness to other taxpayers. Talks between the Treasury and the TUC yesterday made real progress, which is why it is so regrettable that two of the classroom unions are planning industrial action this Thursday. This action is unnecessary while talks are still going on, will cause massive inconvenience to hard-working families and will hit working women particularly hard.

In order to minimise the impact of the strike on working parents, I wrote last week to all local authorities, as the employers of teachers, and to all schools, emphasising their duty to keep schools open wherever possible. In response to requests from governors, I also laid out the flexibilities at the disposal of schools to ensure that they stay open. Schools can vary staff-pupil ratios, they can depart from the national curriculum and they can draw on voluntary support from the wider community, with those who have been checked by the Criminal Records Bureau able to provide particular help. Nothing can replace the great teaching offered by gifted professionals, but I would far rather see schools staying open and offering a restricted curriculum than see hard-working families having to lose a day’s pay or paying for ad hoc and expensive last-minute child care.

With the Labour front bench also criticising the strikes as unnecessary before negotiations between unions and the government over pension reform have finished, the unions involved should be ashamed of the disruption they are causing to both children’s education and the vital talks.  The UK population is getting older and the credit crunch has left us with fewer resources to pay for retirement.  To ask taxpayers to pay for unsustainable, final salary pension schemes for a privileged few is outrageous and unfair.  It is also particularly galling that children will suffer as schools are closed by strikers.  Surely events in Greece have demonstrated the myopic lunacy of strike action during a fiscal crisis.

The unions should concentrate more on working with government and businesses to find work for the worryingly high numbers of young unemployed rather than wasting their energy on prizes that there is no longer public money to pay for.

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