Britain combines some of the best universities in the World with secondary schools which seriously under-perform in comparison with schools in other countries. According to studies by the OECD, the UK comes bottom or second to bottom (after the US) out of 24 advanced democracies in terms of the proportion of 16-18 year-olds who are competent in reading, writing and basic mathematics. An education system that creates opportunities for all must be at the centre of any programme to build a fair and prosperous Britain.
Employer surveys underline that good literacy and numeracy are key factors in recruitment. Those who lack these skills risk spending the rest of their lives at a crippling disadvantage in the world of work and in every other aspect of their lives. Improving educational outcomes will also be crucial in building a modern, knowledge-based economy and keeping pace with competitors in Europe and Asia. Regenerating pre-18 education is not just a matter of reforming failing structures and increasing resources but also of raising expectations among people from disadvantaged backgrounds and of taking a commitment to learning out of the classroom and into the wider community.
While funding is the most immediate problem, under-performance also results from longer-term issues which are unique to Britain. Since the 1980s, state schools have been subjected to far-reaching restructuring that has taken responsibility for many of them away from county and borough councils and parents, transferring it to private sector and not-for-profit religious organisations. This has been done by converting local authority schools into “academies” and encouraging the establishment of so-called “free schools” based on a neo-conservative conviction that private sector sponsored schools will automatically perform better than schools run by qualified local authority professionals, teachers and parents.
In keeping with their conservative beliefs, ministers have made clear that this drive is not just intended to raise standards but also to promote “traditional values”. The policy was copied from experiments in the United States and was introduced without any serious attempt to assess it against alternative strategies. It was promoted by Conservative and Labour Governments in the face of widespread hostility from parents and teachers and has not achieved the promised improvement in standards or been effective in addressing educational disadvantage either in the UK or in Sweden, where similar experiments were conducted. The US has achieved outstanding results in many aspects of life but, dogma apart, why any politician should have thought it sensible to address the failings of British schooling by copying from what, according to OECD findings, is the worst publicly-funded education system in the developed world is hard to understand.
Research by Angel Solutions into 429 council maintained schools rated inadequate by the Office of Standards in Education (Ofsted) in 2013 showed that 75% of those remaining under local authority control had improved to good or excellent compared to only 59% of those which converted to academies. Despite this, the Government ruled in 2016 that in future, all schools rated inadequate must become sponsor-led academies. Millions of pounds worth of precious capital investment has been re-directed from priority maintenance and renovation work to fund eye-catching enhancements designed to encourage parents to vote for their children’s schools to convert to academies. At the same time, the fragmentation and hands-off supervision which are fundamental features of the system, have resulted in a series of scandals involving the misuse of resources and discriminatory behaviour towards applicants and pupils.
Radical Reform Proposes:
- Structure and Accountability
- Making the Most of Resources
- High and Consistent Standards
- Ofsted and Quality Control
- Tolerance and Mutual Respect
Structure and Accountability
Replacing local authority-run schools with academies funded directly from London has led to fragmentation, a loss of local accountability, the legitimisation of discriminatory selection processes, wasteful duplication and a shift in investment from schools in greatest need to those becoming academies. It is important that lessons are learnt both from the failings of the old system and from the experiments of recent years, and that disruption caused by constant restructuring is minimised. But it is also clear that if the problems facing our schools are to be resolved, far-reaching changes will be needed.
As a first step, all schools and bodies involved in education should be required to comply with the principles of freedom of information and should be made accountable for their use of taxpayers’ money in a transparent way. Controls should be tightened to ensure that the material benefits that individuals and organisations receive for running schools are reasonable and that they are prevented from profiting from the supply of goods or services. Discriminatory selection processes should be banned and all schools required to collaborate to reduce the extent to which pupils from poorer homes are concentrated in particular schools.
We believe that no further academies should be created and that existing academies and “free” schools should be returned from private managers to democratic control, starting with those that have failed to deliver improvements. Large schools and federations of smaller schools would then be managed by governing bodies made up of head teachers, teaching professionals and parents, backed up with specialist knowledge and experience.
In the first instance, control should be returned to the existing county and unitary authorities. They should be given the powers and the resources needed to plan, commission and monitor all publicly funded schools in their areas, to address shortages of places and to intervene to turn around failing schools. Thereafter, strategic responsibility for all publicly funded schools should be vested in elected regional education authorities with the resources to ensure effective management and supervision.
Making the Most of Resources
Resources which currently go directly to academies and free schools in England from the Department for Education should be channelled through the existing Regional Commissioners for Education, who should be brought under local democratic oversight. School funding principles should be reformed to ensure that sufficient resources are made available such that all children have the opportunity to realise their potential, with additional funding for schools serving disadvantaged areas.
As a result of cuts in their budgets, local authorities are being forced to reduce funding for pupils with Special Educational Needs in many parts of the country, a policy which is both cruel and short-sighted. The highest priority should be given to restoring funding for professional support for this group of particularly vulnerable young people. Beyond that, a major and sustained increase in funding will be needed if Britain is to catch up with other advanced economy countries in terms of pre-18 educational outcomes.
Because of rising pupil numbers, funding foreseen by the Government would involve a reduction per pupil of 2.8% over the period to 2020, further increasing workloads and worsening the already unacceptable level of strain on teachers. Extra finance needs to be made available to address this immediate threat.
Additional resources must be provided year on year to fully reflect changing demographic demands and to fund a determined effort to tackle inequalities between different regions and communities. A specific priority should be tackling high teacher turnover in schools in disadvantaged areas. With this aim, the Government should agree ways of incentivising teachers to make a longer-term commitment to such schools with the profession.
Content and Standards
Core areas of knowledge that are essential for pupils when they enter the world of work and for building a modern economy, including language skills, maths and science, should be made compulsory in all schools through the introduction of a real national curriculum. At the same time, the view that education is basically a business and pupils, customers, rather than a means to empower them and encourage them to develop their own abilities and individuality and enrich their lives, should be vigorously challenged. Evidence-based policy-making and learning from best practice in the UK and abroad should be promoted by supporting the expansion of university-based research and by expanding the functions of the Chartered College of Teachers.
Measures should be taken to raise morale and professional standards in teaching by reviewing and guaranteeing the current Teachers Standards through the Chartered College of Teachers. This should be done in conjunction with local authorities and the proposed regional educational authorities and should involve higher entry qualifications, more demanding teacher education, stage attainment targets and provision for enhanced career development opportunities and improved pay and conditions.
Initiatives are needed to promote collaboration between schools, to encourage mentoring, to share best practice and to encourage mutual support in helping all schools to become good schools. Developing an enhanced role for head teachers and school governors should play a part in this. In rural areas, efforts should be made to bring primary schools together into federations, as is already being done in Nottinghamshire, with a single governing body taking responsibility for more than one school to give small village schools access to the resources and support they need to survive.
Mutual support between parents should also be promoted, focusing on preparing infants and children for school and helping all mothers and fathers play a constructive role in supporting learning and appropriate behaviour. An important element of this should involve empowering children to protect themselves in an informed way from threats involving dangerous drugs, sexual vulnerability and abusive aspects of the internet.
Ofsted and Quality Control
School inspectors should remain a national responsibility under the Office of Standards in Education (Ofsted) with the emphasis on school change and development. Steps should be taken to make sure that local education authorities (and, once they are established, the proposed regional authorities) have the resources and skills to ensure that improvements recommended as a result of inspections are implemented and embedded.
Any serious attempt to raise educational standards must be informed by a properly resourced system of monitoring and evaluation. Since 2010, the funding for Ofsted has been severely cut. While failing schools are inspected regularly until they achieve Good or Excellent status, schools rated Good or Excellent are now only inspected every ten years, allowing the Government to claim steady improvement, while in reality some schools whose standards have declined simply go unreported for many years.
As a result, parents are denied information they need if they are to make informed choices about their children’s education, school heads, governors and managers are not alerted to emerging problems and the public are given a picture of progress which does not reflect the true situation. To address this problem, regular inspections for Good and Excellent schools should be reintroduced and real terms funding for Ofsted restored to the level which applied prior to the 2010 election. As part of this, Ofsted should be reinforced and restructured to allow it to play an important role in promoting evidence-based policy making and learning from best practice in this country and abroad without compromising its existing role in inspecting schools and teacher training.
Tolerance and Mutual Respect
Parents should decide the philosophical framework within which their children are raised. Students should be helped to acquire a balanced understanding of different religions, philosophies and cultural traditions through the curriculum without the school promoting one system of belief above others. Current legislation requires every school (apart from “faith schools”) to provide “a daily collective Act of worship of a broadly Christian nature”. Religious education under the 1944 Education Act is compulsory in all schools and this is the only compulsory subject in academies. Faith schools can control their intake and provide religious instruction, which may either be Christian or, subject to government approval, in another religion.
All parents should be given the option of choosing a secular alternative for the ethical component of their children’s education and all publicly funded schools should be required to make proper provision to meet this need. Research published by the National Secular Society in December 2018 showed that some 50,000 families live in areas where the three closest primary schools are faith schools and a further 136,000 in areas where two out of three of the nearest primary schools are, with faith schools accounting for 53% of all primary schools in rural areas. Almost 8,000 children in September 2018 were allocated to faith schools against their parents’ first choice wishes. Meanwhile, in a recent poll for Opinium, 58% of respondents said that taxpayers should not be obliged to fund faith schools.
The law allows parents to withdraw their children from religious education but many do not take advantage of this right because they lack confidence, want their children’s education to have an ethical component and no non-religious option is provided, or because they do not want them to be singled out. This clearly discriminates against the majority of the population who are not religious or who adhere to minority systems of belief. Giving some schools the right to control their intake along religious lines and requiring all schools to provide religious worship divides communities. It also involves politicians taking decisions on what does, and does not, constitute a legitimate religion, which, arguably, is not an appropriate function for them in a democratic country.
By the same measure, all pupils in publicly funded schools should be protected against requirements which reflect social engineering rather than educational objectives and which go beyond reasonable practical justification. There may be good reasons why a school may wish to lay down minimum standards of dress but, within such parameters, pupils should not be subjected to intrusive and potentially humiliating dress codes stipulating, for example, the wearing of ties or that girls should wear skirts rather than trousers.
Preparing for Adult Life
The Government has recently taken welcome steps to strengthen the requirement for sex and relationships education in schools. Unfortunately, at the same time, it yielded to pressure to dilute this requirement in the case of religious schools, thus denying a group of children including some who are likely to be most in need, their entitlement to information essential for taking informed decisions which will shape their future lives. All schools should be required to provide impartial, evidence-based sex and relationships education for all pupils, based on a framework agreed at the national level and taking account of the positive and negative aspects of engagement with social media.
SUMMARY OF PROPOSALS
Structure and Accountability
- require all school managers to comply with the principles of freedom of information and be publicly accountable for their use of taxpayers’ money;
- ensure material benefits that individuals receive for running schools are reasonable;
- transfer control from private sector academy and free school managers to oversight by local and regional representatives, teachers, education professionals and parents;
- empower elected representatives to plan, commission and monitor publicly funded schools, address shortages of places and intervene to turn around failing schools;
- thereafter, vest strategic responsibility for all publicly funded schools in elected regional education authorities with the resources to ensure effective management and supervision;
- end discriminatory selection processes and require all schools to collaborate to avoid pupils from poorer homes being concentrated in particular schools.
- provide immediate additional funding to end the current cuts and fully reflect rising pupil numbers and higher costs;
- for the longer term, commit to a sustained policy of increasing funding for schools in real terms year on year;
- initially, channel resources which now go to academies and free schools directly from the Department for Education, through the Regional Commissioners for Education and bring them under local democratic oversight;
- reform school funding principles to allow all children to realise their potential by tackling inequalities between regions and increasing resources for schools serving disadvantaged communities.
Content and Standards
- develop a robust national curriculum covering all schools, encompassing language, numeracy, science, history, citizenship and ethics;
- promote evidence-based policy-making and learning from best practice in the UK and abroad by increasing support for university-based research and expanding the functions of the Chartered College of Teachers;
- support an increased role for the Chartered College in raising morale and professional standards;
- promote collaboration involving all schools to provide a framework for mentoring, shared best practice and initiatives to ensure all schools are good schools, with emphasis on the role of head teachers and school governors;
- support initiatives to engage parents in ensuring their children are ready for school and are equipped to support their learning and behaviour at school;
- review current Teachers Standards, and support higher entry qualifications, more demanding teacher education, reduced workloads, stage attainment targets, better pay and conditions and enhanced career development opportunities.
Ofsted and Quality Control
- maintain school inspectors as a national responsibility under Ofsted with the emphasis on school change and development;
- ensure that local education authorities (and once established, the proposed regional authorities) have the resources and skills to ensure that improvements recommended by inspectors are implemented and embedded;
- restore funding for Ofsted to the pre-2010 level in real terms
- re-establish regular inspections of schools rated good and excellent and ensure monitoring and evaluation are properly resourced;
- reinforce and restructure Ofsted to allow it to play an important role in promoting evidence-based policy making and learning from best practice in this country and abroad.
Tolerance and Mutual Respect
- ensure all parents can choose a secular alternative for the ethical component of their children’s education and require all publicly funded schools to make proper provision to meet this need;
- help students acquire a balanced understanding of different religions, philosophies and cultural traditions through the curriculum without promoting one system of belief above the others;
- require all schools to provide broad-based sex and relationships education for all pupils based on a framework agreed at the national level.