Sunday, February 19, 2012

Educational Transformation in England - Disaster in the Making?

Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education in England and Conservative MP for Surrey-Heath, is quietly presiding over the biggest transformation of schools in England since the comprehensive reform program of Harold Wilson’s governments in the 1960’s. There are now 1,529 academy schools (including 45% of all public secondary schools), fully outside of local government control, compared to 200 when the Conservative-Liberal coalition came to power in 2010. They've been joined by 24 “free schools”, set up by parents, charities and other groups also outside of local democratic control. In January 2012 the for-profit Swedish company IES UK was awarded a £21m, ten-year contract by Gove to manage a free school in Suffolk - to be known as IES Breckland. As the New Statesman magazine observes, “competition, choice and autonomy are the watchwords of the Gove education agenda”.

His strategy is to seek to restore the traditional educational curriculum, reduce inequality and raise the overall standards of schooling. He is also gradually “de-nationalizing” (read privatizing) the public education system. The dismantling of the General Teaching Council, the Training and Development Agency for Schools and the Support Staff Negotiating Body can all be seen as evidence that England's school workforce is being made more manageable, less professional and cheaper. Given that people costs represent 80% of the costs of the system (approximately), lowering these costs is a pre-requisite for profitability.

The New Statesman reports that confidential documents on the coalition's outsourcing reforms, drawn up by senior civil servants and released under a Freedom of Information request in July 2011, reveal how private providers of public services such as education "will compete on price but quality may suffer" and notes how greater choice and competition require "provider exit as well as entry, but exit of providers (eg, school closure) may be controversial and unpopular".

Why Reform?

Gove begins with the view that “rich thick kids do better than poor clever children when they arrive at school [and] the situation as they go through [schooling] gets worse”, with the system favouring the advantaged over the disadvantaged and the performance gaps are increasing. His solution to this is to focus on standards, choice and competition so as to drive up performance. He sees little role for local democracy in this work.

He also notes Britain’s poor showing on international assessments, especially PISA and suggests that it will take more than a decade for the results of his reforms to be fully evident in these assessments. It’s a safe bet that he will not be Secretary of State for Education in 2022 if indeed his party is in Government at that time.

“Back to the Future” Reforms?

In a November 2010 Government White Paper, The Importance of Teaching, Gove declared reforms would include the compulsory study of foreign languages up to the age of 16, and a shake-up of league tables in which schools are ranked higher for the number of pupils taking GCSEs in five core subjects: English; mathematics; science; a language; and one of the humanities. He also announced that targets for educational outcomes are to be introduced for primary schools for the first time. His curriculum reforms seek to restore the study of Shakespeare, Keats and other “greats” to English studies and demands a stronger focus on the more rigorous teaching of science, technology and mathematics. He is also reforming vocational education, downgrading a great many courses. From 2014, the Government will remove GCSE-equivalent status from 96% of the vocational qualifications currently available to students in England. The 125 courses which retain this status will be only worth up to one GCSE each – some are currently worth two or more.

Additionally, trainee teachers will spend more time in the classroom, there would be more assessment of teacher training applicants—including tests of character and emotional intelligence. Teachers are also expected to receive guidance on how to search pupils for more items, including mobile phones and pornography, and when they can use force. He accuses teachers of grade inflation and is seeking to make school assessments and public examinations more rigorous. Teachers would be freed up through a radical reduction in the size of the obligatory part of the national curriculum, but would be expected to achieve continuous improvement in outcomes over time.

Schools will be considered to be "underperforming" if fewer than 35% of pupils achieve five good GCSEs (those graded A* to C). Currently, the level is 30% and, based on 2009 data, the change would mean 439 schools would be classed as underperforming. Mr Gove has already announced extra funding to allow struggling schools to be taken over by successful heads. He has also warned that he is ready to use powers enshrined in the Academies Act passed in 2010, to force such schools to become academies under new management, including private sector companies.

So What?

Despite their best efforts at gaming exam results, the latest GCSE data shows academies performing worse in most cases than their community school counterparts. The same goes for the much-vaunted corporate-run Swedish and US schools the coalition is so keen to emulate. A forthcoming IPPR survey of the international research underlines the fact that both that non-commercial schools outperform for-profit providers and that the competitive private education markets favoured by the UK coalition Government are not a route to better results.

In her review of my colleague Pasi Sahlberg’s book Finnish Lessons – What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland, Dianne Ravich notes that:

“No nation in the world has eliminated poverty by firing teachers or by handing its public schools over to private managers; nor does research support either strategy. But these inconvenient facts do not reduce the reformers’ zeal. The new breed of school reformers consists mainly of Wall Street hedge fund managers, foundation officials, corporate executives, entrepreneurs, and policymakers, but few experienced educators. The reformers’ detachment from the realities of schooling and their indifference to research allow them to ignore the important influence of families and poverty.”

Some of the people behind these reform efforts in the UK were formerly responsible for the state of UK public education. For instance, propelled Zenna Atkins from chair of the UK’s schools' inspectorate OFSTED to become chief executive of the private Wey Education, now setting up free schools. Sir Bruce Liddington, former schools commissioner, is today director general of the private academy chain E-ACT. The £2 billion education service sector is about to get a lot bigger, with no impact likely on educational outcomes for the poor or those disadvantaged by geography.

Evidence driving policy is clearly not something we are likely to see here. The Secretary of State himself shows his ignorance frequently – recently attributing the laws of thermodynamics to Newton. He also claims Alberta is a role model for many of the reforms he is pursuing, when in fact Alberta would not recognize these reforms at all – almost all schools in Alberta are public schools, administered by elected school boards (see a great film exposing Grove’s false claims at

Its time to demand quality public education, professionally managed by highly skilled and professional teachers and administrators, locally overseen by democratically elected Boards with a focused curriculum. Its time for us to give schools back to teachers.

1 comment:

toddy said...

it is really a good matter to talk on the 5 basic subjects as without it proper education is really impossible for the students.With the concern i wanna talk on the topics like Study English in UK ...