Almost every year in some form or other, I get to work with, meet or otherwise engage with a senior politician of government hue to discuss the politics of education. This year, in my capacity as Chairman of a national professional development committee of one of the Heads Associations, I invited the local MP, John Redwood to speak to 100 or so headteachers at a study conference, partly because it was held in his constituency.
Now before I tell tales, it must be said we have enjoyed a ripping day or so of intellectual cut and thrust, being presented to by figures drawn from other think-tanks involved in developing this nation’s educational agenda. The Sutton trust presented their recent finding of what makes for the most effective teaching and learning in schools. The Principal of one of the coalition’s new free schools in London gave a great pen portrait of the trials and tribulations of going from drawing board to school assembly in less than 6 months. Google’s leader in Education in these parts of the world highlighted the challenges facing our schools and his great company in 2012. Experienced educators, heads and senior managers heard much to stimulate and inspire.
As Mr Redwood’s host, I have to remain polite and detached. Indeed he probably didn’t put a foot wrong, stepping carefully through the very many mines the top stream present laid to catch him out. He was very clear that the views he expressed were those of a back bench conservative politician, rather than a coalition spokesman, though he and Michael Gove it appears are pretty adjacent in terms of educational philosophies. He spoke for the best part of an hour, without notes and covered the whole piece of education stretch & challenge without repetition, deviation or hesitation. Sadly though, he left his audience completely unmoved, for Mr Redwood failed to include any evidence based research to back up his trenchant, right wing, pro-selection for secondary school etc. views.
Regular readers of my blog will know that I ‘do’ evidence-based research. Indeed the story of the last decade is that failure to use such knowledge in decision making gets you into a pretty large amount of trouble. Witness the Iraqi war and the international banking collapse as 2 examples of governmental failure. A former parent and scrutineer from the FSA had been warning all about the bundling of derivatives to no avail for years; but the public mood of high office was not to declare ‘the emperor has no clothes’ but live with the benefits of growth, come what may – in short take the taxes now, borrow long and cross the fingers!
It’s not either that I hadn’t given the MP for Wokingham a very clear briefing. “You will be talking to far more primary and prep school heads than heads with 6th Forms. Please don’t bang on about the failure of A and GCSEs levels (they are changing anyway, we are awaiting outcomes from summer consultations) to lift the underprivileged to Oxbridge etc. Do have another look (I had pleaded) at the extraordinary mismatch in independent and state school performance and understand where the divide starts; namely in the early and junior years at primary school. No educational evidence in the world indicates there is value using one teachers to teach all the subjects. Diversity and breadth of activity and focus is what leads to the development of curious minds and committed engagement”.
AS our hour progressed, the whole of the education system below the age of 11 was left untouched, as if in perfect shape. Instead, the rhetoric spoke almost wholly of the need to select so that the better children could do better; “We select our best sportsmen for the world cup and the cricket team, why on earth should we not select our best pupils so that they too can be coached to that high standard we need and bring back success to all areas of the country. After all (he went on) only bright children from grammar and independent schools get to Oxbridge”. The Vulcan Smiled.
The current stats are that 54% of Oxford pupils come from the state sector and 59% of Cambridge’s. Now despite difficulties, that’s a healthy percentage, and growing each year, with a majority also coming from non-selective schools. To be honest, the issue is not about selection, but about the failure of state education to raise aspiration across the piece for all of their children – here I quote Dr Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group. This spring, she said “universities in my group will continue to do everything possible to increase participation from under-represented groups”. She added: “The issues of low aspirations, lack of high-quality advice and guidance and, most importantly, under-achievement at school still remain significant barriers to participation and can only be tackled by agencies and institutions across the board.”
And there is the rub; whose been in charge of education for the last half-century? Politicians, no, civil servants yes, and the DfE now in 2012 is no more fit for purpose than the Home Office or the Border Control Agency. The diet of low quality, narrow subject based curricula, excessively focussed on English and Maths from far too early (5) to age 11 has produced cohort after cohort of children whose attainment has plateaued. That’s not to say that good children can’t thrive, because they can, despite the poverty of their diet, because they have so much support and enrichment coming from their home environment. No it’s precisely the cohort that misses out at secondary that is missing out at primary, those without family support. Where’s the sport, the arts, the after school clubs that stretch and challenge, the mix of teachers and engagement of specialists?
I am told that the new pupil premium for those new junior schools that are seeking to provide really good provision as ‘free’ or ‘academy’ centres of learning receive both capital sums for building and for equipment plus funding up to £8000 a head per year current account to ensure they make a success as alternatives to the current state sector diet. Well I can assure you that great local independent schools such as Claires Court do just that and at lower cost already. Unlike the unproven new school, ours are independently proven (PISA study 2009) to form the world’s best schools. Ah, there’s a thing – evidence to prove our case, but sadly not the stuff that this or previous governments are interested in using. At the conclusion of his talk, Mr Redwood was honest enough to say that he knew little about the junior years, but he’d pass my comments on to Mr Gove. I’ll wait by my phone then!