Structural change – aren’t you sick of it?

I posted the title to this blog just before Christmas 2016, and then left content until my freedom-economy-future-political-economy-600-420return to ‘thinking’ after Boxing Day. The raw emotion sown in the title arises is me simply because so much has been traduced by a variety of governments over the past decade in the quest for progress for no good reason; and in educational terms that means for so many in schools and colleges, new amounts of work have been created through the imposition of structural change, and not just once or twice, in recent years. Let me give you a couple of examples.

On the curriculum side, much has been substantially changed, and not just in terms of content but levels of difficulty. Making the curriculum more demanding, and raising the degree of challenge to the youngsters concerned is simply not a ‘bright’ thing to do. Consider the Early years. As we learn more about the vital importance on movement and interaction with their environment in the early years, a greater emphasis must be placed on ensuring children physically ready for school, because (guess what?) as our society has become even more sedentary, a higher percentage of children are now arriving at school without the physical development in place to permit them to benefit from ‘class’. Sitting kids_colouring_600x250still, tying shoe laces, managing their own toileting are no longer expectations teachers can have for the new intake at aged 4. As a close friend and expert in children’s development, Professor Pat Preedy has this to say: “Children today are moving less, they’re developing less well, and they’re learning less; we need to do something drastic to make sure children now and in the future get the movement they need to develop properly physically, intellectually and emotionally.”

Moving up the age levels, we see the challenge in Mathematics and Literacy being made more demanding at every age level from primary through secondary. The requirement for oecd-pisa-2016change comes because England is seen to be doing less well in the international PISA tables than over European and Asian nations. But changing the structure for the entire country is completely counter-intuitive, because many of our schools are already matching or outperforming these other nations, as data released by OECD themselves makes clear. But change has happened across all the key stages, and we won’t be able to judge the efficacy of this change for many years to come – one good or bad set of results for the country can’t be used to prove anything, as research needs to be longitudinal and spread over 5 years at least.  And it’s not just the toughening up of the core disciplines that’s the issue, but the narrowing of the curriculum with the loss of so many important supporting disciplines. With subjects such as Art, Design technology, Drama, Music and RS consigned to the perimeter in so many state schools, children won’t find out they have an academic interest in such disciplines in the same planned manner as before.  None of these changes have to make an impact upon the independent sector in which I work; it’s noticeable though that there is an increasing sense of separation from our sector to mainstream, encouraged by government themselves, suggesting that we should be doing far more to influence and support education within the mainstream. David Hanson, CEO of IAPS pointed out recently that poor parents were put off by negative stereotypes of private schools; “The media characterisation of private schools is so extreme and embedded through constant repetition that for ordinary people what they represent is not only unattainable, but also incomprehensible and alien.”

schools-that-work-for-everyoneAnd therein lies the rub. State and Independent school curricula and provision are moving in very different directions indeed, driven by the turmoil of structural change in the state sector. The best state schools will attract and retain the highest quality staff, and be able to offer great breadth and diversity of choice, subject and extra-curricular activity. But those schools that are not able to cope with these demands of structural change, exacerbated by continuing and dramatic budget cuts each year, are having their governing bodies excised and school leaders dismissed at an ever increasing frequency. The net effect is high staff turnover, low aspiration in achieving anything outside of the explicit demands of the ‘test’ and a general lack of confidence that the school more generally can meet all of its pupils’ needs. Suggesting now, as the Government’s Green Paper (November 2016) does, that the way forward involves further dramatic structural change, leading to the expansion of grammar schools at the expense of the other existing schools losing their most able pupils in the process will clearly exacerbate the decline in confidence and breadth of success in such schools. It’s worth noting that in a previous structural change, government insisted Universities were better placed to run schools than local governing bodies. The experiment is only a few years old, but all the evidence indicates the experiment is not going well. Moreover, as Professor Louise Richardson Vice Chancellor of Oxford University has made clear; asking universities to set up free schools is “insulting” to teachers and heads. Speaking to the Today programme on 22 September 2016, Professor Louise Richardson said forcing her institution to establish schools would be a “distraction from our core mission”, and said universities already helped the schools community in many ways, but running them was “not what we do”.

I’ve grabbed the picture to illustrate the paragraph above from, because the government’s proposals on ‘schools that work for everyone’ completely ignores the provision for those with disabilities – that’s circa 20% of the school population.  As their journalist John Pring writes; But there is not a single mention of disabled pupils in the consultation paper, and the Department for Education (DfE) has failed to carry out an equality impact assessment of its proposals. Inclusive education campaigners say that expanding grammar schools – secondary schools which select pupils via an entrance test – will discriminate against disabled children and lead to more segregated education in special schools.  And they say the plans are a clear breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, with new UN guidance making it clear that all segregated education should end and be replaced by “inclusive classroom teaching in accessible learning environments with appropriate supports”.  Now forgive me, dear reader; is it really permissible for one of the government’s great departments (DfE) to ignore the 2010 Equalities act, which legally protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society in quite such a flagrant manner?

The Government closed its Green Paper consultation on 12 December, and you can read my submission here – For me the biggest structural change impacting upon the school is the hollowing out of local authority services to an alarming degree. Those employees within RBWM with whom I have contact continue to offer professional services, but only where a statutory obligation to provide exists.  Alan Bennett, author, playwright alan-bennettand diarist has this to say on the 11 September 2015 (we received his latest book for Christmas): David Cameron has been in Leeds preaching to businessmen the virtues of what he calls ‘the smart state’. This seems to be a state that gets away with doing as little as possible for its citizens and shuffling as many responsibilities as it can onto anyone who thinks they can make a profit out of them.  I am glad there wasn’t a smart state when I was being brought up in Leeds, a state that was unsmart enough to see me and others like me educated free of charge and send on at the city’s expense to univeristy, provided with splendid libraries, cheap transport and a terrif art gallery, not of course to mention the city’s hospitals.  Smart to Mr Cameron seems to mean doing as little as one can get away with and calling it enterprise. Smart as in smart alec, smart of the smart answer, which I’m sure Mr Cameron has to hand. Dead smart.”

And there is the worry about structural change imposed upon communities, be they local or national, without sufficient due consideration given to the enormity of the changes needed to implement them, and the vast timescales that then ensue. The effect of the Education changes recently wrought with the changes to GCSEs and A levels won’t be seen for at least a decade; these whole scale changes were made in spite of the education community’s carefully considered opposition to them, so what’s worse is that those charged with their implementation are ‘pressed men’ not willing advocates. Do those of us in the independent sector see these changes as a good thing for the nation? You’ll know my view, and as the 2500 independent schools are precisely that, we can’t speak with ‘one’ voice. But you can judge us by our actions:

  • we are not reducing the breadth of our offer,
  • we are keeping up our very broad focus on the co-curricular,
  • teachers have the autonomy to teach, and encouraged to develop the mastery to match,
  • class sizes remain of human scale,
  • we’ll continue to provide for children from a very broad range of abilities,
  • we are using the very best of all approaches to  teaching and learning, blending traditional with modern, old technology with new, and above all,
  • we are keeping change for changes sake to the absolute minimum.

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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