“…for the twenty-first century we will have to do more than just improve literacy and numeracy skills.”

20 years ago, in the DfE white paper 1997 White Paper, Excellence in Schools, the DfEE wrote the following:” If we are to prepare successfully for the twenty-first century we will have to do more than just improve literacy and numeracy skills. We need a broad,
flexible and motivating education that recognises the different talents of all children and delivers excellence for everyone.”  From that position paper, a whole series of changes came about in UK schools, including the birthing a broader offer for Sixth Formers, Curriculum 2000, and the establishment of the sponsored academies programme. 20 years on, and almost all the ideas have either perished or had their day. A levels have been rolled back to be the 3 subject gold standard, the modular approach being abandoned in favour of terminal examinations, and the massive expansion of the Academies programme sees these new schools and their multi-academy trust structures to be no more effective than the local authorities they were to replace. You can read the Education Policy Institute (EPI) research on the latter here: http://epi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Academies-consolidated-presentation-FINAL.pdf

I write this blog update shortly after the declaration of the next general election, and the inevitable declaration by all parties that they will improve education further if elected. The current Conservative government have their next white paper ready to be published, and if the pollsters are to be believed, this White paper will soon see the light of day in early July. More structural change will be promised, including the establishment of new grammar schools and more Free schools, and the final pieces of the Excellence in Schools Agenda expunged.

It’s difficult to believe that successive governments want to reshape education when they come to power. Nothing seems ever to be left in place long enough to discern whether the ‘improvements’ planned are happening, and ‘evidence’ arising from schools and policy research departments ignore almost completely by the incoming successful politicians. At the time of writing, I have just listened to David Laws, the former Schools’ minister, now Chief Executive of the EPI speak at the ISA annual conference in York. In a frank discussion with us, he bemoaned the fact that politicians can force curriculum content change in schools, such as what History should be studied and what books should be read, despite all the evidence to the contrary of its efficacy.  He made specific mention of the abilities and frailties of Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education 220px-david_laws_mp_2008during the coalition government’s term of office, weaknesses including his determination to meddle in matters despite advice. Mr Laws worried his audience more than a little, at the spectre of a returning MG into DfE after this election, if only Theresa May could find it in her heart to forgive him!

The Prime Minister’s strapline for her party is to provide ‘strong and stable’ government. What’s clear from the international evidence is that great things are happening in our good schools, be they state or independent. The ‘best’ we have in our schools are performing at the same level as the best in China and the Far East in terms of academic attainment, AND in addition we are providing a really creative, well qualified graduate flow of skilled innovators into UK PLC. The failure of our education system to remove the long tail of poor achievement from those at the bottom of the economic spectrum is challenging indeed, but we won’t be able to tackle this solely in our state schools situated in those areas of the country where expectations for work and social improvement are low.

It’s interesting to note that schools local to RBWM also show long tails of low achievement, yet the area has very high employment statistics. And herein lies the rub: the growth of the ‘gig’ economy, lots of self-employment has helped bridge the employment gap, yet provides little in the way of opportunities for self-improvement to those so employed.  There are no apprenticeships in the ‘gig’ economy, and no investment then in the acquisition of additional skills that the workers could gain along the way.  We are currently advertising for permanent staff to join our household teams, and few applications arise simply because of the ‘full’ employment status of the area.  And of course, available workers, living elsewhere in the country cannot ‘get on their bikes’ to Maidenhead, because the availability and cost of accommodation makes relocation much more difficult.

The one major breakthrough on the horizon is the arrival of the modern apprenticeships, and as part of this exercise we have applied to become an Apprenticeship Training provider. With a school-full of well qualified teachers and instructors, we will be able to adjust our mission to include work-force development for all of our staff, whatever their role. The application process is tortuous, complex and opaque, perhaps to ensure that ‘fraudulent’ providers are discouraged. But I see a very real promise available that Claires Court can continue to contribute to ‘Excellence in Schools’ not just by serving its pupils as well as we do, but in addition by developing the skills of the non-academic work force we employ in similar manner. ‘Night school’ has largely disappeared, so re-birthing training opportunities for employees is an excellent way forward, and I hope to report that our efforts to ‘provide for apprentices’ has at long last been realised. That’s a positive result we expect to hear in June, whatever the outcomes of the General Election.

About jameswilding

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