The political approach to education in England is clearly a mess, and the current government's headlong rush into unknown territory is getting worse by the day. No one is quite sure what is likely to happen to curricula and assessment in schools in September this year, never mind next year or the year after. Schools which have been handed to private companies are adrift on oceans of uncertainty. OFSTED has lost any hold it might have had over its employees or its contractors, and I’ve shown that the accountability structure which has been developed over the 22 years since it was established has become a ridiculous, unfair and bullying disaster. Every man and his dog seems to be chipping in to try to shore up the biggest holes in the hull, but the good ship education is listing badly.
But things could be different. It doesn’t have to be this way.
A few years ago, I got to spend a few days finding out about education in France. I was part of a delegation of teachers and head teachers from the city where I live, and we were given the opportunity to visit schools, sit in on lessons, meet children, discuss similarities and differences between English and French schools with French teachers and to meet some of those responsible for providing public education in France.
The English delegation was curious to begin with. The more we began to find out about the system in France, the more bemused and confused we became. Inspections of teachers, not schools? No assemblies, sports teams or ‘school community’? No differentiation, little ICT, primary schools which were more like English secondaries? No head teachers? No league tables, competition between schools or public ‘accountability’?
The whole system of education in France is completely different to the system in England. Just about the only thing schools have in common is that they are called schools and they have teachers and children. Almost everything else is unlike our system, on every level, in every detail. It seemed like we’d visited an alternative universe, where nobody had ever heard of a Learning Objective, a WALT or a WILF, much less a ‘learning style,’ a plenary or a ‘level’.
The English delegation began to ask each other how the two countries compared internationally. Given that the English system - based on data, OFSTED, socialisation and school communities - is so utterly different to the French model, surely there must be clear differences. One had to better than the other. Surely?
When I returned to England, I had a look. I searched and searched to find out what had been researched and written. I looked at PISA and TIMMS, at international comparisons and indicators. I looked at books written by expat French writers living in England, and English writers living in France. I spoke to friends and acquaintances who had experience of each system. In the end, my research boiled down to this:
- People spend about the same amount of time in full time education in both countries (16.4 Years of 'School Life Expectancy').
- People get to roughly the same level of education in both countries (2.7 years of Tertiary education).
- Economically, we are very similar, with similar levels of poverty and wealth (around mid thirties on the World Bank's GINI index).
- There is no real difference in outcome between an English and a French education, despite the two having virtually nothing in common.
Let’s take a short trip around the world
I grew up abroad, and didn’t return to England until I was in my teens. The education systems to which I was subjected were influenced by English ideals, but there were significant differences. For example, I didn’t eat lunch at school and never had a half term. I had subject teachers in upper primary and spent endless lessons copying and regurgitating facts seated in rows ordered by results of the most recent test in each subject. Other countries do things differently, as the French example above demonstrates.
Here’s a bit more information about France. There are no standardised tests or public examinations in primary schools. None whatsoever.
But what of countries other than France? Are they more like England?
Most of the information above is taken from the excellent ‘Report of the NAHT Commission on Assessment.’ This was undertaken when the Department for Education announced a consultation into assessment in England last summer, of which more below.
In short, England has a ridiculously data-driven 'accountability' system compared to just about every other country you could mention.
So we must be brilliant with all our testing and competition between schools, eh?
International comparisons, beloved of English politicians and journalists, are disputed by many academics. That said, it is worth looking at what the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has found to see if it sheds any light. PISA ‘aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students’; not primary school children, by the way. Most countries let their children be children.
Ignoring the dubious findings for selected city states in China and other fast-changing areas of south-east Asia, most 'developed' countries are not that different, with scores centred around an average of just below 500 points on the PISA scale. For the countries I’ve mentioned above, the reported values for 2012 were as follows.
France 495 505
Finland 519 524
United Kingdom 494 499
Germany 514 508
Japan 536 538
I’m not exactly sure what this tells you, other than that, whatever politicians, journalists and the chatterati think, there’s very little difference between these countries despite their vastly different systems of education. And our system of assessing and publishing results at aged 7, 11, 16 and 18, and inspecting schools based on dubious Not Even Wrong data doesn't seem to have made us any different.
So how did England end up with our Data Driven Disaster?
The NAHT report mentioned above has a useful brief history of England’s national curriculum assessment and reporting. As many working in education will know, the state started to poke its nose into education in the 1970s. James Callaghan was the first politician to really suggest that schools should be held ‘accountable’ by politicians, and his generation were the first to really believe the Great Meritocracy Lie, which I'll come back to next week.
The Education Reform Act of 1988 sank its teeth further into schools, resulting in levels, key stages, external tests for 7, 11 and 14 year olds, OFSTED and all manner of nonsense which is still having repercussions today. It’s worth reading the History section of the NAHT report to see how much assessment has chopped and changed, as politicians have tried to chase the chimera of ‘bad’ schools and teaching, ignoring the great big elephant in the room: The relative levels of poverty and ability in school communities which means that the well off and more able will always get better academic results, whatever the system. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic in its consequences for the educational experience of a generation of school children.
“The most sweeping educational reforms this century, it transpires, (were) guesswork, personal whim and bare-knuckle politics. And that, in turn, is part of a wider and more alarming paradox: that the politics of education are built on foundations of ignorance. There are core questions which have never been answered. Sometimes this is because there is a shortage of hard information, how do children learn; what is the best age to begin schooling; should children sit exams at sixteen? () This vacuum of understanding frequently is filled by political ideology.”
“Lord Baker may laugh, but it is striking how many of his reforms were rooted in whim. He says that when he took over from Sir Keith Joseph there was no grand plan.” Baker was simply told to, “go away for a month and come up with something. So he did.”
The history of educational reform since Kenneth Baker’s tenure as Secretary of State in charge of education has been similarly whimsical. We have had sweeping changes from all three major parties, by politicians a varied as David Blunkett, Michael Gove and Nick Clegg. And all of their changes have been made on a whim, ignoring advice, evidence and outrage from those tasked with trying to nurture and educate children in their charge.
Most recently, to name but two stupid politician-inspired idiocies, we have had a ridiculous 'consultation' on reforming assessment and accountability in schools and an entirely new national curriculum written and imposed in the blink of an eye. Both consultations were met with howls of anguish by anyone who knows anything about education. Both resulted in politicians pushing through whimsical change, laughing as they did so.
It’s time to stop this stupidity
Following the shock of the second world war, with the government running out of money again, the bank was taken into public ownership. As the world of finance changed in the late 20th century, and the global economy began to get much more complex, politicians couldn’t resist meddling in the affairs of the bank, with inevitable results.
Huge amounts of damage was being inflicted by the politicisation of interest rates, for example. This resulted in the dangerous situation whereby the economy was being managed to benefit political parties rather than the long term interests of the country. When elections were approaching, politicians couldn’t resist the temptation to cut interest rates, which created cycles of boom and bust, huge levels of unemployment and underlying turmoil in the economy.
Of course, changes in the management of the economy don’t have immediate effects, and, just like in education, it takes some time for unintended consequences to reveal themselves. There are long lags between changes and their outcomes. And as Vince Cable noted in his maiden speech in parliament, “The reason why it is important for central banks not to suffer day to day political intervention is that it is difficult for such intervention to be successful, because of the long lags in economic policy.”
You can see where I’m going here. The Bank of England was handed back its independence in 1998 and interest rates are no longer altered at the whim of politicians. The financial crisis in which we have been engulfed for the past ten years would have been infinitely worse had an independent body not been taking a longer view of the economic development of the country.
We need a body which can do the same for education. If the Bank of England can weather the worst financial storm in living memory by finding, appointing and holding to account a group of experts in their field, children's education deserves the same care and attention. It is time to remove what happens in schools from the hands of here-today, gone-tomorrow politicians and give it to responsible adults with an eye on the long term.
I don’t care how its done, just do it
The Bank of England elects nine people to its Monetary Policy Committee. They meet once a month. In between, they are sent briefings, meet with civil servants, conduct their own research and attend hearing of parliamentary committees. Their deliberations are on record, and they are held accountable for their actions.
I propose an Education Policy Committee to oversee Education in England. It just needs nine sensible people to do the job. Nine professionals who could put the interests of children and the country as a whole first. In the same way that nine people oversee the monetary policy of the country. Education is too important to left to the whims of amateurs who have no idea what they are doing. I don't care how it's done, just do it.
Christopher Cook's FT blogs: http://blogs.ft.com/ftdata/2012/02/22/social-mobility-and-schools/
Information on European Education Systems: https://webgate.ec.europa.eu/fpfis/mwikis/eurydice
Poverty around the World: http://www.globalissues.org/article/4/poverty-around-the-world#InequalityinIndustrializedNations
Monetary Policy Committee: http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/monetarypolicy