Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Educashun Educashon Education

I am not going to get at Ruth Kelly- her own side will do that for her. For me it just underlines the tangled web that Labour have created for themselves when talking about Education.

It strikes me that we should now start thinking more Liberally about education- and that means from the consumer interest and not just the producer, which has been something that we have done too much of in the past. In recent months there has been a renewed interest and debate about selection at secondary level. Personally I am not in favour of the abolition of selection where it still exists- basically Bucks and Kent in England- and neither is my party. The real question though is about choice.

The problem I have with Bucks is that the choice available is quite poor. Firstly, the Grammar schools are nowhere near as good as they think: when you look at the Key Stage levels, the school that does best in Wycombe is actually: Great Marlow- a "secondary modern". So despite getting the pick of the pupils, and being better funded and frankly having more supportive, better funded p.t.a.s the results are not as good as they really should be for the grammar schools like RGS, Wycombe girls or John Hampden. Does that mean that selection should be abolished- no! HoweverI would like to see a comprehensive alternative available- and I think it would do well.

Meanwhile, I am becoming more persuaded that choice in education should mean vouchers- and a broader supply of education provision. My own experience was in a large streamed comprehensive. There were faults, but compared to my siblings, who went to minor public schools I did not do too badly. The interesting thing is that the quality of education I received was probably a bit better, but also in the price of the public school was some perceived "prestige"- all part of the market price, but with a voucher scheme, I think that prestige might depend a bit more on academic merit and less on snobbery.

There are positive-and negative- lessons from selection, but the key is to create more diversity of supply and thus a genuine choice for pupils and their parents. Meanwhile the role of the state should be reduced- including the disaster of the national curriculum, which has reduced science and eliminated modern languages. Menwhile it is good to see that the pathetic grade inflation of the GCSE and A levels now faces a challenge from the Bac.Personally I think that the market will always solve this problem eventually, and only government interventionism (of which the Conservatives BTW were just as guilty as Labour) kept the obviously devalued exams in place for so long.

So in short, creating genuine choice- ie a free market- in education is not just a matter of academic selection at 11. It involves creating competiton and diversity. It involves reducing the role of the state- with vouchers, anyone who fulfills the contractual requirements could be able to open a school.

Meanwhile, although my party currently opposes it, I do think that Universities must be freed from government control and be allowed to set fees independently. Again vouchers, possibly funded by a graduate tax would make sense here.

Inevitably education has ended up as a political football - especially for the Labour class warriors. Now I think we have got to be pragmatic and open minded. 7 million functionally illiterate adults and 47% of the population unable to understand percentages (oh, the irony) is not a good record.

Ultimately, though, this is to do as much with social policy as with educational policy. I beleive in a society based on personal autonomy, which means if you screw up, you might have a minimum safety net, but other than that, you take the consequences. That is the flip side of freedom, and one that we must accept with open eyes.

So a controversial post, but I hope it will stimulate some ideas- the cosy complacency inbuilt in the current approach has reached its best before date. The time has come to think about more radical solutions.

3 comments:

herschelian said...

Couldn't agree more about universities being freed up, but it is too much of a political hot potato for any of the parties to espouse it as an idea methinks.

Tristan said...

I agree fully with your assessment.

Things are slowly moving in the right direction, I just hope we get there quickly enough to avoid harming too many more children.

Freeing up universities is also essential if they're to compete effectively with the rest of the world...

Chris P said...

Many years ago I was at RGS for five years and my sister was at Wycombe High and friends were at Challoners and Borlase and Verneys and John Hampden ... and as it goes at Hatters Lane and various other Secondary Moderns.

With Wycombe Abbey the first two still seem to regularly place in the top fifty or even top 10 in League Tables - so I'm not sure what basis you have for expecting them to be better?

But in Bucks comps haven't really been given a run out. Secondary Moderns are not great now are they? And that is a serious problem with Grammar Schools and all forms of selection in the state sector. And I'm not keen on the Independent Sector either. Apart from anything else there are some really appalling schools in that sector.

Had a Big Conversation with Blair on this once. I had explained to our group, including Charles Clark and Ivan Lewis, about the situation in Finland where results - according to most Metrics - were much much much better.

Same sort of per capita spend.

Universal schools.

Vocational and academic routes after 14.

98% staying on to 18, 67% to further study.

Boys and girls equal across the board.

Blair claimed our top 30% did better than the Finns, our middle 40% about the same, but admitted that the bottom 30% were struggling.

I simply couldn't see then (in March 04) and cannot see now how all these specialist schools and academies would address that groups needs. Or the League Tables and excessive public examining for that matter (none of these in Finland where they also stay in same school 7-16).

And I don't see how the GS/SM dichotomy helps. It is hard to study of course because there are few if any truly comprehensive environments. But the research there is I think shows that within statistical bounds there is no overall loss of performance for any group in comps and no overall gain from the GS/SM horrors.

Internationally the Finns seem to buck that by showing huge gains on numeracy, literacy and other OECD metrics too.

Making every school a good school, an equally good school seems one way to put the independent sector to the sword. But schools like RGS could combine with schools like Hatters Lane (which was in my day very much THE sink school for the town) and spread excellence more fairly.

Schools like RGS were set up to provide good educations to people who couldn't afford it otherwise - the bright kids of the poor - but although there is a bit of this it is NOT the norm.