Friday, March 03, 2006

Former education official criticises reform bill

This would be Sir Michael Bichard, who was permanent secretary at the then Department for Education and Employment:
"He recalled how he and the then education secretary, David Blunkett, agreed in 1997 that school improvements should be about standards rather than structures.

"Less than a decade later we are once again mired in a debate which is essentially about structure," he said in the TES-sponsored annual City of York education lecture.

"That may be because the prime minister now believes that the only way to improve standards for all is to change the structure.

"If so, that flies in the face of the evidence of the past 50 years."

Even since 1997, improving school results overall does not lift the grades of the weakest children, he said.

The problem with developing what ministers have called a "radical new school system" is that it gives the impression that a lot is changing while distracting attention and energy from "the substance", added Sir Michael, who led the inquiry into the vetting of school staff following the Soham murders in 2002.

"A perverse consequence of the current reform process could be that more young people end up dropping out because their needs cannot be accommodated in an educational mainstream so attuned to raising the standards for the majority that it is unable to give adequate attention to those who struggle," he said."
I've learned it isn't a particularly popular view but I think he's right. Even less popular is agreeing with what John Prescott said, before he changed his mind:
"If you set up a school and it becomes a good school," he went on, "the great danger is that everyone wants to go there."
The Telegraph, for example, gave the typical "Oh, what a dinosaur!" response:
"That sentence contains the key to all egalitarian thinking about schools, perhaps to all egalitarian thinking about anything.

Try to apply the concept to other matters. How does it sound when you say: "If you set up a good shop, the danger is that everyone wants to go there"?"
And it's that sentence which contains the key to all "market in education" thinking. I'm afraid, in the statement that everyone thought just so unbearably Old Labour, John Prescott was right: it is a problem because schools are not like shops. Get lots of extra customers, it's a fairly straight-forward matter to get more stock, hire extra staff, build an extension to the fruit and veg aisle or whatever. I won't repeat myself explaining why this is not so easily done with schools but let's take the retail analogy a bit further. What about the other "shops" that go out of business? Where do their "customers" go? The "good" schools can't go on expanding forever and even if they could, it wouldn't be desirable.

The faith-schools element of the Education Bill is a nightmare and what of these schools that are to be run by businesses? Has anyone given any thought to what happens if either the business goes bust or decides it doesn't want to run a school anymore?

Doubt I'll convince many people - we'll just have to wait. It'll be a mess, you'll see. And even if it isn't, please don't fall for this "setting schools free" business. This bill is an old Tory re-heat and Tory education policy since 1979 had nothing to do with setting schools free; it merely exchanged local government control for that from Whitehall.

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