Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Tory education policy: 'choice' and centralisation

The Conservatives are strongly in favour of choice in general, and particularly in education where they are no doubt that it is a Good Thing that Raises Standards. The model they would like to follow, as everyone knows, is the voucher system like wot they have in Sweden. This example has obvious appeal. While they could draw on one or two other international examples, they use this in order to make points that run something like this: "Even social democratic Sweden, whose state is much larger than we could possibly approve of, have seen the light and embraced the virtues of competition in education. This in turn has led to an improvement in standards that no-one disputes. Only Luddites and the mentally-deranged could possibly disagree."

But the person who actually runs Sweden's schools doesn't appear to agree:
"Per Thulberg, director general of the Swedish National Agency for Education, said the schools had "not led to better results" in Sweden.

Michael Gove, the shadow education secretary, believes that by establishing up to 2,000 of these schools, parents would have more choice and existing schools would be forced to improve.

But Thulberg told BBC's Newsnight programme that where these schools had improved their results, it was because the pupils they took had "better backgrounds" than those who attended the institutions the free schools had replaced.

He said: "This competition between schools that was one of the reasons for introducing the new schools has not led to better results. The lesson is that it's not easy to find a way to continue school improvement. The students in the new schools have, in general, better standards, but it has to do with their parents and backgrounds. They come from well-educated families."

In Sweden, more than 1,000 free schools were opened to help children from deprived backgrounds."
I'd like to be able to say that this was a source of embarrassment to Mr Gove, the Conservative Party's putative Education Secretary. But education, like so many things, is an evidence-free debate and like George Bernard-Shaw, critically examining evidence isn't one of Mr Gove's strong suits. This is why he said, "We have seen the future in Sweden and it works. Standards have been driven up. If it can work there, it can work here."

Or was it one of the Webbs that came out with this line? I can't remember. But the allusion to Stalinist apologetics is apposite. The Tories like to strike a pose as the opponents of centralised bureaucratic control. But history teaches us they are its parents - or at least the foster carers that brought it through adolescence. And all the evidence would suggest that in the event of a Tory victory in the next election, the English should expect more of the same. For example (pdf):
"[W]e will promote the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics and ensure teachers are properly trained to teach using this method."
Phonics are a Good Thing. This is the contemporary orthodoxy. I take leave to doubt it, myself. I may well be wrong but the problem is this: Whitehall is going to over-rule the concerns of everyone on this matter? And this they have the cheek to label this freedom? This and other examples of micro-management. Is setting a good thing? I favour it - in most cases. But sometimes it is neither appropriate nor necessary. It all depends. But it doesn't matter what I think, nor any other educational professional, nor any parent. Setting has been deemed a Good Thing, therefore expect to see more of it coming to your local school soon.

Then there's to be more power to Her Majesty's Inspectorate:
"[E]nsure that Ofsted adopts a more rigorous and targeted inspection regime, reporting on performance only in the core areas related to teaching and learning..."
Because they've been so effective to date - the thing is to give them more power? With regards to this crew, I'm reminded of Billy Connolly's remark about the Queen and how she must think the world smells of fresh paint. HM Inspectors experience of educational life is like this; they are an irrelevance - always have been, always will be.

Uniforms, how children sit in the class - the Minister will decide these too. And they have the chutzpah to call this 'decentralisation'? But I've drifted rather from the point I was going to make, which is this: 'choice' is subversive to the other goals that the Tories have in education in the following ways:

1) Low expectations. It's not just the Tories that think these are a Bad Thing. But competition tends to foster this. Here's how it works: if I have high expectations of my pupils and present them at a level they might fail at, my results look bad if some of them actually do fail. If I have low expectations, they are likely to pass at the level I present them at - so my results are better because they show more passes.

2) Grade inflation. So difficult to prove - but people working in education who doubt this is happening are hard to find, unless they are being paid to doubt it is happening. Is it really too difficult for people to join the dots here? How do you compete? Show you are doing well. How do we know you're doing well? It's the results, of course. Which brings me to this...

3) Teaching to the test. The Good School gets good results. How do you get good results? You narrow the curriculum, obviously. I read somewhere the 'best' schools don't do this. I found this quite funny. And implausible. Apparently there are schools where despite the fact that people's jobs and reputations are at stake, their dedication to standards is such that they've gained an exemption from the human condition. Pull the other one...

4) Subject choice. Oh me, oh my - they aren't going for languages or sciences but opting for the 'easy' subjects instead. Uh huh - and what exactly the fuck did you expect to happen when schools are judged not on the basis of the quality of their curriculum but according to crude aggregate passes?

5) Discipline. How exactly is this measured? Up here it's based on the rate of exclusions. So - lower your exclusion rate by putting up with bullshit and hey presto! - your discipline, sorry ethos, has improved. Lunchy!

This is an empty, futile rant, I realise. If the man in charge of running Sweden's schools can be ignored, what chance does anyone else have?
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