Wednesday 28 December 2011

Schools: change and variation

I wonder if there is a country that has a more diverse education system than the UK. So, there is variation across the four main parts of the UK - Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland, and then within England in particular there is a huge range of types of school depending on how you cut it: you can have privately funded schools, you can have 'voluntary aided' or 'voluntary controlled',  you can have 'faith' schools according to different faiths, you can have mixed or single-sex (in some cases both, where the school becomes mixed post-16), publicly funded schools can be funded directly by the state or indirectly via the local authority; you can have publicly funded schools which are supported in part by private money and so on. Drop in on area as an inquisitive stranger or Martian and you could be forgiven for struggling to get a handle on all this. As you enquire closely into each school's 'admissions policy', you can easily get lost in how or why these vary.

In the past, I've had the most bizarre conversations with the people who sit on the phoneline at the local authority. So, for example, there was a time when schools in the London area used a 'banding' system. Using an unreliable test, children were grouped into three bands with the nominally egalitarian aim of spreading the bands across that authority's secondary schools. Some complicated computer work up at the local town hall tried to shunt children around the schools so that they each got a 'fair share' of bands. Effectively, this meant that each school had three different 'catchment areas' - one for each band. A school, say, with a large number of band 3s nearby but a small number of band 1s nearby would have two different sized areas from which it drew its pupils. Any parent trying to figure out if it was worth applying for a particular school had to do a bit of homework by asking parents of children in the year above whether they had or had not got into this school and what band they were! It was then you'd stand in the playground saying, 'But x got in and she lived further away.' 'Ah yes, but she was a different band...'  When I put this to someone on the phoneline, I was told that this was absolutely not the case. Alternatively, you can be put in the position of being told now that the school operates its own admissions policy but you must not apply for the school through the school, you must apply for it through the local authority.

Anyone writing honestly about education in the UK, ought by rights to tell this story before talking about what does or does not go on 'in schools'. How many times have we seen TV journalists strolling round a school in order to tell us that it's a dump or a raging success without telling us the systems that produce its intake. Even less likely, will  you get a picture of how a school does or does not exclude pupils at any point from year 7 to 11 but prior to sitting GCSEs. There are schools now acting as dumping grounds for the excluded - but no one dares speak about this, and anyhow it's almost impossible to get the stats on it.

Now, within these kinds of variation and segregation, there are of course thousands more variations. Every time I ever write about education as I see it, people will always write to me saying that they don't recognise some aspect I'm talking about because, they say, in our teacher training course we spend a whole term on children's literature, or in our school we use the School Library Service, or in our school we never did follow the National Literacy Strategy and so on. The fact is, that neither I nor they are lying. What is happening is that in spite of the efforts of the National Curriculum, Ofsted, the various 'Strategies', the SATs, schools are operating more and more like small fiefdoms. I may hear of one head who has banned 'real books' from Reception and Year 1 classrooms because, he says, all reading can be done with Synthetic Phonics and immediately someone will say that their Reception and Year 1 classrooms are packed to the ceilings with beautiful picture books which the children take home from school every day. I was quoted in the Guardian saying, (from my own experience) that Ofsted has no requirement to look at the provision of books in a school nor how or where they are read, when lo and behold, an Ofsted spokesperson delivered some homily on how Ofsted is very much concerned with the reading of books.  Not on your checklists, not in your enquiries, not in the report on a school I know very well.

Meanwhile, as we know, certain aspects of the curriculum which are almost 100% compulsory in some parts of the public system are, mysteriously not compulsory in 'free schools' - teaching reading exclusively through synthetic phonics being one of them.

So what is going on here? One theory might say that it is some kind of benign cock-up, just that funny old Brit way of muddling through. I prefer to think it's all much nastier than that. Put crudely, the job of education  in the modern state is concerned much less in ensuring that everyone gets a wide-ranging education than to ensure that each generation of 16 year olds is graded. Each country finds a different way of doing this. Most, for example, create elite schools so that there is a direct channel from such schools to the ruling positions in government, the professions and business. It is vital for the system that this isn't based on ability but on money and 'breeding' (ie the pedigree of the parents). At one point, in 1944, those in government thought they had pulled off a real smart trick by dividing the intake to secondary schools up according to pass or failure at 11. The idea was the exam at 11 could predict failure a few years later (ie when they left without qualifications) and so you could have failure schools ('Sec Mods') to do failure-type education - PE and Technical Drawing,and Cooking. The system fell apart when some of the failures didn't fail (some of them did better than those who had passed at 11 and gone to Grammar Schools) and when not-quite-well-enough-off middle class parents found that they couldn't get their kids out of the failure schools.

Part of the strategy of the last 20 years or so has been to lament the passing of this useless system, lament the coming of the comprehensive system but - and this is crucial to the strategy - avoid bringing back that old system universally across the UK because everyone in power knew that it was unworkable. But engrained into our leaders' idea of what education must be is segregation, segregation, segregation. After all, most of them have been through schools they were 'selected' for - mostly by money. They also know that they daren't bring in a universally segregating exam at 11 because it doesn't work. Instead, they fiddle. And in the present context, they're fiddling more and more and more. What we are getting through all this stuff about choice, and diversity are in effect micro-segregations - so micro that it will be almost impossible to prove: the mysterious exclusions that some Academies impose on pupils who don't fit in: the mysterious top-slicing of the bands ensuring that this or that school gets the top of each band whilst claiming that it isn't selecting; the mysterious non-use of 'faith' as a criterion of entry in some 'faith' schools but not in others...and so on.

Politically, there is a tragedy here: in the name of equality and opportunity for all, New Labour introduced a set of strategies . I can only speak about the Literacy one but it was one of the worst examples of a national government trying to stamp a practice of any kind on any profession (and its 'client group') in recent times. It was dull, brutal, mechanistic and educationally utterly misconceived. It was and still is almost impossible to find out who was responsible for the damn thing as it was delivered anonymously at vast expense and then, again without explanation, abolished. However, off the back of it is a range of practices going on in schools  (yes, in piecemeal, highly variegated ways, different from school to school), which has no intellectual justification (or evidence from research) other than that this or that practice was given some kind of seal of approval from the National Literacy Strategy.

So New Labour weakened the Comprehensive system by introducing Academies, doing nothing about private education, encouraging faith schools, whilst at the same time insisting on its dictatorial 'Strategies'. The New Labour period represents a major set-back in the quest for a fair and equitable education system. Now the Tories have been able to leap on New Labour's back and hasten the procession towards what will be one of the world's most uneven, most segregated most selective systems.