Whose Education is it Anyway? A crisis of equality?

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Keith Lichman reports on the Reclaiming Education Conference held on 14th November.
Wilkinson and Pickett’s now well-known research showing that income inequality adversely affects every aspect of civil life, whether between countries or within countries, set the stage for a review of the state of education in England at the Reclaiming Education Alliance conference. Key-note speaker, Richard Wilkinson demonstrated a wide range of correlations between high inequality and poor educational outcomes. This underlying theme gave a sharp context to the current crisis that has developed across the board in English education, every aspect of which can be laid at the door of government policy. And in every case, though everybody suffers, it is the children of poorer families who suffer most.

Richard Wilkinson’s presentation can be accessed here: http://www.reclaimingeducation.org.uk/Whose%20Education%20is%20it%20Anyway%20-%20Richard%20Wilkinson.pdf

Poorer children on average do much less well out of the education system than their more affluent colleagues. Good early years’ education (such as the Sure-Start Programme) can make a significant difference to the success of these children in 5 to 16 education. At the other end of the school age range, 16-18 education can go a long way to helping those who didn’t manage so well in their 5 to 16 education. Both areas have already been heavily cut and are not to be protected from substantial cuts in the Comprehensive Spending Review. In addition, inappropriate practice and curricula are being imposed in both areas.

For under-fives, Wendy Scott argued that personal, social and emotional development, communication and physical development are the most important aspects of learning. Instead the government is imposing monitoring of intellectual and cognitive development and “school readiness” for a baseline assessment. Children coming from disadvantaged backgrounds invariably do worse in tests at that age but will then carry the label for the rest of their schooling. Compulsory schooling starts at age five so summer-born children get less time in school than their winter-born coevals. When they are tested, they perform less well on average and are often misdiagnosed as having special needs – a stigma and a handicap that often afflicts their later schooling. Government proposals to hold such children’s secondary transfer back a year will only make a bad situation worse.

Marjorie Semple from West Thames College explained that the cuts to Further Education are so severe that many such institutions may not survive. Their curriculum is being reduced to “A” levels and apprenticeships so that people who have not done very well in their previous schooling have very little choice if they want to improve themselves.

John Howson explained that we are now going through the greatest increase in pupil numbers since the 1970s but the supply of teachers able to teach them is declining. The government’s policy of leaving it to the markets to sort out is a spectacular failure. Graduate starting salaries for teachers do not compare well with starting salaries in other professions so many good graduates choose not to teach. This market induced shortage is compounded by the unaffordable price of housing in many areas like the South East. The notion that every child must have an individualised learning programme which is then to be inspected by Ofsted has led to a teacher work-load crisis that deters many from beginning to teach and induces many who have started teaching to leave the profession early. There is no coherent long term planning of teacher supply and the decision to force all schools to teach the Ebacc subjects to all students means that teacher training in non-Ebacc subjects has been cut. Many valuable subjects will disappear from a narrow and, for many students, inappropriate curriculum.

The plight of children with special needs is worsened by the loss of local authority support as the academies and free school programmes drain their notional share of the budget from the centre to the point where the LA can no longer afford to run the support service. As one of the speakers, Richard Rieser, put it, this government sees the difficulties faced by SEN students as a problem in them rather than a problem with the system that is supposed to take care of them.

Alistair MacDonald agreed that the idea of a National Curriculum – a curriculum to which every child should be entitled – is not controversial. But, driven by the whims and prejudices of Secretaries of State, it has become narrow and unsuitable for many children. Everybody seems to have an opinion about the curriculum – but only the teaching profession and the academics who study education are excluded from meaningful input. Education ought to be a preparation for life but, especially for poorer children, it is simply seen as a preparation for work. And the ability of schools to try to get round the bombardment of government strictures and experiment and innovate is severely hampered by Ofsted, fear of which seem to drives many schools to just teaching towards the test.

Councillor Dan Jeffrey from Southampton described how the combination of the forced academisation and swingeing cuts has left Local Authorities with many essential responsibilities but little capacity to carry them out. Even though a Local Authority will be aware of the need for more schools places in its area as its child population grows, it is not allowed to build schools to accommodate them. That is now left to the market – the academy chains and free schools. But these schools are allowed to select which children they are prepared to teach so that vulnerable children and children with special needs can be conveniently left out. Privatisation is the name of the game and since 2010, £15 billion of public assets have been privatised.

The Whose Education is it Anyway conference on November 14th brought together expertise from across the whole range from Early Years to Further Education. Every sector is in crisis and government policy is set firm to make the situation worse. An insight into government double-think was given by Jonathan Simons of Policy Exchange. He asserted that the “right” cares just as much about education as the “left” but that while the government was prepared to listen to “evidence” from educational professionals, politics was about balancing conflicting interests and that was the government’s job. To translate his words into something more tangible, the business lobby is more important than the education of this country’s children.

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