30, April, 2015

“Little evidence behind manifesto pledges,” says Professor Stephen Gorard and Dr Beng Huat See, Durham University

Education policies in the UK – What is the new direction?

Comment by Professor Stephen Gorard & Dr Beng Huat See, Durham University

The manifestos

With the general election looming, the three major political parties have all promised to protect the education budget in terms of schools, but they pay only lip-service, at best, to funding for adult and continuing education. They also tend to present education policies for England as though they were for the UK. The Conservatives pledge 500 more free schools in England by 2020, the Labour party want to cut under-graduate tuition fees, while the Liberal Democrats guarantee qualified teachers in all state schools. The evidence that any of these policies work in raising attainment or participation is slight or non-existent.

The evidence

The House of Commons Education Committee, OFSTED and academic studies all agree that it is too early to tell whether free schools perform any better than other types of schools. The likelihood is that, once their pupil intake is accounted for, they will produce much the same results as any other school. However, they are already known to have several downsides. They impair the ability of local authorities to plan for new school places. And free schools are taking so few disadvantaged pupils that they are increasing the clustering of poverty within specific schools.

Free schools are, incidentally, also by far the biggest employers of unqualified teachers – 19% of their teachers have no recognised teacher training qualification according to the 2014 School Workforce and School Characteristics datasets, compared to less than 3% in local authority schools. However, teaching qualifications themselves are only weak indicators of good teachers. For example, some applicants to teacher-training are being rejected by some institutions for not having the right qualifications, such as high A-level grades in appropriate subjects, while others with worse qualifications are being accepted at others.

This means that some highly qualified applicants may not get to be teachers, while those that do become teachers may not necessarily be the best. A survey of 2,700 Year 11 students found that only 44% of pupils enjoyed school and only 38% said most of their lessons were interesting, while OFSTED has reported that much teaching in England is boring.

Like much policy-making the proposal to reduce tuition fees for undergraduates sounds plausible. But like most it has little to recommend it in practice. It applies only to a minority of young people who, by definition, are already doing quite well in education, and uses money that could have been targeted at those whose path through education has been more challenging. The selective nature of higher education means that the vast majority of those qualified to get in already attend and the vast majority of those not attending have nowhere near the qualifications needed. The social stratification of university intakes is the stratification of prior qualification like A-levels. The historical trend of participation has anyway been upward, even for under-represented students such as those from the poorest families. And this trend has been largely undisturbed by the introduction of fees, raising fees, deferring fees, and providing bursaries.

Alternative proposals

Make the school system truly national, so that it does not matter where one lives – by making schools more comprehensive, with no specialist schools, no faith-basis, no selection by attainment or aptitude, and no private investment or control of state-funded schools. The same criteria of admissions should be applied to all schools. This would be cheaper, more effective and reduce social segregation. It is also likely to lead to a more even distribution of high quality teachers, and of role models for those students hesitant about applying for university.

Make teaching a truly national profession – by nationalising the selection and development of professional teachers. Allow the state rather than schools to employ teachers, and deploy them as needed to meet demands. This helps avoid the situation where schools in desirable areas have the best teachers while schools in poorer areas may have not so good teachers. Focus on inspirational teachers, who motivate and enhance children’s enjoyment of school. Having fun and interesting lessons, and not better qualified teachers, has been voted the most popular option for improving schools, and it could lead to higher engagement and learning, improving attendance and inclusion in school.

The only sure way to widen participation is to increase the number of available places at universities.

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