The malign effects of coalition education policy in England’s schools

Old School Desk

You report (30 January) the doubling of the number of schools in England failing the poorest children at GCSE level, reflecting changes to exam rules.

These findings are important, as schools policy has long been given pride of place in British politicians’ attempts to increase social mobility. But if we as a country are interested in revolutionising poor children’s life chances, we must recognise that school comes too late for most of them. Instead of ringfencing schools’ budgets, we should be planning to increase budgets for the first five years – the foundation years of a child’s life.

A weight of research shows that, probably at three but certainly at five, it is possible to predict the life-chances outcomes for most children. Of course there are exceptions, and some children, thankfully, fly despite their backgrounds. The founders of the labour movement strove to increase life chances for poor children. Thanks to this growing body of research, we now have a much better idea how this great objective might be achieved.

As a country we pay lip service, but are still politically unwilling to think through the implications of these findings on the enduring impact of experiences and opportunities in the early years. The government’s decision not to maintain the ringfence on monies paid to local authorities to develop foundation-years services is symptomatic of this.

If we are serious about significantly increasing social mobility, our political parties need to put before the electorate plans on building the effectiveness of foundation-years services and detailing how the costs would be covered.

With 93 days to the election, is this too much to ask of our political leadership?
Frank Field MP
Labour, Birkenhead

• The claim that “the government’s flagship policies for improving schools … have had little or no effect” (Report, 26 January) couldn’t be more wrong. Unfortunately, the effects have been almost entirely malign.

Government education policy since 2010, written in haste to grab tomorrow’s headlines, has resulted in millions (if not billions) of pounds in public money being wasted on free-school and academy vanity projects. Children’s educations and teachers’ careers have been damaged and disrupted as their flagship schools are found to be unfit for purpose and closed. Communities have been divided by bitter, forced-academisation interventions. In the absence of strategic planning to meet the educational needs of all local children, thousands of primary age pupils have no school places.

The list of the victims of this Tory experiment in disruption theory is long. However, it may be that all the chaos and confusion have simply provided an effective smokescreen for the primary purpose of the piecemeal privatisation of state education in our country. Since May 2010, on a scale not seen since the Enclosure Acts of the 18th and 19th centuries, billions of pounds’ worth of publicly owned land and assets have quietly been transferred to a bewildering number of trusts, boards and companies whose members are accountable only to the secretary of state for education, while billions of pounds of public money sits in the deposit accounts of free schools and academies.

Government policies have not improved our children’s schools but they have been extremely effective in transferring public money and assets to private pockets.
Cathy Wood
Chiselborough, Somerset

• Zoe Williams is right to pour scorn on the education secretary’s ridiculous “war on illiteracy and innumeracy” (It is time ministers realised that teachers do want to teach, 2 February). Presumably Nicky Morgan is borrowing her metaphor from the “wars” on drugs and terror; sadly, she can expect just about the same level of success. Moreover, she appears to be fighting a war from the 1950s. What on earth, for example, is the point of requiring children to learn the 11 and 12 times tables and to “perform long division”? While she’s at it, why not bring back the rod, pole and perch, and all the other outdated weights and measures that used to adorn the back of exercise books? Oh and let’s ensure that every child understands the dangers of the pendent participle and the split infinitive!

As for her and David Cameron’s threat of more sackings and forced academy conversions for schools which fail at this nonsense, obviously neither of them has taken seriously the latest report of the education select committee, whose (Conservative) chair has just stated that “Current evidence does not prove that academies raise standards overall or for disadvantaged children” adding: “While some chains have clearly raised attainment, others achieve worse outcomes creating huge disparities within the academy sector and compared to other mainstream schools.”
Michael Pyke
Shenstone, Staffordshire

• In their war on illiteracy and innumeracy, the Conservatives are displaying their ignorance about the severe challenges that many of our schools are facing (Tory education plans ‘are election gimmicks’, 2 February). Children unable to progress in maths because of the irreversible and often hidden brain damage caused by foetal alcohol syndrome; children arriving into reception class unable to speak because they have spent their early years in front of a TV; children too tired or hungry to stay awake because of the chaos and dysfunction they have experienced overnight at home; children too high on the cola and sweets they have had for breakfast to be able to concentrate. I have seen all of this – just within one school. These are problems that education alone cannot fix. Schools have to work in partnership with other local agencies such as health, housing and social care.

Our politicians are disingenuous when they claim that the answer lies in increased academisation and a change of leadership. The answer is to strengthen and improve local authorities so that they can work in partnership with schools to give children and families the joined-up care and support that they need to flourish. Without this, getting every child to be able to perform long division and read a novel by the age of 11 is pie in the sky. We should be looking north to the quiet revolution taking place in Scotland where collaboration not competition is at the heart of education policy.
Fiona Carnie
European Forum for Freedom in Education

• Is the cost per pupil at Eton et al to be cut by 7% over the period of the next parliament (Budget for schools will face cuts, Tories admit, 3 February)? If not, how much subsidy will the taxpayer be giving to pupils at public schools, while those at state schools see their budgets reduced by up to 10% on the basis that austerity demands cuts in order to balance the books?
Rev Canon David Jennings
Canon theologian, Leicester Cathedral

• As a teacher who stood as a Labour candidate in the 2010 general election, I had to endure a number of awkward staffroom chats with colleagues apologising that they were “not going to vote Labour this time”. It seems that Tristram Hunt is determined that such conversations will be repeated up and down staffrooms this year (Green party’s education policies are outdated and ‘total madness’ – Labour, 26 January).

If wanting to see academies and free schools returned to local democratic accountability is “madness”, then many teachers and Labour councillors are mad. If wanting an end to the tyranny of the current Ofsted system is “madness”, then many head teachers and school governors are mad. If wanting to develop a high quality, age-appropriate early-years system is “madness”, then many parents and early-years practitioners are mad.

There are hundreds of teachers in every constituency. In mine, we have an excellent young teacher as a Labour candidate. But we will only succeed in getting teachers to vote Labour if the party is standing on a manifesto containing policy that inspires and excites teachers and parents. Attacking our opponents may be fun, but it doesn’t win hearts and minds in the staffroom, or at the school gate. When it starts to sound suspiciously like the teacher-bashing we had become used to under Michael Gove, then we really have a problem.
Dave Brinson
Labour candidate for Eastbourne, 2010 general election

• The Greens’ educational policies represent not just a coherent and legitimate position on schooling – they lean strongly towards the Finnish system which consistently outperforms all its European competitors in the OECD/Pisa tests – the global league table. Tristram Hunt’s dismissal is more to do with Labour being stuck with an out of date, technocratic agenda on schooling through lack of courage and imagination. Labour is so sold on the myth of engineered school improvement and brutal test regimes that it cannot see the damage being done to young people. While we “improve” schools, we diminish education. I’ll vote Labour to keep out the Tories – but I admire the Greens’ education policy.
Professor Saville Kushner
Faculty of education, University of Auckland

• Bravo, Zoe Williams. As she says, testing, targets and performance indicators misunderstand the nature of teaching and learning, and are a cynical waste of children’s time (and, it may be added, a profound waste of state funds). Significantly, she goes on to say “The most infuriating thing is how all this goes unchallenged.”

It has, of course, been challenged – by the teacher unions and by academics whom Michael Gove called “the Blob”. But these challenges are rarely discussed in the media, probably because too many news commentators were educated outside the state system and so are ignorant of the professionalism and dedication of its teachers. Andrew Marr, for example, whom Williams notes expressed tacit approval for Morgan’s proposed new targets, was educated in independent schools in Scotland.

Perhaps there is hope in the statement by the Labour party that it believes “unleashing the moral mission and collective endeavour of teaching is the best way to improve our children’s life chances”. A good start would be to welcome the excellent education manifestoes of the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Headteachers, as displayed on their respective websites.
Emeritus Professor Michael Bassey
Newark, Nottinghamshire

Tory plans for primary education, including the imposition of punitive testing and the threats of head teacher removal and of academisation (Primary school pupils face new maths and grammar tests under Tories, 1 February), are not just an unrealisable ploy intended to capture the parent vote. They also threaten to exacerbate what is already a major problem – the difficulty of recruiting primary headteachers – into a catastrophic situation, especially in disadvantaged communities where principled, expert educational leadership is most needed. In an ideal world the aspirations parroted by Nicky Morgan ought to be realised, but in the world as we find it two factors prevent it – the difficulties, not primarily of their own or their teachers’ making, which some learners face; and the government’s inability to understand the nature of primary education and to give it the resources, the curriculum and the support it needs to provide an enabling education which goes well beyond “maths and grammar tests”.
Professor Colin Richards
Spark Bridge, Cumbria

•Is education policy being driven by fools? The idea that all 11-year-olds must know their multiplication tables as part of a revised testing system is sheer stupidity. It is a cruel farce. After 24 years as a headteacher I know that it is not possible. I think all 11-year-olds should know their tables. I always have and I have always taught multiplication tables – including learning by rote. But I also know not to expect a 100% success rate because there will always be some children who won’t or can’t learn their tabsles.

There is a simple fact that the government have failed to understand. What teachers teach and what children learn are not the same thing – and never have been. To think that children always learn what they are taught shows an amazing lack of knowledge and awareness. What will happen to all the headteachers who fail to meet the grade and have to be sacked? Does anyone outside our parliamentary lunatic asylum think that there are “super” heads who can achieve what the rest of us can’t? “Super” heads at best can bully a school into improving over the short term – a quick fix that looks good but can’t be sustained.

If it wasn’t just another kick in the teeth for teachers by badly advised ministers it would be laughable. Unfortunately it will cause even more teachers to question why they are working so hard to do their best and even more to leave what is becoming an unsustainable profession.
Roger Smith
Kenilworth, Warwickshire

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