Monday, 28 February 2011

The importance of learning?

Michael Gove's education reforms fail to realise that learning is just as important as teaching

Michael Gove’s education white paper The Importance of Teaching is nothing if not ambitious, containing within it an overhaul of nearly every single aspect of education from primary school provision through to post-16 assessment.  Its central themes are greater autonomy but increased accountability for schools, a slimmed down National Curriculum (NC) focussed on more traditional subject areas, comparing our children’s performance internationally and empowering teachers so that are able to concentrate on teaching.  All of this will, it is implied, raise standards.

However the implicit and most clear theme emerging from the white paper is that the status quo is simply unsustainable and it offers a withering assessment of nearly every area of current education policy.  The system is dysfunctional, overly bureaucratic and places teachers and teaching secondary to league tables. 

Three obvious criticisms quickly emerge.  Firstly, the underlying issues that create and or exacerbate the problems within the classroom are ignored and it is assumed that simply changing our schools will alleviate them.  The link between poverty and educational performance is highlighted as unacceptable (the pupil premium forms a key element of the strategy to tackle this), but the bigger question is how the causes of poverty will be tackled in the first place at a time when benefits for the poorest are being cut.  

In order to attract a higher calibre of university graduate to the profession behaviour management is to be tackled by increasing the powers that teachers have.  Teachers will be empowered with the ability to physically restrain pupils, they will be able to search them and place them in same-day detention.  The presence of ex-military personnel, who will be encouraged to retrain as teachers, is expected to improve behaviour.

But disruption is caused by many things; including a lack of ability (children choose to disrupt as they cannot take part) yet at this very moment primary school initiatives to improve the reading of those that struggle are being cut.  Disruption can also be caused by unstable and abusive domestic lives, but these children are to have less access to one-to-one support.  

The idea that allowing teachers to physically restrain pupils empowers them seems contradictory, it places teachers in a litigation minefield and there is no detail on how they will be defended by their local authorities from prosecution.  By allowing teachers to fight fire with fire while ignoring the wider social issues involved may simply lead to an escalation of an already difficult situation.  

The second obvious criticism is that there is little focus on learning, rather than teaching.  Singapore, Finland and South Korea are held aloft of as examples of excellence from which we can learn.  Yet it is assumed that the numerous elements of best practice adopted from these education systems will be equally successful when parachuted into the completely different context of the UK education system.   

The shift toward traditional subject areas will allow the NC to be slimmed down, providing an outline of what knowledge children should have when they leave school, with less focus on how that knowledge is acquired.  The NC will focus on English, maths, science and physical education.  Shortly after entering government the coalition scrapped a radical overhaul of the national curriculum (introduced under Labour) that would have moved teaching towards themes, rather than strict subject areas, as this is considered a more effective way for children to learn.  One suspects that this move is based upon ideology, not evidence.

The third criticism is that schools will, in reality, have little or no extra autonomy unless they convert into a Free or Academy school.  The pressure placed on schools is likely to increase as they are asked to do more with less money.  Schools are struggling to maintain their current levels of provision, yet the shift towards traditional subjects will force many secondary schools into taking on additional humanities teachers, without any additional funding.  

Schools will still be expected to continue teaching those areas that are no longer part of the NC such as personal and social, music and cultural education.  In theory this may give schools greater autonomy, but there is a suspicion that these elements will be quietly dropped as schools need to focus on the increased accountability to which they will be subjected.

That league tables have forced schools to encourage their pupils to pursue qualifications that may not be wholly useful to employers or universities is worrying.   That the solution to this is the introduction of new legal tables is somewhat baffling and contradicts the notion of greater autonomy.  By retaining league tables and making some elements of the curriculum discretionary it incentivises schools to abandon these non-core areas.  It is also unclear how comparing the performance of British schools internationally logically leads to an increase in standards.  

The age at which individuals can leave school is set to be raised to 18 by 2015 in order to reduce the number of NEETS (Not in Employment, Education or Training).  To facilitate this the number of vocational training courses and pathways will be further increased, acknowledging that a university education is not appropriate for all.  The introduction of the English Baccalaureate is also set to offer students a broader range of subjects at to study at sixteen than currently offered by the current A level setup.

For those studying A levels there are two potentially worrying developments.  The first is the discrepancy in funding where high school sixth forms receive more funding per head than sixth form colleges.  The solution to this inequity is to cut the level of funding to high school sixth forms.  Secondly an arbitrary limit will be placed on the number of A level modules students can re-sit, making it harder to boost the grades required for the best universities in the belief that this will, somehow, increase standards.

The single biggest failure of the white paper is to acknowledge that in the current system some schools in very challenging circumstances are incredibly successful.  The reason is often leadership, as noted in John Humphrys excellent documentary, Unequal Opportunities.  Good leadership and management can transform the opportunities for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, something The Importance of Teaching is greatly concerned with.  It is therefore a shame that the white paper is unwilling to accept that the current system has its successes.

This article appears in the March edition of the Young Political Bloggers e-magazine.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Is Britain a meritocracy?

Britain is a nation in which desire and talent are simply not enough to get ahead

As the most severe cuts to public services in living memory begin to bite it is worth considering the wider impact that these may have.  As a rule these cuts will hit the least advantaged members of society hardest and this raises a crucial question about how meritocratic Britain really is.  Despite the cuts does Britain offer equality of opportunity to all and does everyone in Britain have an equal chance of success?

Simply, a meritocracy is a society in which achievement and reward is based on merit – hard work, skills, drive – rather than privilege.  A meritocratic society is desirable as it is fair and does not lead to those born into privilege achieving more than an equally talented individual born into poverty and deprivation.  A true meritocracy provides equality of opportunity, an individual’s chances of success are not predetermined at birth.  

A recent article by John Harris in the Guardian noted that the growing trend of the privately educated ‘taking over’ popular culture.  It makes interesting reading as did the BBC documentary ‘getting on’, which focussed on the cycle of achievement of those that were privately educated getting the best degrees, then the best jobs and ultimately sending their children to private school, thus continuing the cycle.

What’s illuminating is the response of Dominic West (from The Wire) who responded to a question regarding his private school background by noting that it no longer mattered as we now live in a meritocracy.  This comment inferred that no advantage had been gained by his private education and that anyone else in Britain had the opportunity to rise to his place of success.

 A cursory glance around Britain today would reveal this to be patently not the case.  Private education offers untold benefits in terms of contacts, reputation and knowledge (such as university admissions procedures) and those that attend it are likely to be more successful than an equally talented individual that attends a struggling state school.

From the cabinet, to the judiciary, to the civil service, the BBC, Fleet Street, be it leading universities or the UK pop charts; a clear and self evident pattern emerges.  There is a distinct absence or under representation of ethnic minorities and those from the poorest backgrounds, yet a significant over representation of Oxbridge graduates and those that attended private school.  If Britain were a meritocratic society this may occur in some sectors and industries; that it occurs in all of those where power and wealth are concentrated is damning. 

 In theory a truly meritocratic society would reflect the society of which it is comprised.  Only 7% of the British population attends private education, approximately 15% of the population are of an ethnic background other than ‘white British’.  In a society in which social class and background present no disadvantage and success in life is a result of ability alone, it would be natural to expect that these trends reflected across society.   

The issue is fairness; no child chooses to be born into poverty or attend poor performing schools.  No amount of desire to succeed can overcome obstacles such as a culture of anti-intellectualism, being given little or no advice on how to access the best universities or being unable to take up an internship as your parents are unable to assist with your living costs.  

No child chooses their parents yet research indicates that a parent’s educational experience and level of affluence are the leading factors in shaping their own children’s experience.  That the likes of Alan Sugar et al have risen from modest or challenging backgrounds to become very successful is clear evidence of a lack of social mobility, not evidence of its presence; their success only serves to emphasise that many, many, thousands have been unable to achieve this. 

Equality of opportunity barely stretches to include both genders, even before different ethnicities and social classes are considered.  The problem is a fundamental challenge within society.  If Britain is not a meritocracy, how far is it from achieving this?  More pertinently, how can equality of opportunity be increased?  

The answer is a long way; it may be comforting to tell ourselves that inherited privilege is not a deciding factor in our chances of success, but that would be disingenuous.  

One approach could be to ban the provision of private education thus removing the cycle of advantage and privilege that they propagate.  However parents with the financial ability and knowledge could simply move house into the catchment area of a successful state school.  Tackling poverty would perhaps be the answer, but thirteen years of New Labour and their ostensible commitment to improving social mobility and reducing child poverty has had little or no impact.  Universities have also been targeted; a lack of Black undergraduates was used to illustrate potential bias in the admission process; the University of Oxford simply pointed out that if black students aren’t achieving the entry grades required there is little they can do.

Tackling this issue is unlikely to be achieved by instigating a series of disconnected (though well intentioned) schemes and initiatives, such as the Pupil Premium and national scholarship fund for university.  However if the solution requires a more holistic and radical approach what can be done?  A huge part of the problem is attitudes and beliefs, inherited privilege is still accepted as normal and concepts of class still shape attitudes, beliefs and prejudices.

A greater redistribution of wealth could perhaps prevent poverty blighting the chances of young people before they have even set foot in school, but the 50% tax rate for higher earners is still seen as controversial and ‘anti-aspirational’.  

That this more progressive tax is so hard to sell to the electorate, yet the rise in tuition fees and the axing of the Educational Maintenance Allowance so easy, must lead to the conclusion that there is sadly, no real appetite for meaningful change.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

How much will it cost to go to university?

Anyone planning to invest in a university degree must first ask what is the value of higher education?  Its value is relatively subjective and therefore difficult to answer, but it is directly related to cost.

There are several factors that shape price, primarily supply and demand.  Ifdemand increases and there is a shortage of supply, price increase.  Higher education has been significantly oversubscribed in recent years, but that reveals nothing about the quality of the applicants.  Universities are in fierce competition to attract the most talented students, of which there is a shortage.

Another consideration is that of Veblen goods; commodities whose demand increases as the price rises.  For example a designer sweater may essentially identical to a high street equivalent, but its inflated price increases its desirability by inferring status.

Universities will also be incentivised to charge more by the government.  Leading universities have arbitrary Widening Participation (WP) targets upon which some of their funding is contingent.  In its simplest terms, Widening Participation is attracting high achieving students from less advantaged backgrounds.
Any university that charges above the minimum has to commit to spend a proportion of this additional fee income on WP activities.  Charging higher fees will not only bring in more money directly but potentially unlock the additional funding that is linked to WP.

How much will it cost to go to university?  The short answer is more than £6,000.  The University and College Union predicts that every university will have to charge at least £6,863 per year to maintain funding levels.

This suggest that most the Million+ universities will charge somewhere between six and seven thousand, depending on how difficult they are finding it to attract quality applicants.  These universities rarely struggle to meet WP targets, so that consideration is unlikely to shape their price.  But they will have to charge less than the Russell and 1994 Groups to remain competitive.

Oxford and Cambridge have already set their fees at the maximum £9,000.  The rationale for this is simple.  By charging the full fee Oxbridge is inferring that their ‘product’ is of the highest quality.  Oxbridge rarely struggles to attract high quality applicants, so there is a clear lack of supply that is driving demand which is in turn driving price.

The Russell Group has suggested that they will have to charge at least £7000 to maintain current funding levels.  My prediction is that both the Russell and 1994 Groups of universities will charge approximately £8,000, moving all of the top universities towards the higher end of the fee bracket.  These universities will price themselves relative to Oxbridge; charging significantly less could suggest a lack of quality.

Universities can’t discuss prices with each other, this is anti-competitive.  If direct competitors charge less than their rivals it could affect the perceived value of their degrees; erring on the side of caution may inflate the price.  Under the current funding arrangement every single university charges the highest fee possible, the one university that bucked this trend found itself in financial difficulty.

The coalition government expects most universities to charge £6,000 per year.  Sadly all the evidence suggests that, despite the rhetoric, this is highly unlikely.  One suspects the fee debate has a long way to run yet.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

New posts coming soon....

After a short hiatus Treat the Symptom will soon be updated with a number of new posts in  the coming weeks.  Some of these articles have been written for Young Political Bloggers and are appearing on the blog and in the monthly E-magazine.

Among the new posts will be a selection of pieces on education (including tuition fees and the recent white paper, The Importance of Teaching) and a look at the issues surrounding the Alternative Vote referendum in May.