State Education – Why can’t we learn from past mistakes?

Concern has been expressed that many of Lincolnshire’s secondary schools were not achieving results in the league tables for GCSE comparable with those of our grammar schools. Of course what are in effect Secondary Moderns cannot possibly compete with grammar schools that cream off the best academic students at the age of 11.

It was this disparity which led to the abolition of most of this country’s grammar schools in the 1960s and 1970s and their replacement with all ability comprehensives. Add to that the worrying recent statistic that many teachers are apparently choosing to leave the service within a couple of years of starting their careers, and that pupil numbers are set to increase considerably in a few years time, and we could have a major national crisis on our hands.

It was all so different when I started teaching in 1966. State secondary education was about to undergo major change, which educationalists and politicians hoped would set it fair for many generations. It was accepted in most circles that, whilst it may have worked for that narrow group of so called academic students, the tripartite system of grammar schools, technical grammar schools and secondary modern schools that had been envisaged in the 1944 Education Act had morphed, thanks mainly to the inability of the technical grammar schools to get off the ground, into one which was condemning generations of young people to careers with limited horizons and which effectively labelled them as failures in educational terms.

When I took up my first teaching post in Nottinghamshire, grammar schools there were finding it increasingly difficult to attract staff, as most new teachers in the state system were opting for the new comprehensive schools that were springing up around the country and whose growth was accelerated under Education Secretaries Margaret Thatcher and Shirley Williams in the 1970s.

A few authorities, including the newly formed Lincolnshire County Council, held on to most of their grammar schools, although the old Kesteven County Council and the Lincoln Borough Council had, by the time LCC came into being in 1974, already started to replace many of their grammar schools with 11 to 18 comprehensives and non selective Lower, Middle and Upper Schools respectively.

By the time I arrived in the county in 1977 the system was up and running and delivering the goods. Far more students were gaining GCE’s and CSE’s and continuing into the Sixth Form or further education than had ever been the case before and the numbers gaining the qualifications for and entering higher education were also significantly on the rise.

Despite this apparent success, many of us at the ‘chalk face’ could already see problems ahead, much of them of our own making. Many comprehensive schools abandoned setting and introduced mixed ability teaching, which was laudable in many ways but which tended to be less rigorous for the more academically able.

It usually required a massive amount of preparation time for teachers to make it work effectively, time which very few actually had. In some more ‘progressive’ areas, experiments in pupil democracy were undertaken. Secondary schools in places like Leicestershire and Inner London, for example, became more egalitarian, with teachers and students in some schools on first name terms. Vocational education generally was increasingly frowned upon, particularly as much of our traditional manufacturing industry was beginning to close down.

In the early decades of change, politicians, both local and national, allowed the educational establishment virtual carte blanche to do more or less what it liked without any checks and balances. It was the late Lord Callaghan, in his speech at Ruskin College, Oxford on 18 October 1976, who first sounded the alarm bells that heralded the great national debate on public education; and it was Tory Education Secretary, now Lord Kenneth Baker, who introduced the national curriculum in the late 1980s.

Since then, what started out as a core curriculum of two or three subjects has grown into an almost all embracing straight jacket which has stifled much of the spontaneity that was the feature of education not that many years ago.

That the education establishment needed a dose of common sense is undisputed. The introduction of league tables in 1992 by the Major government, which became enshrined in the national psyche, was an integral part of the process.

Once national politicians got their hands on the reins, they refused to let go, with the main victims being the local education authorities up and down the country. With the establishment first of grant maintained schools in the late 1980s, then their conversion to foundation schools in 1998 and now with academies, LEAs are now, to all intents and purposes, irrelevant until things start to go wrong.

Monitoring and assessment had, to a great extent, been lacking in the early days of comprehensive education, became the ‘be-all-and-end-all’ in most cases. With most funds passing directly from the Department of Education to individual schools, external control and influence, which used to be exerted by the local authority, now largely resides with Secretaries of State and their enforcers in the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED).

If all schools and their teachers are to meet the challenges of the 21st century things must change and we need to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Starting with primary schools, the basic requirement has got to be that all youngsters need to be comfortable with English and Maths before they move on to secondary school. Do they really need to start formal education at four years of age, let alone be tested at that age as well? Children in most European countries don’t start formal education until they are around six or seven without apparently any detrimental effect.

There should be no formal selection at 11. It was wrong in the 1950s and 60s, and it would be a disaster today if it returned everywhere. As far as Lincolnshire’s existing grammar schools are concerned, the difficulty lies in their small size and that of the secondary moderns.

It used to be generally acknowledged that a comprehensive school needs a student population of at least 800 to offer the breadth of curriculum required. To go comprehensive would require a massive building programme that the authority just cannot afford at present. In any case, how do you get what are basically independent schools to collaborate in any meaningful way, when they are forced forever to look over their shoulders at what the competition is doing?

All state schools should once again be democratically accountable to their communities through a strengthened but ‘light touch’ local educational authority. The potentially dangerous experiment of so called ‘Free Schools’ should be abandoned.

The status of vocational education should be enhanced by the introduction of an overarching Diploma of the type recommended by the 2004 Tomlinson Report into 14 to 19 education, which was largely ignored by the Blair government. After all, we now appear to have decided that we actually do want to make things again.

All independent schools should have their charitable status removed. If parents insist on having their children educated privately they should pay the full cost and not expect assistance from the taxpayer. If league tables are to survive, a far greater emphasis should be placed on so called ‘value added’ which indicates more precisely how much of an improvement in many areas a student has made over the five to seven years he or she has attended secondary school.

If attitudes do not change, even more schools will struggle to compete on this uneven playing field, even more young teachers will throw in the towel because of pressure to meet targets and work overload, as well as the insipient lack of discipline exhibited by many youngsters and increasing numbers of parents who will challenge every attempt to control unacceptable behaviour in their offspring.

Even more schools in challenging areas will struggle to attract specialist staff with the obvious knock on effect on exam results. Whilst they do, of course, need to be accountable, teachers deserve a break from constant statutory interference from politicians who continue to move the goalposts every few years. They need to be allowed to get on with their job to ensure that the citizens of tomorrow are properly equipped to cope with the challenges of an uncertain future.