Choosing The Right School Education Essay

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Introduction

Is the option of "choosing the right school" available to all? Before this question can be answered there is a need to understand the complexities that underpin this issue. In the UK there has been a long running political debate about the need to raise educational standards. Why? The educational performance of the UK's secondary schools compares very poorly with our international competitors.

Trust School status, Specialist Schools and City Academies are all part of the current Labour Government's drive to improve the quality of the academic provision and examination results within the secondary school sector. However, government initiatives to raise educational standards are not new. This report begins by exploring the "Great Debate" which was started by another Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, in October 1976.

Section 1 - The Great Debate

On October 18 1976, James Callaghan, delivered a speech, which started the "Great Debate" about the UK's educational system.

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These were some of the issues he raised:

What were the educational practises that were causing criticism among parents and employers?

Was it that child-centred informal instruction was being misunderstood or misused, and was thoroughness, being sacrificed by schools in pursuit of diversity?

Why did some school leavers lack the basic tools to do a job when they left school?

Why did so many girls abandon science even before leaving school?

On the other hand, was the curriculum sufficiently demanding?

Why did industry rank so low in young people's preferences for careers?

Callaghan suggested the introduction of a basic curriculum with national standards of performance to ensure basic literacy and numeracy. Callaghan stated that "….the goal….should be to equip children to the best of their ability for a lively, constructive place in society, and at the same time to fit them to do a job of work, not one for the other….but both…." (Continuing the education debate, 2001, p2).

In 1991, James Callaghan was asked to speak by the Department of Education of Swansea University College at a conference to mark the anniversary of the launch of the Great Debate on Britain's educational aims and methods, 15 years earlier. Callaghan recalled that although both his government and those of his successors had attempted to answer some of these questions, as soon as they were removed from the agenda, others took their place.

In 1991 Prince Charles used the occasion of a Shakespeare birthday lecture to call attention of the unsatisfactory state of nursery education, to deplore the number of children to leave school with no significant qualifications, and to urge that education be given number one priority. During this year there were major debates in both Houses of Parliament, which called for significant changes in the priorities, structure and content of education.

The senior chief inspector of schools stated that in England, 30% of lessons were judged to be poor, or very poor. Sir Claus Moser in his presidential Address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science uttered this stark warning. This country "is now in danger of becoming one of the least adequately educated of all the advanced nations". He called for a leap forward "in the quality and vision of the educational goals we set ourselves" (Continuing the education debate, 2001, p2).

The Great Debate on education that James Callaghan started in October 1976 was still very much alive 15 years later in 1991. This would imply that little had been done by successive governments to resolve the issues that had been raised. However, this was not the case. In this period, there were six secretaries of state and five new education acts introducing many a wide range of measures.

School governing bodies were reformed to give more power to parents, and schools admission policies changed to increase choice. O-levels and CSEs disappeared to be replaced by GCSEs, and new Training and Enterprise Councils were established to oversee and improve technical and business training. In 1988, the government introduced the biggest reforms since the 1944 act, including schools managing their own budgets, standard testing and of course, the National Curriculum.

These changes were implemented by the Conservative Governments that were in power from 1979 to 1997. Many argued that these new measures had been inspired by the Conservatives' ideology, a dislike of local government, a disrespect of those working in the public services, a fixed idea that all problems can be solved by privatisation, as by a serious attempt to get to the root of the nation's educational shortcomings. Not enough effort was made to enlist the support of educationalists for the new measures, and much of the change had been ad hoc, lacking coherence or continuity.

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Set against this debate and controversy surrounding education, its current state and future direction, was the UK's international standing in educational terms. In 1991, 37% of 16 to 18 year-olds stayed on in full-time education. In Japan and the United States the figures were considerably higher. At 19 years of age, the figures were Britain 15%, the United States 48%. It was considered by many that if this situation was not arrested, the UK's future economic prosperity would be at risk.

Section 2 - Education, Education, Education

In 1997, for the first time in over 20 years, a Labour Government came to power. A major policy drive was to be the reform of the educational system in the UK. As part of this reform the Specialist Schools Programme (SSP), which was setup by the Conservative Government in 1994, was to be expanded upon. The SSP was set up to help schools, in partnership with private sector sponsors and by additional Government funding to establish distinctive identities through their chosen specialisms and achieve their targets to raise standards.

Specialist schools have a special focus on those subjects relating to their chosen specialism but must also meet the National Curriculum requirements and deliver a broad and balanced education to all pupils. The SSP promotes school improvement by providing opportunities for schools to work on their strengths, enabling them to deliver effective teaching and learning in their area of expertise, as well as across the curriculum, and to drive innovation.

Applicant schools engage in a thorough audit of their progress so far and set out plans and targets in a thorough audit of their progress so far and set out plans and targets for specialist subject improvement as well as whole school targets. Specialist schools work with partner schools for the benefit of pupils beyond their own school boundaries. This ensures that the programme has an impact by helping to create a diverse network of secondary provision through the sharing of good practice (What are Specialist Schools? www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/specialistschools/what_are?/version=1).

In November 1999, five years after the initiative was launched, it was announced that schools that had opted for Specialist School status had improved their GCSE results at twice the rate the rate of other comprehensives. In this year, 53% of pupils in England's 400 technology, arts, language and sports colleges achieved five GCSEs at grades A* to C, compared with 44% in all state comprehensives. (Specialist schools' results triumph, November 1999, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/527735.stm).

It was argued that the success of Specialist Schools could be put down to the steps taken to identify and rectify poor literacy and numeracy skills among new pupils, and tough targets set for improvements. Since 1994, specialist status had been taken away from 20 schools, which had failed to hit their targets. When Labour was re-elected in 2001, raising standards in secondary schools was to be the focus of its second term. Key terms were bandied about, such as the "modernisation" of the principles of comprehensive education. There was to be a greater variety in the types of state secondary schools - moving away from the "bog standard" model.

There were several major themes proposed to radicalise the secondary school sector in the UK:

Specialist schools - which were allowed to select a small proportion of pupils on aptitude, would be greatly increased - with over half of secondary schools set to have specialist status within five years.

In the inner-cities, there will be "City academies", which would set up in partnership with business and community sponsors.

It was also proposed that there could be an increase in the use of private sector services within the state system - including companies running schools for profit (Labour's plans for schools, June 2001, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/1377921.stm).

In 2001 Academy Schools was part of Labour's plans to raise standards in the UK's secondary schools. They were a new type of school. They are ability schools established by sponsors from business, faith or voluntary groups working in highly innovative partnerships with central Government and local education partners. Sponsors and the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) provide the capital costs for the Academy. Running costs are met in full by the DfES.

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The Academies programme aims to challenge the culture of educational under achievement and to deliver real improvements in standards. Most Academies are located in areas of disadvantage. They either replace one or more existing schools facing challenging circumstances or are established where there is a need for additional school places. Each Academy will provide an excellent environment for teaching and learning that is comparable with the best available in the maintained sector (What are Academies? Schools to make a difference, www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/academies/what_are_academies/?version=1).

The notion that a Labour Government would sanction the partial "privatisation" of the state secondary school sector is a radical departure from what James Callaghan had in mind when he started the Great Debate on education in October 1976.

Section 3 - What Is The Purpose Of Education?

Since James Callaghan launched the Great Debate on education 30 years ago, there have been countless new initiatives and endless reforms. An endless supply of statistics is produced to show that the UK is constantly under performing when compared to its international competitors. In a report produced by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in September 2005, it showed that more pupils leave school at 16 in the UK than in most other industrialised countries. This report paints a stark contrast in the fortunes of teenagers depending on the decisions they make at 16.

The 25% who drop out of education in the UK - eight percentage points higher than in the average for OCED countries - are least likely to re-enter education later on. Meanwhile their peers who go on to higher education reap some of the highest financial returns in the world. While the UK spends more on preschool education than any other country in the OCED, it spends less at the primary and secondary level than average but correspondingly significantly more on higher education (UK failing to keep students on after 16, report shows, September 2005, http://education.guardian.co.uk/further/story/0,,1568921,00.html).

The constant comparison between this country and its international competitors seems to imply that the role of the UK education system is to provide industry, commerce and the public sector with a constant supply of highly skilled, knowledgeable and flexible workers. James Callaghan stated that "….the goal….should be to equip children to the best of their ability for a lively, constructive place in society, and at the same time to fit them to do a job of work, not one for the other….but both…." (Continuing the education debate, 2001, p2).

This complies with an earlier view on the role of education. Michael Sadler stated that "A national system of education involves, implicitly or explicitly, a definite theory as to the right ordering of national life. The establishment of educational unity presupposes general agreement as to national aims and as to the best form of social organisation". (M Sadler cited in Halsey and Webb, 2000, p179). Sadler made his statement in 1902. Some 74 years earlier than James Callaghan.

"Michael Sadler, in his observations to the Board of Education in 1902, no doubt had in mind the fragmented state of schooling in England and Wales at the beginning of the twentieth century. But his proposition also serves as a backdrop for a review of schooling in Britain from 1900 to 2000. At the beginning of the 21st century, claim a far more national system of education, it is still in many ways a composite of the different aims and theories of social organisation and control that held sway at different periods". (Halsey and Webb, 2000, p179).

"There may have been many times of clear consensus about aims or support for radical proposals for the way ahead; for example, in the landmark legislation that set the major changes (for England and Wales - the 1902 Act, the 1944 Act, and arguably the 1988 Education Reform Act). But our national tendency to reform and build on, rather than completely eradicate, what went before is clearly seen in the variety of institutional reforms found throughout the school system. This makes any coherent account of its development a formidable task". (Halsey and Webb, 2000, p179).

The key phrase here is "….different aims and theories of social organisation and control that held sway at different periods…" - this translates into political ideology and perhaps it is the class system that has had the greatest impact on the UK education system.

Section 4 - Education - The Great Leveller?

In football when a Premiership side has to play away to a lower division side on a very muddy and uneven pitch - the phrase "….a great leveller…." is often used to describe the state of the playing surface. This simply means that on a such a terrible surface - the Premiership side - with the technically gifted players will not be able to use slick passing movements to overcome the inferior opposition.

There are ample studies to show that the acquisition of a superior education from joining infant school to graduating from university can produce substantial benefits in terms of career opportunities and earnings capacity. Therefore, do studies reveal education as the "great leveller" in terms of allowing people from "inferior" socio-economic backgrounds to achieve progression in terms of career development and salary earnings?

Will Specialist Schools and Academies transform the lives of pupils who live in deprived inner-city areas?

There are a variety of studies (for example, Halsey et al., 1980, p35) as well as national statistics that throughout the period 1900 to 2000, a remarkably uniform 5 to 8 per cent of the school aged population has been enrolled in private schooling. In the 1960s serious consideration was given to the abolition of the private sector. The shift to comprehensive secondary school in England and Wales underlined the anomalous position of the prestigious direct grant and "public schools".

"….But the resulting Public Schools Commission's first report in 1968 shied away from any radical proposals for abolition or takeover of the private sector, proposing instead a scheme of assisted places with fees paid by the state. A second report in 1970 adopted a tougher line with the direct grant schools. But it was not until 1975 that the direct grant schools were required either to enter the maintained sector or to become independent. About one-third opted for the state sector while the rest become independent". (Halsey and Webb, 2000, p187).

Whilst there may have been a slight reduction in private schools overall since the 1960s (from 7 per cent of all pupils in UK schools in 1965/66 to 6.2 per cent in 1996-97), the private sector has continued to flourish, with numbers particularly at the bottom and top of the age range. Given that nearly 95 per cent of all pupils in the UK attend state schools, does this mean that social background now have less impact on outcomes, such as qualifications or destination? Has educational reform and expansion particularly the spread of comprehensive secondary education, led to a reduction in educational inequality?

The Oxford Social Mobility Study in 1972 (Halsey et al, 1980) focused on staying-on rates and access to higher levels of the educational system. It points to the way that some forms of educational expansion were associated with reductions in inequality. Thus in terms of staying on until 16 or later, the gap apparently narrowed between boys from the "service" class (higher non-manual occupations) and the working class. However, this was not the case for staying on until 18 or later, or in terms of attendance at university.

In a more recent study based upon data drawn from the British Election Surveys, Heath and Clifford (1996) came to a more pessimistic set of conclusions. Testing for success in terms of O levels or equivalent qualifications in their birth cohorts from the 1930s to the 1960s, they first point to the high levels of expansion - particularly marked among the working-class groups who start from a low base and therefore, make more absolute progress. However, in testing for changes in the relative chances over time, they conclude "…that there have been no significant reductions in inequality on this measure of educational outcome…." (Heath and Clifford, 1996, p222).

Section 5 - Whatever Happened To Comprehensive Schools?

How can there have been no significant in reduction in inequalities? A potential answer lies in an article written by Nick Davies in 1999. "…In the late 1960s, well-meaning politicians accepted the most progressive idea in the history of British education. They decided to establish a national network of school which would deal equally with all children, providing a free secondary education for all students, all of backgrounds without favour of class or ability....".(Bias that killed the dream of equality, September 1999, p1, www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story,0,,271559,00.html).

"….Ever since then, this brave new idea has been awash with controversy. It has been accused of penalising the brightest children, of fostering a culture of non-achievement, of allowing egalitarian dogma to smother educational opportunity….The underlying issue is not whether comprehensive schools are good or bad but whether they actually exist…." (Bias that killed the dream of equality, September 1999, p2, www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story,0,,271559,00.html).

In this article, Davies analyses the performance of two schools in Sheffield over a 30-year period. In 1999, Abbeydale Grange was a classic example of a struggling inner-city school, the kind that is often held up as the clearest evidence of the failure of the comprehensive ideal. Silverdale, the jewel in Sheffield's educational crown, a school whose consistently high academic achievements made it one of the most praised in the country. Yet thirty years the situation regarding these two schools is completely reversed.

The top school in the city is not Silverdale but Abbeydale Grange, newly created out of three old grammar schools, two for girls and one for boys. Abbeydale is a model of old-fashioned academic achievement, with enviable results in 'O' levels and 'A' levels. Silverdale had its reputation rooted in history - as an underperforming secondary modern. Abbeydale Grange's new catchment area now covered some of the most deprived areas in the city. The school was no longer protected by the high fence of the 11-plus exam.

Plus local councillors were keen to help the children of constituents who complained that they were being pushed into the bottom sets and streams of the old "posh" schools. They started to push for the adoption of mixed-ability teaching: the poor and the rich, the slow and the bright would be taught together. A lot of teachers objected. They were overruled. By the early 1980s the number of pupils attending the school fell from 2,300 to less than 2,000. Many children were transferred to Silverdale, which was set in an affluent white suburb.

In the 1980s the rapidly changing fortunes of these two schools was compounded by a raft of measures introduced by the Conservative Government. A market in state schooling was created. The education authorities lost the power to assign children to schools; parents alone would choose. The schools would test their pupils; the results would be published in league tables, which would have a powerful influence on parental choice. The schools which attracted the most children would be rewarded with extra funds. The vast bulk of the budget of each school would now be decided by the number of students on its roll.

"….With an "open market", Abbeydale Grange suddenly found itself the scene of a full-blooded white middle-class exodus. By the late 1980s the school was left with less than 500 pupils. Middle-class parents moved house and relocated within Silverdale's catchment area. Figures reveal that today poor children at Abbeydale Grange outnumber affluent children by a factor of 3 to 1 (At Silverdale the figures are the opposite) and it has one of the most disadvantaged intakes in the city - 53 per cent of its pupils claim free school meals…." (Bias that killed the dream of equality, September 1999, p5, www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story,0,,271559,00.html).

Whilst the two schools featured in Nick Davies' article might be considered to be an "extreme" example of what has happened to comprehensive schools since their inception - it does provide an explanation of why the rapid rise of the state sector since the end of World War Two has not resulted in a significant reduction in educational inequalities between middle-class and working-class pupils (as evidenced by the Halsey et al, and Heath and Clifford studies).

Under the old system the 11-plus was the barrier that preventing the working-class from attending well resourced schools. Today it is the price of property in the catchment of state secondary schools which have an excellent track of academic results and which are well placed in performance league tables.

Section 6 - Are Academies The Answer?

As already discussed, Specialist Schools were introduced in 1994 with the goal of raising academic achievement. Today there are 2,502 designated specialist schools. They represent over 75% of all secondary schools and over 2.5 million pupils attend these institutions. The Five Year Strategy encourages and supports schools to consider taking on both foundation and specialist school status. Foundation status is the key lever for increased autonomy. High performing specialist schools will have the opportunity to take on a second specialism, training school status and participate in Leading Edge Partnership activity.

Inner-city secondary schools have the option to apply to become a Specialist School, as outlined above. However, city academies have been introduced to specifically to improve the performance of inner-city secondary schools. The scheme is radical - in essence the existing school is flattened and is replaced with a brand new purpose built one. The underlying ethos is that a new environment will help deprived children see education exciting and important. However, city academies have proved to be controversial for a number of reasons.

In the north-east of England, the Emmanuel Foundation - set up by the evangelical multi-millionaire Sir Peter Vardy - sponsors two academies. The group has been accused of promoting a "creationist" curriculum, teaching "Christian Truth" in subjects such as maths and history. In the Conisbrough and Denaby area of south Yorkshire, where another Emmanuel-sponsored academy was planned, the parents were concerned that their children might be "brainwashed" in lessons. Doncaster Council consequently rejected the proposal for an academy in their area.

Also, among the first eleven academies to be set-up and running, GCSE-level results have not improved at five and that others the results had actually got worse. On the evidence to-date there is little to suggest that city academies provide inner-city parents with any more choice regarding the secondary school their children will attend. Indeed the problems that were highlighted in the Nick Davies article still pertain - middle class parents are prepared to relocate to an area where the local secondary school has an excellent reputation and a proven track record of academic success. On many occasions this is an option not available to many working class families.

Section 7 - Conclusions: Youth Disaffection

An important element is often missed or simply ignored from the educational debate surrounding secondary schools - youth disaffection. Several inter-linked trends have had an important impact upon the social exclusion of young people over the last 20 years. It has been argued that the decline of many manufacturing industries with changes in gender roles and the associated transformations in patterns of family life, have combined to make the transition from childhood to adult independence ever more protracted, uncertain and difficult (Bentley and Gurumurthy, 1999; Jones, 1999; Merton, 1998).

The possibility of a single linear transition from childhood dependence to full independence as an adult has become more elusive than at any time in the recent past, with the result that inconsistent role expectations can place a significant strain on young people. Whereas twenty years ago nearly half of all school leavers went straight into employment, today the figure stands at less than one in ten (Hayman, 2000).

The collapse of the youth labour market can be seen to have impacted particularly hard on the identity of working class men, who are left feeling and unwanted in the new economy. Set against the rising tide of youth disaffection, the Labour Government's measures to improve the academic performance of teenagers in the inner-cities through the introduction of city academics seems superfluous and totally ignores the deeper-rooted problems facing young people today. New and radical ideas are needed to resolve this situation.

Section 8 - Recommendations: A Blueprint For Future Action

The Government must undertake radical action to provide children from working class backgrounds with a clear vision of a future in which they will be able to gain meaningful employment. The Government must introduce clear pathways for sustainable careers into the school curriculum for pupils aged 14 and above. More concentrated action should be taken to improve the numeracy and literacy levels of underachieving pupils. Less emphasis should be placed on academic excellence but rather on vocational excellence.

Young people who attend underachieving inner-city schools will perform better if they can visualise a future which involves being gainfully employed as opposed to standing on street corners. Business sponsorship of inner-city schools should be encouraged to improve the quality of resources and equipment. But it must also be linked to providing young people with the opportunities to have greater access to work placements - with the prospect of securing full-time employment.

As stated, in this study educational reform in the UK since the end of World War Two has been driven to a large extent by political ideologies. Each of which, has their own vision of citizenship. The liberal conception entails the following "….social, class and economic inequalities are capable of being redressed through the recognition of social rights and basic entitlement to economic…." (Bartlett and Burton, 2003, p103).

In contrast with the liberal view, the New Right perceives citizenship in a completely different light. "….the relationship between the individual and state are conceived in terms that are explicitly contractual….a version of this perspective was prominent throughout the 1980s….in which the pursuit of self-interest formed the backdrop of an enterprise culture…." (Bartlett and Burton, 2003, p106). Whatever one's political views - it must be recognised that young people who consider that they have no prospects are very unlikely to become responsible and conscientious citizens.