First 100 Days - Transforming Education
Prof Gemma Moss
Gemma Moss is Professor of Education at the University of Bristol and President Elect of the British Educational Research Association.
Any progressive government committed to transforming education in the UK into a fairer and less fragmented system needs to start from first principles. Reading the party manifestos, it is striking how much divergence there now is in the way education operates in the different regions of the UK, and how far education in England has become an 'outlier'. England has gone much further in dismantling the link between the locality in which children live and the schools they attend. Children now travel greater distances to find a school, losing the connection to friends and neighbouring families in the places in which they grow up. This erodes the sense of local community.
Locally-based democratic control over education has been undermined by marginalising the role of local authorities.
They no longer play a key part in determining who runs schools in their area, a power now exercised in Whitehall. Locally held powers to ensure that schools cooperate, rather than compete, over admissions, over exclusions, over “market share”, over resources and over investment in teacher knowledge and school improvement, are all greatly diminished. Giving more power to individual heads or academy chains, as the Coalition government has chosen to do, has not ensured adequate planning for school places, and does little to guarantee security of provision into the future. Academy chains and free schools have no equivalent duty of care to the communities where they are based. The processes by which Academy sponsors are appointed, their finances and governance structures, remain opaque.
The Ofsted assessment regime penalises rather than supports schools operating in the most challenging of circumstances, creating instability in staffing and leadership. All of this heightens a sense of insecurity in the education system as a whole. Parents are now expected to compete for school places increasingly distant from where they live. In a context where English local authorities are prevented from establishing new schools under their own control, parents cannot routinely expect to find a locally accountable school with high quality support. These flaws in the system have been exacerbated by the sharp rise in pupil numbers and the pressure this has placed on the provision of school places.
Education has become a gamble on an unpredictable future. Students choosing what and where to study as they move from school into university are expected to carry the financial risk of the individual decisions they make.
In all of this the English system has moved very far away from thinking of education as a public good, as a means of building social cohesion at local level, and as a way of underwriting the contract between the state and the citizen, in which the state promises to act on the citizen’s behalf. Look to Scotland for a clear articulation of another model, based on stable professional partnerships between local authorities, the teaching profession and the research community, working in the interests of the populations they serve and towards a common goal.
The problems in the English system are urgent. A progressive government will need to tackle them head on. Within the first 100 days of taking office, a key priority is to make all schools locally accountable to the communities they serve. This requires reconstituting local education authorities as the body responsible for educational planning in their area and to whom all schools, whatever their status, are accountable. Local authorities should resume the capacity to open new schools under their own control. Funding would need to fully recognise the different levels of disadvantage that particular communities face.
A progressive government will reinstate a proper separation of powers within the education system, so that an independent framework for reviewing curriculum, pedagogy and the examination system draws on stable partnerships between local authorities, the research community and the teaching profession. This will minimise the capacity of governments to change any such arrangements for short-term political gain.
Ofsted would be transformed into a hub for research-informed knowledge exchange that advises ministers on the key issues facing the education system and helps them decide where investment is most needed to meet new challenges. This would mean intelligence gathering and horizon scanning using far more substantial and sophisticated research tools than the current over-reliance on monitoring performance data year by year with a round of supplementary annual inspections.
A progressive government would invest in properly-funded, high-quality teacher education that harnesses the best evidence from research to inform practice, and values the contributions that university departments make to developing the profession alongside school-based expertise.
For too long there has been an excessively narrow focus on the economic function of education, important as that may be. Education should prepare children and young people to serve purposeful and rewarding lives, whatever their economic circumstances. The next government must re-affirm that the education system is a collective investment in all of our futures and that the well-being of children and the communities that schools serve are core to their functioning and should take precedence over other concerns.
There are resources available to any government willing to make the necessary changes and wishing to act fast on these issues within their first 100 days. The British Educational Research Association has published an evidence-based policy manifesto for Fair and Equal Education that reports on the research evidence that can help create a fairer and more flourishing society¹. Much could be gained by collaborating across the four regions of the UK to distil lessons learnt from the different approaches each has taken to investing in education and ensuring that more young people have ready access to a useful and enriching curriculum.
All of this requires the political will to step back from both micro-managing education at the centre; while also outsourcing key decisions about curriculum content and pedagogy, about who will manage schools, or about the form key assessment instruments will take, to an unaccountable few. A flourishing education system depends upon forging strong partnerships between educators, young people, their families and their communities; those who research education in its diverse forms; and those who organise and system-manage it, in pursuit of a shared vision of the common good. Their collective expertise should be deployed to make an honest appraisal of where the difficulties still lie, whilst strengthening the local resolve to make education work for all.
1 BERA (2015) Fair and Equal Education: An evidence-based policy manifesto that respects children and young people.