There was an interesting article in The Telegraph about a German expat banker named Arnold Holle warning his fellow countrymen that British private schools were disappointing, and they would be better off educating their kids at home.
I do not wish to debate the merits of British private schools, though the success of their graduates in this country has as much to do with the poor state of the comprehensive system as it does with the quality of education they give. What I find far more interesting is that Mr Holle scratched beneath the surface of the undeserved global reputation of English education to see something ugly beneath.
He observed that British private schools cocoon their pupils in a world or privilege and said, rightly, that “no other Western country makes it more difficult for its underclass to rise upwards”. This is the reality of education in this country. Our global reputation – an historical legacy – is upheld by our private schools and elite universities, but beneath them is a system of utter mediocrity that leaves their pupils ill equipped to challenge the elite and break the barriers of the class system.
It is touching to hear migrants crossing the Mediterranean and travelling across Europe to get to Britain because they want an “English education”, but my advice would be to go elsewhere. They will not find what they are looking for in our rotten comprehensives.
Michael Gove’s reforms were positive and praiseworthy but cannot alone fix a broken system that betrays the poor and churns out thousands of unskilled, ignorant illiterates year upon year. The current reforms must be extended; we need more academies, and they must be encouraged to use their new powers of autonomy as many are still not taking full advantage of them. Free schools should be built wherever there is the will and demand.
The long standing culture of low standards has been identified and attempts have been made to begin to address it, but symptoms still persist and will continue to do so unless even more radical change is realised.
Separating schools from the state as much as possible is absolutely necessary. The constant micro-management and back-of-a-coaster policy ideas from ministers often have an adverse effect on teachers and pupils. Moreover, while the state still tightly controls education political ideology will always trump the primary purpose of schools, which is (believe it or not) to educate children.
The notion that schools are engines for social engineering has been severely damaging to education in this country, and attempts to use them as such has had the opposite effect; social mobility has gone backwards and the education of the poor has suffered. Revolutions in teaching methods, discipline (or lack of), systematic structure change and an overhaul of the central ethos of education have all been enacted by the state in an ill-fated attempt to shape society for the better.
Breaking the power of the teaching unions is essential. They should exist to negotiate working conditions, arbitrate work disputes and argue for fair salaries – not to impose their pernicious ideology on teachers and schools. They are still championing methods that have proven to be detrimental to generations of children and resist all attempts to reform education.
There should be no national pay scale; schools should be able to pay better performing teachers more, as well as setting higher salaries for certain subjects to attract top talent. We want real subject experts and enthusiasts in our classrooms and strong, inspirational leaders and innovators leading departments. Prattle on about it being a “vocational” career all you like, what will entice the right people is a fitting salary.
Bad teachers need to be rooted out, currently schools can only try and move them on by making life a little uncomfortable for them, in which case they may move schools (which just transfers the problem elsewhere in the system) or they go off sick for months on end with “stress”. The other option is for frustrated heads and team leaders to count the days until the dud teacher retires. We cannot let the inflexibility of the public sector cause any more suffering to children. Newly empowered heads must be able to hire and fire teachers according to merit.
Parental choice and accountability is a must if we are to reform a mercilessly inflexible system that favours the rich and pulls up every social ladder, leaving the children of the poor to rot. Affluent families are mobile, if they need to move into a better area to access a better school they can and will. Poorer families are not able to do this and currently the state tells them to take it or leave it and so generation after generation attend terrible schools long after their failure as institutions is obvious. School vouchers (calculated on the basis of the average per capita spend) should be handed to parents who wish to opt out of their local catchment area and send their children to another school. Bad schools, subject to these market conditions, will fail to attract pupils and will close down.
It would be beneficial if private companies were actively encouraged into the education system. For profit schools and technical colleges would go where there is demand, and the greatest demand tends to be in those areas where education at its worst. This means in our sink estates and ghettos. Replacing a situation in which urban estates have failing institutions saved from closing because of large catchment areas and no competition, would be one in which private schools meet demand and operate in competition with each other; competing for pupils, competing to innovate, and competing to improve and raise the standards of education.
Another measure – that absolutely must be implemented if there is any hope at all of once again having world class education system in England – is the repeal of the spiteful ban on new grammar schools. There is no more damning indictment of state control of education than this mad ideological drive to shut down the grammar schools. Received wisdom says that selection by ability is wrong, yet we have a grotesque system based on selection by wealth. There is no rational, reasonable or sensible argument against schools with the freedom to select by ability.
Grammar schools had increasingly begun to compete with private schools and the proportion of grammar school educated children going to Oxford and Cambridge increased annually. This progress was stopped in its tracks when it could have been accelerated. There should have been a drive to open many, many more grammar schools; to improve the admissions criteria and to increase the number of girls and poor children gaining access. Instead they were shut down.
There are still many grammar school educated people in politics, the arts and the media, but they are a rapidly dying breed in industries now almost totally dominated by the graduates of elite schools and universities. This destruction was wrought by socialist minds in the name of egalitarianism, as ever the consequences were catastrophic. There was no serious resistance from the right either, for shame.
The advance of the comprehensive school led directly to the decline in education standards and social mobility. Abolishing grammar schools didn’t raise standards, secondary moderns are still here; they’re called comprehensives. Bad schools are not improved by closing down good schools, instead standards have lowered across the board. This historical wrong must be made right.
In order to reignite social mobility in this country and split our elites wide open, to lower the ladder of opportunity to the long betrayed children of the poor, and to restore our education system to greatness; we need radicalism, and we need the barriers to improvement and reform to be swept aside, for good.