Education is emerging as the key battleground in the election. The other night Ed Balls, Michael Gove and David Laws went head-to-head in a memorably bad tempered debate on Newsnight. There was no real policy content – as James Forsyth has pointed out that was left to the general public. The politicians were at in again this Tuesday at an event to debate the future of vocational education (with Nick Gibb subbing in for Gove). The event was organised by the vocational education charity Edge. Edge presented its election manifesto showing that that the vast majority of the public want to see high-quality vocational education in schools.
How did the politicians respond? Nick Gibb backed high-quality vocational courses taught by people with workplace experience. He maintained, however, that vocational education must go alongside academic education. Ed Balls argued that vocational education could help enthuse pupils about academic subjects. He also criticised tentative Conservative proposals to remove vocational qualifications from school-by-school comparisons as an indication of snobbishness.
But it was left to David Laws to make the killer point. He criticised schools for pushing less able students towards poor quality vocational qualifications to help improve their performance in the league tables. The best example of this is the (now defunct) GNVQ. The GNVQ was heavily criticised by teachers, students and educationalists. But Terry Wrigley at the University of Edinburgh has shown that some schools still encouraged students to study for the qualification because it delivered easy points in the league tables.
The obvious solution, of course, is to reform the way that schools are held accountable. One option would be to do away with league tables entirely. However, most parents value this kind of information when choosing a school. So reforming league tables would seem more practical. It’s likely that the Sykes Review, which is expected to report soon, will recommended that league tables should reward schools for sending students to Russell Group Universities.
I think that this is good policy (although I would also want to see a similar measure for students go straight into the workplace). It’s also true, however, that the proposals are technocratic in the extreme. I reckon that Michael Barber, Tony Blair’s old advisor on public service reform, would endorse these proposals. So I’d argue that we also need to think about other more traditional (and dare I say it British) kinds of accountability that could help reintroduce rigour into the education system.
One option here is the UK’s forgotten army of school governors. School governors are at the heart of local democracy – there are about 310,000 governors in the country’s 23,000 schools. What is more, the best of them bring much-needed skills from the commercial sector and are not in the pay of the education system. At the moment, however, their powers are weak compared to those of headteachers and the Government. Like so many of our traditional institutions their hands are tied.
Challenging this state of affairs would allow an incoming government, of whatever stripe, to give business minded people a greater role in education at no cost to the taxpayer (an important consideration given the parlous state of the public finances). Readers may well point out that there is currently a dearth of volunteers for school governor posts. It’s certainly true that many schools struggle to recruit governors from business backgrounds (although charities such as SGOSS are having some success). It’s also true, however, that many people are frustrated by the lack of power that the role has. Many good governors have quit.
Giving greater power and profile to school governors could turn this crisis around. Enhancing the status of the position would attract a greater variety of talented people to the role – in particular people from business backgrounds and other active members of the community – to help ensure that schools up their game. Indeed, we only need to look over the school wall into the private sector to see what strong governing bodies can achieve.