As the dreaded multi-millionaire privately educated ex-PM, Tony Blair, pops up in his former constituency of Sedgefield to have a pop at David Cameron over the EU referendum, I was prompted to recall his Education, Education, Education mantra of 20 years ago.
Apart from introducing a few Academies, he failed a generation by dumbing down instead of raising aspiration, and introducing soft subjects which were meaningless in a work context but raised pass levels and a cohort of graduates in tourism, event management and marketing.
Instead of encouraging discipline in the 3 ‘R’s which is what employers want and need, too many children never learnt to add up without a computer, or write a simple sentence which was grammatically correct. Still, too few children reach the required standard, but, with their reforms,
Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan have strived to reverse the downward trend and upskill our young people by raising achievement and supporting apprenticeships.
The argument about ‘qualified’ versus ‘unqualified’ teachers is largely spurious; does it include Teaching Assistants, whose roles are under review with a report due shortly? Or the highly qualified graduates who simply don’t have a formal teaching qualification, which can, however, be undertaken whilst working in a school – teaching! Since these graduates staff academies or private schools, is this yet again merely campaigning against the ‘better off’?
Despite the government’s commitment to improving education, we have a shortage of qualified workers in many sectors, including medicine and construction, whilst a damning new NUT-commissioned report by two Cambridge professors has ‘exposed the scandal of tens of thousands of forgotten children with special needs’. They suggest that the ‘experiment of teaching such children in mainstream rather than special schools has failed’. As a school governor, I can only applaud their honesty, when I have long believed the policy was wrong; by the time the news was published, I had already requested a SEN review in my own school to see how provision for these children, as well as the high achievers, can be improved.
Another issue is that, contrary to the common view, girls outperform boys, especially in single sex classes, and are going on to dominate certain professions previously regarded as male domains. As an example, 75 per cent of veterinary graduates are women, and 61 per cent of doctors under 30. These figures have implications for society, since women often work part time and are likely to retire early; a recent survey indicated that we now need to train two female doctors to do the job of one male.
With too few men teaching in primary schools, and single family units without a male role model, boys can lack motivation and a sense of direction. So where are the men? In engineering, where less than 10 per cent are female (although they are making a name for themselves in several sectors) and IT, the service sector (estate agents, call centres, banking), the Armed Services and Police/Security. There are more men in skilled manufacturing, but even here women are encroaching, and colleges praise girls for often coming top of their class in skills like welding.
Nevertheless, however hard they try, too few state schools are a match for the top private schools, with their focus on creating well rounded individuals with a broad education which gives them the confidence to succeed in whatever they do. Labour cancelled the educational support programme introduced under Thatcher which enabled top achievers in state schools to transfer to the private sector, but now we are seeing some of the UK’s best public schools take up the mantle.
Eton now has one in five of its 1,300 pupils on some form of scholarship, taking children on academic merit from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds and some of the worst schools across the country. With careful mentoring, they are flourishing both educationally and socially, enjoying the broad timetable of lessons, arts, music, drama and sport; the rich kids also benefit from sharing life with people from less privileged backgrounds. Eton instils responsibility and leadership skills in its pupils, creativity and entrepreneurism, ambition to succeed and that all important sense of fun which helps to develop lifelong friendships with people from all walks of life.
At the primary school on a council estate where I am a governor, we are building a strong relationship with one of the top local private schools, and – for the first time ever – two of our youngsters have just won life-changing scholarships to the upper school, where they will undoubtedly be encouraged to aim for Oxbridge.
It was a struggle to get all our teachers and fellow governors to recognise the opportunities of developing a partnership to support the most talented of our pupils, but resistance is now weakening, if not quite crumbling…
Given this modest achievement, I would urge those local authorities which still have the educational brief to forget their prejudices about ‘elitism’ and build similar relationships with private schools; they are charities and some are already sponsoring academies whilst similarly awarding scholarships.
This country needs an educational revolution to compete in the world; that revolution has started, but it requires commitment, enthusiasm, and honesty to become further embedded. Privately-educated Tristram Hunt in the DfE would take us back to the bad old days, and our economy can’t afford to allow that to happen. Nevertheless, I agree with him that State Heads don’t always have strong management skills, and that certainly needs to be addressed.
After the elections, council leaders with failing schools should institute full and robust reviews of their education services, by successful high-achieving authorities. You may be surprised at the faultlines and criticisms which emerge. As a former Outstanding head, who now advises ‘inadequate’ schools, said to me the other day, ‘some education authorities should be sacked’.
We all have a duty to put children’s interests above politics, and aim high for them and their parents.