Daniel Downes is a secondary school teacher in Buckinghamshire.
If you were to design an Outstanding school, what would it look like? It is the aim of every Government to ensure that the nation’s children receive an exceptional education; where students are motivated, staff are passionate and the leaders are innovating, but what does that mean?
89 per cent of England’s schools are currently rated as ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ by OFSTED. This is a ludicrously high number when compared to the decline of National GCSE results (both A*-C and A*/A grades) and the worsening performance of English schools in International League Tables. When you consider these trends against a crisis in specialist teacher shortages; especially in Science and Mathematics, how can it be that only 11 per cent of English schools are ‘Inadequate’ or ‘Requiring Improvement’?
In their Annual Report as well as highlighting the concerning divide between the quality of education in the North compared to that of the South, OFSTED also provided recommendations on how England could create a World Class education system on a par with that of South East Asia. Among these were to ensure that standards are high across all schools in England and that the quality of technical instruction is equal to that of academic education.
The problem with high standards is that they are relative to the present Government and Education Secretary. The advantage of the lift on the ban of academic selection for schools is that it recognises something central about Education policy in England – Governments haven’t been very good at it. There is, of course, a need for standards and regulations in place when we set about designing the best way to prepare our children for life outside of the classroom; but when it comes to the provision of that service there is no good evidence that the State knows best.
It is this misunderstanding of how to manage education that has led to the deficit in technical provision for young people and the growing regional inequality of standards. A national, holistic approach to education has meant that Governments have been unable to adapt quickly enough to regional and local needs. Removing some of the regulation involved in building a new school or changing the organisation of existing ones will allow interested parties in local communities to truly respond to the challenges and opportunities in their areas.
The competition this could, and also should, create would further encourage schools to drive up standards and offer parents greater choice about the type of education that is best for their children. These reforms should be about creating a diverse plethora of the country’s best schools, it is not just about bringing back a nostalgia-tinted school system from yester-year.
The greatest barrier of the current model is that it is one of selection, and not of choice. Children whose parents cannot afford to move to a desirable catchment area for their local ‘Outstanding’ school find themselves at the mercy of the post code lottery. Allowing schools and communities greater freedoms over their intake and curriculum offer will mean that parents and students will have a greater amount of choice about the kind of education they will receive. As they currently stand, Grammar schools do create a win/lose dichotomy in their areas because of their limited places and excellent reputations. The key is to solve the problem of how to provide a World-Class education of those that are currently losing, whilst allowing Grammar Schools to continue to flourish.
Awarding greater autonomy for schools to form partnerships with businesses is also essential if we are to tackle the worrying lack of technical skills that our children are currently being delivered. Imagine the impact that would be made if schools in areas of high deprivation were able to work with businesses, both large and small, in delivering quality technical training.
What if a school were able to timetable regular sessions for students so that they could work alongside butchers, hairdressers, car mechanics, plumbers or electricians? Local businesses would be able to seek partnerships in order to maintain their own labour force and schools would be able to better prepare children for their professional lives. Limiting work experience to a couple of weeks of the school calendar or having students enter formal apprenticeships without any experience of what these careers actually entail simply does not do enough to provide students with choice or skills.
The present generation of students carry in their pockets access to the entirety of human knowledge. This provides an astonishing opportunity and an overwhelming challenge. Learning is no longer an exercise simply in remembering key facts; it is about interpreting, analysing and designing.
Are schools in the present model able to maximise the potential of both the students and these new technologies? I am sure that there are, in this country and Internationally, examples of schools that are beginning to come to terms with how to tap in to these phenomenal possibilities, but they aren’t nearly prevalent enough. For Britain to be at the forefront of research and innovation then we need to plant the seed of curiosity as soon as humanly possible, but instead we salt the earth. Children live in an instant, interactive, interconnected World, so why is it that our education system in the most part still judges them in such a two-dimensional way? What do students get out of it? What do employers?
The quest for an equality of outcomes for all pupils has led to a homogeneity in education that schools provide. The constant measuring of results and progress means that schools must necessarily focus on the immediate task of ensuring that students are skilled in taking exams without focussing on the needs of the whole student. Of course there are exceptions to these rules, but they are anomalies when they should be the benchmark. Russell Hobby, the head of the National Association of Head Teachers has even criticised the use of the ‘Outstanding’ classification awarded by OFSTED, stating that fear of losing the status both stifles innovation and limits a school’s ability to recruit exceptional leaders.
So I ask you again, if you were to design an Outstanding school, what would it look like? The Government has created a dialogue on how schools select pupils; the next step is to provide parents with the power to select between a range of exceptional schools.