We Need A Cross Party Education Plan with Common Goals
The education system in the UK is falling behind. The ways in which we teach are outdated, but so too is our subject matter and the way that we define success or failure in an academic context.
As we continue down the narrow academic path, we have been on for decades, we are ignoring and side-lining students who don’t/can’t engage and succeed academically, when in fact, if they were given more of an individualised education with practical subjects and learning opportunities, they could thrive.
Is the government genuinely working to improve social mobility or do they want to keep certain sections of society immobile? Our education system was developed well over a century ago based on a factory manufacturing model where children are placed on a learning conveyor belt, then sorted, packaged and labelled according to their so-called intelligence.
However, currently there is no excuse for such a top-down, one-size-fits-all education system that does not enable all children to thrive in their own way.
England Education History
The history of education in England is documented from the Saxon settlement of England, and the setting up of the first cathedral schools in 597 AD and 604 AD. Schools have always, historically, been linked to religion, mainly because the church was often responsible for the funding. Religion was probably one of the main reasons education came about, people needed to be able to read from religious texts (such as the Bible) and take religious instruction.
Education from 597 AD
St Augustine arrived in England in 597 AD and founded two churches in Canterbury. One was Christ Church Cathedral; the other was a monastery dedicated to SS Peter and Paul (later known as St Augustine’s). There weren’t any schools or churches, at this time, so Augustine set about creating both. He and his successors set up two types of school: the grammar school to teach Latin to English priests, and the song school where the ‘sons of gentlefolk’ were trained to sing in cathedral choirs.
Education from 871 AD
In 871 AD Alfred became King of Wessex and he began to show some concern for education of the population and in 1016 Canute became King of England who demonstrated concern for the education of poor boys. In 1696, in Scotland, the Act for Settling of Schools required every parish to have a school whilst it wasn’t until 1811 the Church of England established the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church (the National Society), which aimed to provide a school in every parish, using Bell’s monitorial system. 1836 Thomas Wyse introduced the necessity of a national system of education. In 1839 came the Committee of the Privy Council on Education – the first government department with specific responsibility for education – Dr (later Sir) James Kay-Shuttleworth appointed as first Permanent Secretary.
Education From 1870
The 1870 Elementary Education Act/the ‘Forster Act’ introduced compulsory universal education for children aged 5-13 but left enforcement of attendance to school boards and the 1880 Elementary Education Act (the ‘Mundella Act’) obliged local authorities to make by-laws requiring school attendance. 1900-1923 saw the introduction of Secondary education for some. The1918 Education Act (the wide-ranging ‘Fisher Act’) extended education provision in line with recommendations of the1917 Lewis Report. The1936 Education Act provided for the leaving age to be raised to 15 in September 1939 (postponed because of the outbreak of war) and encouraged the churches to provide secondary schools by offering building grants of up to 75 per cent for new ‘Special Agreement’ schools.
Education From 1944 – Education Act / Butler Act
The 1944 Education Act or the ‘Butler Act’ set the structure of the post-war system of state education; it was a major act which replaced almost all previous education legislation and replaced the Board of Education with the Ministry of Education. The essential features of the Education Act of 1944 of England and Wales were reproduced in the Education Act of 1945 in Scotland and in the Education Act of 1947 in Northern Ireland. The tripartite system of grammar, secondary modern, and technical schools did not, in fact, flourish. The ministry had never been specific about the proportion of “technically minded” children in the population but, in terms of school places provided in practice, it was about 5 percent. Since, on average, grammar school places were available to 20 percent, this left 75 percent of the child population to be directed to the secondary modern schools for which the ministry advocated courses not designed to lead to any form of qualification.
Education From 1962
The 1962 Education Act placed a legal obligation on parents to ensure that children received a suitable education at school or ‘otherwise’ – failure to comply could result in prosecution. It also made LEAs legally responsible for ensuring that pupils attended school.
This is not an extensive history, I just wanted to outline some of the changes and to point out how slow the progress can sometimes be. Also, you can see that the changes and the Acts brought into play are causally linked to politics and to whichever political party is in power, so this is constantly changing which in turn continuously affects the education system. It wasn’t really until the early 1960s that central government began to take a more proactive role in education following reports and research highlighting many issues: about the extent of underprivilege, the need for a more child-centred style of education in primary schools, the unfairness of the selective tripartite system of secondary schools, and wider access to higher education
Education in England remained intricately linked to religious institutions until the nineteenth century, although charity schools and ‘free grammar schools’, which were open to children of any religious beliefs, became more common in the early modern period. Nineteenth century reforms expanded education provision and introduced widespread state-funded schools. By the 1880s education was compulsory for children aged 5 to 10, with the school leaving age progressively raised since then, most recently to 18 in 2015.
Present Day Education in England
In the United Kingdom, schools are either state schools funded by government and are free for all pupils, or they are independent schools and charge fees to the parents of the pupils.
In England and Wales, the government introduced a National Curriculum in 1988. This provides a framework for education between the ages of 5 – 18. All state schools are required to follow it. Independent schools are not required to follow the National Curriculum in every detail, but they must show that they provide a good all-round education and they are inspected regularly every few years. Across the UK there are five stages of education: early years, primary, secondary, Further Education (FE) and Higher Education (HE). Education is compulsory for all children between the ages of 5 (4 in Northern Ireland) and 18. The fifth stage, HE, is study beyond GCE A levels and their equivalent which, for most full-time students, takes place in universities and other HEIs and colleges. Primary education starts in Year 1. Most pupils begin their secondary education at the age of 11 (Year 7) and in Year 11 (aged16) all pupils take a series of exams called the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), usually in about eight to ten subjects, which must include English and Mathematics. Key Stage 5 is for pupils aged 16-18 (sometimes 19).
There has been some progress in closing the gap for disadvantaged pupils in England over the last decade. It has not, however, been either fast, or consistent. It is still the case that, on average, a disadvantaged pupil falls two months behind their peers for each year of secondary school and, by the end of school, that disadvantaged pupil is almost two years behind. This is not a new societal problem. The disadvantage gap has been entrenched in our education system for generations. Successive governments have sought to address the issue through increased funding and targeted intervention programmes. The system also continues to fail to meet the needs of certain children including those with special educational needs and disabilities. The current system is delivering change far too slowly. So far, across the political parties, and for decades, there has been a lack of imagination about what needs to be done to tackle such profound issues in education.
The nation needs an education system that interests and stimulates children, providing them with the learning and opportunities that they need, and deserve, to fulfil their full potential. This means providing a curriculum of practical and vocational learning alongside theoretical study. The failing education system is not due to the fault of any individual, any school or even any one political party but due to the simple fact the world has changed – and our education system has not changed fast enough. Butler’s education act was a historic step forward, but the lesson of the 30 years or so that followed is that legislation alone is not enough; unless governments really prioritise education, it inevitably gets neglected.
Technology in Education
The use of technology in education has vastly increased since the Education Act in 1944 but only recently has technology really taken off in schools and been noticed globally.
Many students now have full access to tablets and smartphones within school but is this enough to embrace the technological advances we are currently experiencing or, as has been established by the history of education in the UK, is it going to be such slow progress that by the time new laws are implemented and acted upon the next dramatic change has already occurred and the system is not ready for it.
Education Excellence Everywhere
The White Paper Educational Excellence Everywhere, published by the DfE in March 2016, proposed:
- Great teachers – everywhere they’re needed
- Great leaders running our schools and at the heart of our system
- A school-led system with every school an academy, empowered pupils, parents and communities and a clearly defined role for local government
- Preventing underperformance and helping schools go from good to great: school-led improvement, with scaffolding and support where it’s needed
- High expectations and a world-leading curriculum for all
- Fair, stretching accountability, ambitious for every child
- The right resources in the right hands: investing every penny where it can do the most good (DfE 2016a:1-2)
Where Are We Now?
We are three years down the line from this and yet we seem to be going backwards, not forwards, with a crisis in the whole of the education system in the UK imminent and a crisis in SEN and mental health management already unfolding. Instead we have strengthened the meritocracy by re-introducing grammar schools which are not designed for everyone and we have a situation where some schools are funded directly by the DfE and others still come under the local authority.
David Laws, Chair of EPI (Education Policy Institute) and a former schools minister, said
“It is clear from our analysis that creating additional grammar schools is unlikely to lead to either a significant improvement in overall education standards or an increase in social mobility.”
Labour Political Party
Labour’s election manifesto, For the Many, Not the Few, promised to create ‘a unified National Education Service’ to provide ‘cradle-to-grave learning’ (Labour Party 2017:34). With regard to the schools, it said:
Labour will not waste money on inefficient free schools and the Conservatives’ grammar schools vanity project. Labour does not want a return to secondary moderns. We will also oppose any attempt to force schools to become academies (Labour Party 2017:37).
But following this election, despite being a catastrophe for Conservative, they managed to form a new government with the (expensive) support of Northern Ireland’s reactionary Democratic Unionist Party and Labours ideals were, once again, replaced by a changing government.
Hinds replaced Justine Greening on 8 January 2018. In his first major interview as education secretary, he told The Sunday Times that he planned to abolish the fifty per cent cap on faith-based admissions to over-subscribed free schools, in order to ease the establishment of more Roman Catholic schools. He also said he would ‘enthusiastically’ support the expansion of England’s remaining grammar schools (Schools Week 18 February 2018).’
So, whatever happens in education, it is now so inextricably linked to whoever is in power that each time there is a new leader or a new education secretary the ethos of education changes along with the policies behind it. Post-Butler, secretaries of state for education have come and gone roughly every two years, not long enough to make any significant difference. The changes that have been brought about have not addressed the issues they needed to address and may have even changed things for worse.
Edge, the independent foundation dedicated to raising the status of practical and vocational learning, launched its Six Steps to Change Manifesto in 2009 which did look promising; it identifies how governments across the UK can reform the education system to better meet the needs of all young people and employers. However, this, once again just seemed to be a flash in the pan as we have heard virtually nothing of it since.
What We Need
What we need is an extensive, forward-looking cross-party plan for education which includes developing skills and customising education rather than just being knowledge based and which stays consistent despite which political party is in power.
The government’s central aim in its programme of education reform is to drive up standards in England’s schools to match those of schools in other high-performing countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) international education league tables. Is this the right focus for us? Does this really matter? Or do we need to concentrate on the issues at hand rather than scores, results and league tables? Everyone seems to have a different agenda when it comes to education, until we can have consistency with the government and all work towards a common goal the education system here will continue to be problematic and a complete crisis, at this point, is almost inevitable.