Education: there is an alternative

Peter Mortimore

Peter Mortimore

by Peter Mortimore, author of Education under siege, publishing this month.

Because of its educational history, England is a country divided by its schools. Yet instead of seeking to confront this problem, recent governments of all parties have promoted educational policies seemingly designed to reinforce the divisions. In most parts of the country there is now a confusing array of different types of schools. These range from the most prestigious private institutions to those which still select pupils on so-called ‘ability’, to a bewildering array of government-run academies and free schools, exclusive faith-based institutions and a steadily shrinking number of comprehensive schools run by local authorities.

If this muddled system were highly successful, if parents were well satisfied and if pupils were happy, the policies might be justified. But, compared to the Nordic countries, our results do not appear remarkable. Furthermore, many English parents are made neurotic by the responsibility of gambling on the best choice for their offspring and too many children are unhappy. Yet all this happens despite the quality of teaching which is amongst the best I have seen in any of the countries I have visited in nearly 50 years of working in education.

Of course there are many good features in our system. As well as the high quality of much teaching, our schools are generally well led, have responsible governing bodies, reasonable buildings and equipment and many have both a zest for improvement and a sense of fun. But there are also negative features – expensive and inflexible preschool provision, the minefield of ‘choice’, divisive streaming and setting, costly inspections, a plethora of testing, a politically tainted curriculum and a morass of qualifications.

The latest proposal to allocate all children into 10 per cent ability bands exemplifies how bold politicians can be in their treatment of other peoples’ children. Such an attempt to label very young pupils according to their ability, despite the many reservations expressed by psychologists about the inaccuracy of testing, the changes that take place in young brains and the disastrously negative impact of low expectations, is, in my opinion, insupportable. It is likely to have dire consequences for many children. It will further fuel the compulsion numerous parents feel to buy – whether or not they can afford it – private coaching.

Surely our modern society deserves an inclusive system in which the high quality teaching that I have seen in so many schools can flourish? An inclusive system that is ambitious and flexible, able to cope with future changes in our understanding of learning and in technological developments.

In my new book Education under siege I argue that a country’s education system is too precious to leave to the whims of particular ministers. Of course, politicians have an important leadership role – we elect them to act on our behalf – but they have a duty to act responsibly. Today’s education system will influence tomorrow’s society. Its planning should transcend party political differences.

My book joins a number of recent publications challenging both the current and the previous government’s insistence that there is no alternative to their chosen education policies. In it, I propose a set of radical changes to be debated as part of a long-term plan to create a more inclusive system in which excellence sits easily with fairness rather than being seen as its opposite. Such an education system would not be based on a market of schools with different powers, resources and status. Nor would it depend on teaching to the test and endless practice sessions for a spurious league table of schools. Rather, it would recognise the need for schools to imbue in their pupils a moral compass and promote good character, as well as to train minds, develop knowledge and skills and stimulate the imagination.

In my view, a national system should be led – but not, as it currently is, micro-managed – by a minister. Individual schools should be generally autonomous but overseen by the democratically accountable local authorities working with networks of innovative, collaborative institutions. What an ambitious minister could usefully do is to explore ways in which private schools could be integrated into the system so that the current fault line that exists in our society could be removed.

I also argue that inspection should be scaled back to its essential purpose of ensuring that no school is unacceptable, rather than its current pursuit of endeavouring – in limited time and with partial information – to ‘finegrade’ each institution. Selection should be outlawed and the faith schools – that so often claim to be superior – should be open to all pupils. At the heart of a new system, all schools should receive a balanced intake of pupils – those who learn easily and those who do not, those who come from advantaged families and those who do not. In other words, schools should not reflect a particular post code but a cross section of our society.

These will not be quick or easy goals to achieve but I believe they are worth pursuing. They are surely more likely to produce a better education system than our current muddle – a system more suited to our times, more likely to enhance the excellence of our teachers and more likely to create a fairer future society for our children.

Peter Mortimore’s new book Education under siege: why there is a better alternative will be published by Policy Press on 25 September.

1 Response to “Education: there is an alternative”

  1. 1 busiestbusyblogger May 8, 2014 at 1:48 pm

    When I first started teaching I had to follow exact lessons on a state website. They were terrible and included books that were inappropriate. I wish the parents knew. Looking back I should have started a buzz but I thought I wanted to work there the next year…I left.

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