‘Politicians see the British education system as a job factory’

Policy Press author and academic Peter Mortimore’s book Education Under Siege has just been released in paperback. Nearly 18 months on from Mortimore first sitting down to write it, Rebecca Megson asks what he’s still concerned about in the education system in the UK.

peter-mortimore-photoApart from a change in education minister, Peter Mortimore says the UK’s educational landscape remains largely the same as it was when he first wrote and published Education under Siege. The focus remains on the exclusive achievement of ‘levels’ which Mortimore believes is bad news for children, parents and teachers, applying, as it does, an almost constant level of pressure.

“The idea of education having a ‘noble’ side has been written out of the British education system – the system is seen as a job factory. Ministers are too focused on targets. Once you have a target in place, then the focus on education falls away,” he says.

Despite the relentless emphasis on results, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the UK’s international results are only average for maths and reading compared to similar countries. The 2012 report also showed little improvement in any of the subjects tested compared with earlier results.

Average results

Whilst a results-driven education agenda continues to dominate the UK debate, the PISA measurement system would suggest that system changes implemented over the past eight years have had little impact.

“I blame politicians for this situation – and all political parties too, there’s no bias in my condemnation. I’m sure they believe they are doing the right thing but they all have worked to make our system more and more competitive and have therefore created a national neurosis.”

Mortimore has worked in the education system as a teacher and researcher and was the director of the Institute of Education, University of London. He believes that when parents set out on the educational journey, they simply want the best for their children, which they define as them being happy, safe and successful at school.

Whilst this is the environment most children experience in Key Stage 1 Mortimore says it isn’t long before the system becomes more competitive. He says: “Suddenly it’s about getting into the best schools by living in the best areas – of course estate agents benefit enormously but it’s hopeless as a national strategy. More and more people fighting for limited places just creates fear, anxiety and panic.”

“Education is a powerful force in our culture: the better the system the better the society our children will inherit”

Earlier this month, education secretary Nicky Morgan denied rumours that she was on the verge of introducing compulsory setting in secondary schools. Mortimore welcomes this, warning against setting. He asks ministers and parents to look at the hard evidence, which clearly indicates that setting makes little difference. He says: “The theory that you get to focus on each group according to their ability is good. But, in practice, as soon as you stream, you lower children’s self-expectations.”

Mortimore has worked with a number of education ministers in his career. His work at the University of Southern Denmark also provided him with insight into the Nordic education. He believes the system in the Nordic countries offers an interesting alternative.

“You don’t get the same focus on competition, it’s about bringing up children to be happy and secure. Of course, life will be competitive but in the Nordic systems competition is introduced later, because it is believed that the older you are the better able you are to deal with it.”

Mortimore believes the campaign for change needs to come from the grassroots. In order for that to happen, he feels parents need to realise there are alternatives and then to put pressure on politicians to make changes. He believes the secondary school system is a disaster, creating confusion by providing too many different types of school, with funding distributed to whichever school type is most favoured by those with political power at the time.

He feels the situation could be immediately improved by simply providing schools with same basic funding, rules and powers. Through these measures Mortimore believes the system could at least return to a more level playing field.

Beyond that, he calls for ‘brave politicians’ who are willing and able to introduce a balanced intake of pupils so as to ensure that the school environment accurately reflects the diversity of people and backgrounds within modern society.

“The only method I can see that really works is a ‘lottery’ system, allocating kids pupils so that each school gets a fair intake, then every school can has a chance to be as successful as the next,” he says.“Education is a powerful force in our culture: the better the system the better the society our children will inherit. The converse is also true as the two are locked together.”

As a society, Mortimore feels we are becoming increasingly divided. The plethora of schools from which to choose from and the nature of area selection, entrenches the position of economically disadvantaged children as opposed to encouraging their potential. Furthermore, the number of different teaching unions dissipates teachers’ strength and power to challenge and change the system.

Mortimore feels more optimistic about the future. He says: “In the past year or so, as I’ve toured round the country I’ve found teachers and education officers collaborating, despite what the politicians are doing and saying. They realise it’s important for schools to work together.” He believes that in the long run things will get better, but he warns that, without thoughtful and supportive involvement from the country’s politicians, it is likely to be a slow game.

The paperback of Education Under Siege is available at the 20% discount price of £7.99 (RRP £9.99) on the Policy Press website. Click here for more details.

Related links

UK’s international results as measured by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

Guardian article on Nicky Morgan

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