Monday, October 24, 2005

In defence of the pushy middle classes

It is no surprise to hear that the National Union of Teachers is against the government's new plans for schools. The NUT has opposed every education initiative - good, bad or lunatic - in living memory.

But there is something depressing about the argument it uses. The BBC quotes Steve Sinnott, the union's general secretary, describing the plans as "pandering to the pushy middle classes".

As long as the left believes there is something illegitimate in parents wanting the best for their children, the Conservatives will have every hope of an eventual return to power.

Meanwhile Liberal Democrat policy still says that we shall improve state schools so much that parents will be happy to give up any say in which school their children attend. Oh yes, and this will be achieved without any noticeable increase in taxation.

I cannot see this policy lasting much longer, and something Norman Lamb wrote in the Guardian after he lost the Lib Dem Conference vote on the future of the Royal Mail should be read and understood more widely:

As a constituency MP I am forever having to deal with situations where those without power or influence are struggling to be heard by an unresponsive state provider. One of the biggest failures of the state has been the scandal of education provision, which penalises children from the poorest backgrounds. The growing educational apartheid in this country ought to shame us all ...

This should give Liberal Democrats a real opportunity to demonstrate our distinctiveness, willingness to confront difficult issues, and capacity for fresh thinking. As liberals we should be seeking ways of securing social justice using mechanisms that are likely be more effective than what the centralised state has been able to achieve. We ought to look at these challenges with a fresh perspective, finding new approaches to the delivery of core public services, emphasising localism and being open-minded about ownership.

16 comments:

James said...

Meanwhile Liberal Democrat policy still says that we shall improve state schools so much that parents will be happy to give up any say in which school their children attend. Oh yes, and this will be achieved without any noticeable increase in taxation.

Correct me if I'm wrong though Jonathan, but you aren't arguing for an increase in taxation either.

Current Lib Dem policy as it stands is that improvements can be achieved through decentralisation. What you're proposing is that improvements can be achieved through marketisation. You might have a point about the former, but you're stretching it a bit to claim that vast improvements can be achieved by the latter.

Believe me when I say I'm open minded here. But I can smell dogmatism a mile off.

Rob Knight said...

I don't think that simply having a view equates to "dogmatism". Besides, a market currently exists to determine the school a child goes to - it's called the housing market.

Creating a market in education (which is not necessarily the direct consequence of what was posted) would de-couple the education market from the housing market, which is surely a good thing. Moreover, it could open the way for private (which doesn't necessarily mean profit-making) education to fill gaps left by state schools.

Ultimately it would make schools responsible for their own futures, giving them the ability to create their own long-term plans, creating the kind of stability in education that the NUT claim to be in favour of. The problem with the current system isn't that we have the wrong plan, it's that we're trying to impose any plan from the centre.

Chris Black said...

Rob, you said:
Ultimately it would make schools responsible for their own futures, giving them the ability to create their own long-term plans, creating the kind of stability in education that the NUT claim to be in favour of.

According to Blair, his plans would:

... free up the rules so parents without the choice of a good school could turn to the voluntary, private or business sector to set up their own, or could take the power into their own hands to change the leadership in their local school.

This doesn't seem conducive to long term stability if the parents can stage a boardroom coup, or another school can set up down the road. Localism is a great concept, one I support, but whilst we are making the education system more Liberal , can't we keep it Democratic?

James said...

Creating a market in education (which is not necessarily the direct consequence of what was posted) would de-couple the education market from the housing market

Not neccessarily. Schools are going to want the best pupils and those best pupils are going to come from the more affluent areas. In principle they could expand, but there are practical limits to how much a school can grow before it becomes a large, impersonal, franchise-like institution of the type that I would imagine most people here (not least of all Jonathan), would be the first to criticise.

De-coupling the education market from the housing market is a different issue (and I'll happily admit that it is an issue the Lib Dems have failed to tackle adequately) that doesn't neccessarily require "marketisation" to solve.

Liberal Neil said...

The growing educational apartheid in this country ought to shame us all ...

The question is will this be helped or hindered by these latest proposals?

In my exoerience it is giving parents the pretence of choice that has caused the gap between the "good" schools and the "poor" schools to widen. (I use quotation marks to make the point that what is usually meant by this is good or poor results which is not the same thing as a good or bad school) As choice has been extended th effect has been that those parents who take an interest steadily move their children from schools in poorer areas to those in wealthier areas, either by playing the system or moving house.

Where the Lib Dems are right (and it seems Prescott is too) is that what most parents actually want is to be confident that the local school serving their community is doing a good job (and that means more than exam results).

The problem with most of this and the previous Government's policies is that it assumes that a market model, encouraging competition for children, drives up demand.

In my experience what it actually does is reward those schools whose heads have an expansionist outlook and a flair for public relations rather than those who concentrate on the needs of the children.

Furthermore I ma very concerned that the language being used is that of 'freeing schools from local authority control'. The current reality is that schools manage their own budgets, employ their own staff and decide their own curriculum. LEAs have a very limited role in coordinating transport services, special needs education, dealing with exclusions etc. They also have a role over admission policies and school development to ensure that the decisions of one school don't unfairly affect others. In my view it makes a ot of sense for these areas to be coordinated locally and there is likely to be chaos if LEAs lose that role.

My concern is for the difficult to teach, those with special needs, and those without access to transport. I believe these proposals will mak their lot worse.

Liberal Neil said...

Besides, a market currently exists to determine the school a child goes to - it's called the housing market.

This is true in some parts of the country but not generally.

In many parts of the country each community is only served by one secondary school. There are several here in Oxfordshire which are a long distance from the next. Wherever you live in a town like this you go to the same school. The value of your house makes no difference.

In others, such as Abingdon where I live, there are three secondary schools, each of which has a catchment area from parts of the town and surrounding villages that are well balanced. Again the value of the house you live in makes no difference.

Even in Oxford, where there is a choice of several schools, each school draws from a very mixed catchment area.

One of my main concerns about these proposals is that they appear to be designed to address a problem which only actually exists in some parts of the country. It will do little for the rest and may even be detrimental.

And that is without looking at the impact of a huge increase in the number of children being ferried around on the 'school run' every day. (Whatever happened to 'joined up gvernment' eh?)

DrPizza said...

The obvious solution seems to be to bring back selection. It's proven to work reasonably well, and the merits are obvious.

Selection is better for kids. Abilities differ, and ignoring this serves neither the able (who need to move quickly to maintain their interest and fully realize their ability) nor the less able. And by using ability as the entrance metric it takes financial constraints out of the equation.

It will mean that not everyone will get into the schools with the best grades, but not everyone should, because not everyone is able to get those grades.

To break the catchment area constraint, there should be a massive expansion of weekly boarding and school buses.

Rob Knight said...

Chris Black wrote:
This doesn't seem conducive to long term stability if the parents can stage a boardroom coup, or another school can set up down the road. Localism is a great concept, one I support, but whilst we are making the education system more Liberal , can't we keep it Democratic?

Eh? I'm puzzled. By talking about "coups" you seem to oppose parental control, but then praise democratic engagement at the end.

As for the issue of stability, the stability comes from well-run (i.e. the vast majority) of schools being able to make their own plans for their own future, without the threat that the government might just pull the rug out from under them with the latest round of education "reforms". Teachers are sick of having the goalposts moved every couple of years, when ministers decide that something isn't working.

Where schools are failing, stability equates with stagnation, and this is hardly a virtue to be praised. In failing schools, there can be no stability until they are set on the right path. And this is best done by the efforts of teachers, parents and local people, not by Whitehall or even necessarily the LEA. Where improvement fails to happen, alternatives have to be created.

Remember, the objective here is to maximise the number of children in good education, and minimise the number of children in bad education. Good schools will get the stability they need from control of their own affairs (and should be able to expand, thus increasing the number of children in good education). Bad schools (a tiny minority) will have to face the instability associated with change (and thus, hopefully, improvement) and the best we can do is expedite that process.

Rob Knight said...

Liberal Neil wrote:
In my exoerience it is giving parents the pretence of choice that has caused the gap between the "good" schools and the "poor" schools to widen.

Whilst I'm not likely to win any friends by making this argument, if this is the result of the better schools simply getting better, then this is a good thing. Whilst the existence of failing schools is obviously a bad thing, a large gap at least suggests that most schools do much better than this, and it does tell us precisely where efforts on improvement need to be focussed. It should be much easier to fix a small number of failing schools than a large number of hard-to-identify mediocre ones.

Liberal Neil wrote:
The problem with most of this and the previous Government's policies is that it assumes that a market model, encouraging competition for children, drives up demand.

Markets don't drive up demand, demand is ever-present. What markets can do is increase supply, to match the pre-existing demand.

Demand for quality education is always going to be high, since everyone wants it. The real issue is the supply of quality education, which is much more problematic. There is not enough supply to meet the demand. In a market situation, this would cause prices to rise and create bigger incentives for people to offer education. This would feed into things such as increased wages for teachers, more investment in equipment and so on. This is, after all, why privately-funded schools do better than state schools.

However, I think this could lead us off the point. No party (even the Tories) is advocating creating such a free market in education.

Liberal Neil wrote:
Where the Lib Dems are right (and it seems Prescott is too) is that what most parents actually want is to be confident that the local school serving their community is doing a good job (and that means more than exam results).

Exactly! The point about exam results is also a good one. In evaluating a school, we have to deal with what the economist Friedrich Hayek called 'tacit knowledge'. That is, those variables which are known by the participants (parents, teachers, children) but cannot be expressed as statistics. As such, these variables are often invisible to the government and to the school inspectors, whose visits are brief attempts at capturing this tacit knowledge.

Before getting even further sidetracked, I'll make my final point: on the issue of local schools, this is actually something a market-esque mechanism could solve very easily. Simply increase the funding-per-pupil available to schools operating in geographically poorly-served areas, creating an incentive for education providers to operate in those areas. At the very least, the existing schools would get a (presumably much-needed) financial boost, enabling them to hire more and better teachers and buy equipment.

Liberal Neil said...

The obvious solution seems to be to bring back selection. It's proven to work reasonably well, and the merits are obvious.

It isn't proven. the evidence is mixed and on balance suggests that overall children do slightly worse in areas that still have selection.

Abilities differ, and ignoring this serves neither the able (who need to move quickly to maintain their interest and fully realize their ability) nor the less able.

Abilities do indeed differ, but not in the sense that children fall into one of two groups, the 'able' and the 'less able'. Every child is different and has their own unique mix of abilities and potential. How to provide for what each individual child needs is one of the key challenges facing any system.

Liberal Neil said...

The problem with most of this and the previous Government's policies is that it assumes that a market model, encouraging competition for children, drives up demand

Ooops! Meant quality not demand.

There are a host of problems with the idea that 'good schools will expand and poor schools will fail'.

1 There is no evidence that the policy works. No one has looked at whether the process of numbers of pupils moving from school to school and the consequent expansion of the 'better' schools actually improves standards or results overall. Surely a Government which is meant to believe in 'evidence based policy' should assess the evidence first?

2 Even if the above is true, it is not necessarily the most cost effective way to raise standards. Expanding schools entails spending significant sums of money on capital. Could the same money be used mor effectively to support weaker schools to do better?

3 A school slowly losing pupils and then closing is not as pain free as a local shop going bust. There are still a large number of children in the school as its resources steadily get sucked away by other, more popular schools. A child who has just started at a secondary school may then face five or seven years of under-resourced schooling. These children will often be from themost deprived backgrounds and be the most likely to have special educational needs.

4 Even the most popular schools don't necessarily have limitless room to expand, nor will they necessarily maintain their popularity once they have expanded. What if a popular school expands to its limits but that leaves a large number of pupils left out, but not enough for the other school to remain viable?

5 In a town with two schools, how is there more choice when the more popular of the two has expanded to the point that the other closes?

6 Do parents actually have a balanced set of information on which to base their judgement? Or do they just look at deeply flawed league tables?

7 Is a school always going to be a 'popular' school and another always an 'unpopular' school? Or does it change over time due to school leadership, quality of head and teachers etc? If the latter what happens if one school has closed and the nearby 'popular' school actually takes a downward turn?

DrPizza said...

It isn't proven. the evidence is mixed and on balance suggests that overall children do slightly worse in areas that still have selection.
The consistent topping of league tables by private schools demonstrates that selection yields the best results.

Abilities do indeed differ, but not in the sense that children fall into one of two groups, the 'able' and the 'less able'.
Er, yeah, they do. The able being those above the median ability, the less able being those below it. Now, it may very well be useful to further subdivide, and indeed, streaming/setting should be a part of any sane education policy. But a broad divide is also useful. If a school has to take in pupils of too wide a variety of abilities, its streaming/setting system will be undermined (as it'll be forced to span too great a gap).

Every child is different and has their own unique mix of abilities and potential. How to provide for what each individual child needs is one of the key challenges facing any system.
It's not going to happen, and it's not realistic to demand it. The school system will always have to aim for generalities. Tailoring education to each individual pupil is impossible. This is not to say that we should not strive for smaller classes and so on, but the specific needs of every individual will never be met.

James said...

The consistent topping of league tables by private schools demonstrates that selection yields the best results.

No it doesn't. It demonstrates that the best pupils, with the best resources, yield the best results, something of a tautology.

Moreover, the "best pupils" are only at the top in the first place because of the wealth of their own families.

The burning issue in education is not how we treat the brightest and most advantaged, but how we treat the least.

Bishop Hill said...

1 There is no evidence that the policy works. No one has looked at whether the process of numbers of pupils moving from school to school and the consequent expansion of the 'better' schools actually improves standards or results overall. Surely a Government which is meant to believe in 'evidence based policy' should assess the evidence first?

This is nonsense. Parents pick the school at the outset of their child's school career and tend not to move them thereafter because of the disruptive effect on their children. This doesn't prevent good schools expanding and bad ones contracting.

2 Even if the above is true, it is not necessarily the most cost effective way to raise standards. Expanding schools entails spending significant sums of money on capital. Could the same money be used mor effectively to support weaker schools to do better?

This has been tried repeatedly and has consistently failed.

3 A school slowly losing pupils and then closing is not as pain free as a local shop going bust. There are still a large number of children in the school as its resources steadily get sucked away by other, more popular schools. A child who has just started at a secondary school may then face five or seven years of under-resourced schooling. These children will often be from themost deprived backgrounds and be the most likely to have special educational needs.

Schools close now.

4 Even the most popular schools don't necessarily have limitless room to expand, nor will they necessarily maintain their popularity once they have expanded. What if a popular school expands to its limits but that leaves a large number of pupils left out, but not enough for the other school to remain viable?

What happens now? The children are told to go to the sink school. With a market at least more children get to go to the good one.

5 In a town with two schools, how is there more choice when the more popular of the two has expanded to the point that the other closes?

Isn't one good school better than two average ones? Also the market puts in place a mechanism to keep the size of schools down. Parents like small, local schools and this will tend to limit expansion. With a state run system the limits are more likely to be set by geographical factors or administrative convenience which is why we are stuck with such huge schools.

6 Do parents actually have a balanced set of information on which to base their judgement? Or do they just look at deeply flawed league tables?

They could look at the Good schools guide. Loads of information out there if you want it.

7 Is a school always going to be a 'popular' school and another always an 'unpopular' school? Or does it change over time due to school leadership, quality of head and teachers etc? If the latter what happens if one school has closed and the nearby 'popular' school actually takes a downward turn?
What will happen is that there will be a demand for a new school. No doubt some education entrepreneur will want to satisfy that demand. In reality the dip in profitability from a falling school roll would have caused a change in management at the first school before it closed.

Liberal Neil said...

A general response to Bishop Hill:

1 Where is the evidence that the choice excercised by a minority of parents in the current system improves standards overall? I am not aware of any. Please point me to it.

2 Schools do indeed close occasionally now, usually due to population changes, new development etc. However at present this is done within a framework of the LEA and can be managed.

3 A popular school expanding will inevitably mean that more children go to the popular school. But what about the rest, particularly if there aren't enough of them to form a viable school themselves?

4 Do you really belive that every time a schoo closes there will be an 'education netrepreneur' round the corner ready to open a new one? Where do you think these people will come from. How will they access the necessary resources?

Liberal Neil said...

Er, yeah, they do. The able being those above the median ability, the less able being those below it.

What about the child who is two points below the median in, say, maths, and three percent above it in, say, english? Or the child who is a late starter and whilst being 5 points below at age 11 would actually have ovetaken other children by 13? I simply don't believe that you can separate children into two categories at age 11

Now, it may very well be useful to further subdivide, and indeed, streaming/setting should be a part of any sane education policy.

I agree with that - and most comprehensive do it and have done for decades.

But a broad divide is also useful. If a school has to take in pupils of too wide a variety of abilities, its streaming/setting system will be undermined (as it'll be forced to span too great a gap)

So why is it then that the value added scores are so similar for similar groups of children whether they go to comprehensive schools or grammar/secondary moderns? Where is the evidence for your argument?