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Don't turn schools into shopping centres

The purchase culture mentality is undermining the ambition of a comprehensive education service, says Ewan Aitken

I CAME across a statistic last week that amazed me. Britain has within its shores 31 per cent of all retail space in Europe. This means there is 10 sq ft of shopping space for every person in Britain. It would appear that Napoleon was not wrong; we are a nation, if not of shopkeepers, certainly of shoppers.

Though it's not an activity that I particularly relish, I have nothing against shopping per se. It is, I am told, good therapy for some and it certainly is the bedrock of the buoyant economy in my home city of Edinburgh, something the city council has made great efforts to encourage and nurture.

But preponderance of shopping space and its place at the heart of the growth of our economy carries with it some concerns. It indicates an underlying trend not just in our culture but in our way of seeing the world, which while good for the economy is not good for public service generally and education in particular. Our obsession with all things retail epitomises what I would describe as our "purchase culture". In other words, we understand value and progress in terms of what we can buy.

The great debate over the health service and the "ring-fencing" or hypothecation in all but name of the increases in National Insurance for that great public service are the latest and clearest example of what I mean. The only way to persuade people to pay more tax was to say "we will show you exactly what you are getting for your cash". What was a commitment to the health of the nation was expressed in terms of an economic exchange.

Now accountability is a good thing, especially where the public pound is concerned. I have no problem with that. But if we reflect a little more on this trend, we can see some worrying pressures. Witness the continual obsession with attainment levels and exam results as the only benchmark of success in schools.

No matter how hard many of us try to argue otherwise, the league tables of school exam results are taken by the media and therefore much of the populace as hard comparators between schools and as indicators of all a school offers.

The Scotsman published a so-called "Good Schools Guide" on the basis of those results which bore little resemblance to the quality of the education experience in the schools. All it really did was undermine the hard work, commitment and dedication of the staff, pupils and parents involved in those schools that didn't make the spurious "top 10".

Why do we continue to allow these league tables to be published? At last year's Edinburgh Conference, Jack McConnell, then Education Minister, said it was because, having made such information available, it was impossible to stop doing so. He may be right, but the Pandora's box of league tables is not just about freedom of information. It is simply that we as a nation feel the need to define and compare what our money is buying.

That's how we have come to see getting best value: "we pay this much tax and we get these many exam passes". But those who actually deliver the education experience will tell you that results are not the best way of assessing a school's effectiveness. One Edinburgh school was in the Scotsman's "bottom five", but has the highest number of young people going into employment. Success or failure?

The same purchase culture mentality is undermining the post-McCrone deliberations. The phrase "what are we getting for our pound;800 million?"

is working its way into far too many column inches. The agreement has four more years to evolve before it is fully implemented. It involves such a phenomenal change of culture at all levels of the education service that it cannot be defined in such simplistic terms as "what are we getting for our money?"

If we allow the value of the education experience for society to be defined in purely monetary terms, then we head down a dangerous road. It will be harder and harder to support those schools that need extra support for socio-economic reasons. The pressure to loosen the restrictions on non-catchment area placements will increase, thus weakening those schools that are already struggling.

And eventually the ambition of a truly comprehensive education service, with standards consistent across all postcodes and accessible to all, will be lost. I doubt we would ever be able to buy that back.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for education on Edinburgh City Council.

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