A long good Friday

More choice in learning and a resolute focus on inclusion is the recipe for long-term success, says Martin Rogers

Education Secretary Estelle Morris and her new minister of state, David Miliband, have recently made significant speeches about the reform of secondary education; we also now have the "London Challenge", with Stephen Twigg given ministerial oversight of this transformational project which has undoubted implications for urban education more generally.

Nothing particularly new has yet been said, but they have clearly identified their major preoccupations: the need for continuing investment; the high proportion of young people - particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds - who are still underachieving; the extent to which bad behaviour and inappropriate attitudes - from pupils and parents - are disrupting teaching and learning; and the failure of schools to meet adequately the individual needs of learners.

But is more diversity the right recipe for reform? At the London Challenge launch, Estelle Morris claimed that diversity "incentivises school improvement, because schools get specialist status when they have an improvement plan in place".

Responding to concern about polarisation, she said: "You can't leave things as they are for fear of making things worse in other schools in areas with many disadvantaged schools." She added: "Our resources are limited and we start where we are." But will more difference between schools really help? Isn't the structural reform we really need more complex and radical than that, with individual learners at its centre?

The most uniform feature of our school system is a still highly prescriptive national curriculum, and its most discouraging feature is that the achievement of nearly half of its pupils is all but disregarded in published league tables. Simply increasing diversity will achieve little unless it can be widely matched to the needs of pupils. But it can't. In sparsely populated areas, where choice of schools is at best limited, it is plainly a forlorn ambition, and in urban areas it is fuelling polarisation between schools.

We need a more sophisticated approach. Structural change and diversity within the system should lead to specialist facilities and resources from which all pupils - and their families and broader communities - can benefit. Rather than encouraging schools to develop competitively an individual ethos and character largely for the benefit of their own pupils, we should promote a more flexible "learning network" from within which pupils can access a programme suited to their own needs as these develop and change. This could be a federation of schools, on which ministers are obviously keen, but it need not take more than a greater will to promote collaboration.

In such a system the mandatory core curriculum would occupy less time, and be taught as far as possible early in the day and week. This would leave later sessions and Fridays as free as possible for courses selected by pupils. The growing use of ICT will open further opportunities, but some travel between centres would be required by pupils and teachers, to share facilities and expertise.

However, increasing the proportion of chosen learning, and putting it on offer at the traditionally more difficult times, would encourage more enthusiastic and effective learning and reduce the level of behavioural problems, bringing a welcome benefit to teachers - who could look forward to Friday mornings as well as evenings.

New facilities and resources should be located strategically to address the coherence of the system as a whole within an area - with a resolute and unapologetic focus on addressing the needs of the most disadvantaged. If schools where this investment is required are not equipped to manage it, they must be helped, rather than the resources going elsewhere. Successful schools should be strongly "incentivised" to share these responsibilities, and to support their weaker neighbours. Autonomy of maintained schools must not be extended to opting out of this public duty.

All forms and levels of achievement should be properly recognised, and better support systems made available for those who need them, making use of the wider range of professionals and others that Estelle Morris wants to see alongside teachers.

Families should be encouraged to join in learning activities, with voluntary sessions more widely available to meet both basic needs and particular interests and enthusiasms. Far more should be done to promote a positive attitude to learning and achievement for all, with more incentive to share and celebrate success and less opportunity to dominate it.

A longer-term vision is essential, which must be spelled out so that its benefits for all are understood by all for, as education ministers frequently (and rightly) point out, the future economic and social well-being of the whole country depend on broadening the success of our education system. This will not be achieved overnight, nor even in one electoral cycle. But it can be done.

A more inclusive consensus will be required and, to secure continuing short-term approval for long-term aims, politicians must provide a route map on which progress can be followed. Ministers must exercise leadership to persuade people to follow, and that includes the harder task of challenging the vested interests of those who will be required to contribute as well as urging a greater effort from those who have yet fully to appreciate the necessity of the journey.

Martin Rogers is co-ordinator of The Education Network

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