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School diversity lowers standards and raises costs, says review

The diverse schools system south of the border, favoured by all the main political parties, lowers attainment, raises costs and reduces choice, according to a major independent report on 14-19 education in England.

The Nuffield review, published this week, also calls for teachers to be given more say on policy and what they teach, the replacement of the national curriculum with a looser framework, and warns that ministers' view of learning is too narrow.

Conservative and Labour governments have created a more diverse schools system in the hope that, by offering parents greater choice, standards would be improved, a policy now also favoured by the Lib Dems.

But the final report of the review, which has lasted six years and cost Pounds 1 million, says the opposite is true. It warns that diversity can lead to less choice for pupils. It points to one negative effect of diversification created by the official encouragement given to academies and high-performing specialist schools to open new sixth forms, regardless of their size.

The resulting creation of small sixth forms "reduces choice, lowers attainment and raises costs", the report says.

Richard Pring, the Oxford University professor who led the review, said the narrow range of options for pupils in such small sixth forms could act as a deterrent to them staying on at school.

The National Audit Office noted in 2007 that the vast majority of academies had opened sixth forms but most were "very small". Because of the overall challenges they faced, "academies tend not to focus on sixth- form provision in the first years", it said.

Professor Pring says the deliberate "institutional complexity" of trust, community and specialist schools co-existing with academies, FE and sixth- form colleges, undermines the collaboration needed to help the most vulnerable and - and it limits learning opportunities. He recommends a switch to tertiary colleges. His team, which included academics from London University's Institute of Education as well as Oxford and Cardiff universities, says teachers should be given a much bigger role.

Respect for the profession is needed, the review says, adding: "Teachers should be central to curriculum development, not the `deliverers' of someone else's curriculum."

Professor Pring believes a revival of the local authority-run teachers' centres that operated in many authorities until the 1980s could be the way to achieve that input.

They would provide teachers with a place to come together to discuss curriculum and assessment. And replacing the national curriculum with a much less prescriptive, looser framework would give teachers more space to contribute.

The review also wants the profession opened up so that more weight can be given to the practical side of education, which it says has been neglected.

Professor Pring said today's teachers lacked experience in vocational areas such as hairdressing, construction and engineering, which pupils ought to be able to study from 14 onwards - a move which is under way in Scotland through Skills for Work courses.

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