Finding hope in a new Age of Austerity

26th March 2010 at 00:00
It is time to make-do-and-mend our school system - including turning it tripartite

At the end of the Second World War, we lived in an Age of Austerity, and most people did not much enjoy it, especially those who, unlike me, had been adults before the war started and knew about the luxuries of which they were now deprived. We are about to enter a second Age of Austerity, and we will not enjoy it either. The difference between us and them is that, exhausted though they were, they had hope. Everything was new; social security, education and, soon, the NHS. It was a fresh world.

As educationists, instead of trying to secure exemption from the cuts, by uttering platitudes about children being Our Future or Education as Investment, we should take on the task of reintroducing hope in what may seem a hopeless situation. The cuts will come anyway. We must face the facts that there will be no new money for education; that local authorities (LAs) will have huge burdens; and nothing is gained by proposing expensive policies. We must work with what we have got. And make the best of it.

It is wrong to think efficiency economies will be enough. We need radical change to avoid waste, not only of money, but of the talents of children who often find nothing to engage their interest once they leave primary.

In one way we can count ourselves better off than they were in 1945: we have more mistakes to learn from; and centralisation has been one of the biggest. We must, forthwith, abolish targets, league tables, and compulsory curricula. We must, if necessary by legislation, untangle education law from anti-discrimination law, so LAs, governors and heads can regain control of the variety of schools they want to be responsible for.

We cannot hope to go back to the heady days of the 1960s and 70s, when money seemed endless and parents and LAs trusted one another. But if LAs had more power to allow flexibility in schools, I believe a new sort of trust might be built up, based on the understanding that we are in the same boat, and must collaborate or perish.

We need more teachers properly trained to identify and help children who are floundering in Year 7, when they change schools, monitoring their progress and ensuring they have access to specialist teachers in small groups, or even one-to-one. After Year 7, some might be recommended for special or specialist schools or units. Parents would have been prepared by fortnightly progress reports throughout the year, and consultation. This intense concentration might cost money; but it would be saved elsewhere.

In Year 8, education would become tripartite, divided into the academic, (in both humanities, sciences and mathematics), the technical (virtually mathematics and sciences only, perhaps at a less theoretical level) and the practical (including remedial reading and writing). Each type of course would offer a different sort of teaching. Maths, for example, would range from the very practical, geared for use in practical engineering, to the theoretical leading up to pure maths.

This tripartite education might or might not involve children changing schools, depending on facilities and policy. From Year 8, it would be possible, with monitoring and parental discussion, to allow them to change courses. It ought to be possible for children to take some practical and some technical subjects, but everything should be done to avoid "academic drift", the undoing of the old polytechnics. Parents should be encouraged to think of the technical course as the elite (and in hard economic times this should not be too difficult). The official school-leaving age would remain 18, but there would be flexibility. For example, those who win an apprenticeship could leave school any time from 14 (but in our new austerity era, it is idle to pretend many apprenticeships will be forthcoming).

The exam system must be changed if we are to see value for money. There should be one set of exams only, to replace GCSE, taken at the end of Year 9, whose purpose would be to ensure that good standards of reading, writing and comprehension had been achieved over a wide range of subjects, including mathematics, science, history and a foreign language, ancient or modern. This could be examined within school, by appropriate subject teachers, and monitored by teachers from other schools (appropriately paid), and sporadically by Ofsted. Thereafter, there would be no common exams.

After Year 9, extra-curricular activities, sports, drama, and music should be organised by students with well-paid professional guidance and instruction, and should be shared between all the three kinds of school courses, and not compulsory.

This would not be the time to try to get rid of private education, which would compel LAs to provide for more children and which might be impossible under the 1988 Human Rights Act. But we might hope that austerity will cause some parents to switch to the maintained sector, and private schools share their facilities more to retain their charitable status, or become maintained schools (for example, academies), as some have.

All these changes would streamline education, and save money wasted on the academic bias that bedevils our system. It would motivate children by allowing them to do what they do best and enjoy most, and by treating them as grown-up, when they feel they are so, largely taking charge of their lives but in a formal structure.

The greatest reason for hope, however, exists already - though readers of the Daily Mail and others may be reluctant to admit it. It lies in the increasing numbers and quality of the teaching profession. One hears stories about English teachers who never read and cannot spell, maths teachers who never passed GCSE maths, and biologists teaching physics. But they are probably out-numbered by those who are imaginative and enthusiastic, who care for their pupils, and do everything in their power to further their progress. The hope is that disillusion with the City and rising graduate unemployment will uncover an army of teachers with talents they never knew they had. Then we can be genuinely grateful for austerity.

Baroness Mary Warnock, Philosopher, and chair of the UK inquiry into special education (1974-78).

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