The five assumptions that ensure we fail

26th February 2010 at 00:00
Our government must dispose of the flawed logic that is driving our education recession - whichever party is in power

As the election draws near, ministers talk about schools with the confidence of the financial experts who failed to anticipate the 2008 crash. In reality they have little understanding of the educational problems they have helped create. Politicians and their advisers are united across party lines by a set of apparently sensible effectiveness principles that has driven education policy since 1988 - yet without producing significant success.

The Government discounts evidence of failure, while the opposition appears insufficiently imaginative to escape the obsession with standards and results that has led to our present difficulties. In a new book, I challenge the five assumptions that have dominated thinking for more than 20 years, and argue for an alternative approach, based on children's personal growth, rather than test performance.

The first assumption is that well-trained leaders can transform drifting, coasting and otherwise indifferent schools, converting them into high-performing centres of excellence with dramatically improved examination results. The National College's mission is to promote the belief that, with the right leader, every school can be a great school. Unfortunately, there is not a shred of evidence to support this idea.

Experts such as Dr Philip Hallinger acknowledge that heads do not impact directly on school performance, because teachers and children are the main influence on exam results. At best, they believe, leadership explains no more than 3 to 5 per cent of the variation in student outcomes. A recent Michigan University study, based on 20,000 students enrolled in 250 American schools, found that leadership activity had no effect on achievement.

My own case studies suggest that even heads praised by Ofsted for their outstanding leadership fail to produce outcomes better than might be expected on the basis of socio-economic data. Heads struggle to deliver seriously improved results unless their schools attract more able students.

The main reason for disappointment is the Government's next assumption: that effective schools can overcome disadvantage and improve life chances. This is without foundation, despite the often-repeated mantra that poverty is "no excuse" for embarrassing results. Diane Reay, professor of education at Cambridge University, argues that family background is the single biggest influence on achievement.

The BBC, reporting in 2007, confirms the same message: 68 per cent of students from better off families achieved five GCSE A*-C grades, while only 25 per cent of less well-off students reached the "good" benchmark. When children are divided into 10 bands of affluence and deprivation, achievement rises with wealth in every subject and at every level. Social disadvantage trumps transformational and distributed leadership every time because variations in student intake have more impact than efforts to make schools more effective.

A third illusory assumption is that free market competition improves quality. Public services have been restructured, so that providers are subject to the same pressures and disciplines as private business. The difficulty is that choice of school is constrained by factors that do not apply in the commercial world.

Local authorities are under pressure to remove surplus places, so that school accommodation is provided on a cost-efficient basis. As a result, places in popular schools are rationed. Unequal competition between schools in attractive and less attractive locations has been increased by the creation of new types of institution with enhanced funding. Schools are not supermarkets.

The Government's fourth illusion is that central regulation, backed up by remorseless inspection, guarantees high standards. In reality, national agencies have disempowered heads and teachers and have also contributed to a troubling democratic deficit. Parents, children and education authorities find themselves sidelined by officials who impose new types of school or micro-manage those that have stumbled into special measures.

Her Majesty's Chief Inspector's Annual Report 20082009 is testimony to the failure of the regulatory regime over a long period. Schools with a high proportion of deprived children are "still more likely to be inadequate". Significant numbers of previously "outstanding" or "good" schools "were found to be satisfactory or inadequate". Nearly half of schools previously judged "satisfactory" have not improved or have deteriorated.

The fifth effectiveness principle is that schools should adopt "best practice" recommendations to transform performance. There is no theoretical foundation for the idea that "best practice" can be transferred from one school to another. On the contrary, no mechanism has been found to explain how an ineffective school can become more effective. A study of 12 improving schools found that none had succeeded in raising their effectiveness.

Other studies have discredited the idea that matching teaching to a student's learning style leads to better results and have called into question the assumption that attention to different types of intelligence increases performance. We have not yet found a sure-fire formula to unlock great leaps in learning. Local differences mean what works in one place may fail in another.

Twenty-one years on, the flaws in these policy assumptions have become self-evident. Thanks to grade inflation, pass rates are up, but education has failed to reach the Government's strategic objectives. According to academics Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their book The Spirit Level, our society has become one of the most unequal in the world, with grave consequences for everyone's health, happiness and productivity.

Schools have not reduced endemic disadvantage and exclusion. As Alan Milburn's inquiry has shown, social mobility has declined. Leading employers, such as Marks Spencer chairman Sir Stuart Rose, complain that school leavers are "not up to the job". On the basis of a three-year study, the Cambridge Primary Review concludes that children's lives are impoverished by a narrow, test-driven education that is fundamentally deficient.

There is an urgent need to abandon central government's money-centred obsession with functional skills and efficiency, and to establish a new, progressive vision concerned with students' personal growth and needs.

'The Pendulum Swings: Transforming School Reform' by Bernard Barker is published next month by Trentham Books

Bernard Barker, Emeritus professor of educational leadership at Leicester University, former comprehensive head, and author of 'Transforming Schools: Illusion or Reality?'

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