Life's not fair for new generation

27th August 2004 at 01:00
Britain's millennium babies face a lottery of an education system which breeds winners and losers, writes David Spendlove

Next month, Britain's "millennium babies" will start the first of their 2,145 days or approximately 10,725 hours of compulsory education. They will enter the most diverse, differentiated and politicised education system ever, and as things stand they will also become one of the most assessed generations, starting with their early-stage profile - sowing the firsts seeds of failure - followed by statutory assessments at seven, 11, 14, 16, 17 and 18. At best, these assessments diagnose strengths, difficulties and help identify remedies. At worst, they will be used to label children as incapable and underperforming. What we do know is that within the cohort of "millennium children" there will be winners and losers in the high stakes game of education and not just based upon ability.

Sixty years on from the 1944 Education Act, could it have been imagined that education would be such a lottery and have remained so crude? We now have possibly the most regimented, highly structured education system in the world - a structure that rewards compliance but that nurtures discontent, whilst it deskills teachers and promotes "technicians" to carry out their role. The frameworks provide a structure but often fail to recognise the complexity and diversity of children and education. Of course, the new millennium has brought new technologies and we also have new schools, many of them with shiny new names - but our curriculum, pedagogy and organisational structure have merely been tinkered with and ultimately remain confused.

What we most clearly have, however, is significantly more information - masses of it. We have so much un-moderated, indistinguishable information - often of dubious value - that it has become a study in itself. Yet given that we have so much information about schools, teachers, pupils and the regions, shouldn't we act upon it? The reality is that if we know certain schools are outperforming other schools; if we know from school inspections or threshold assessments that certain teachers are performing better than others; and if we know that certain types of school or certain groups of pupils are currently being disadvantaged - then shouldn't we do something about it? The inevitable failure of many children, not because of their own capabilities but simply because we have failed to recognise or acknowledge the set of deficiencies and inconsistencies in the unfortunate hand they were dealt, would appear to be brutal and malicious. Where is the "parity of esteem" for our millennium children?

Tinkering with our education provision may serve political expediency but it also illuminates the lack of opportunities for many children. Of course, the "sticking plaster" mentality has often attempted to stop the haemorrhaging through the introduction of unsustainable approaches. Yet we remain very quick to point a finger at such children and label them for life as "underachievers" and "no hopers" when in fact it is the system - that we are very well informed about - that has often let them down. If we cannot offer all children the same and cannot act upon the information that we have and we cannot use our information to inform and encourage rather than label - then we cannot judge all children or schools in the same way.

When you consider that because of the arbitrary arrangement of the school year that some children in the "average" class will be almost one year - that is, 8,000 hours or 20 per cent - younger than the oldest child in the class on their first day at school, then you appreciate that children do not necessarily have an equitable start to their education.

From that first day the lottery of education takes hold. Statistically if you are a boy living in the North-east from a working-class (or unemployed) background, born in late August and from a large family of which you are the youngest in a school within an area of deprivation, then your 10,000 hours of schooling is going to be difficult. For many it may not even be worth starting the journey as the brutal nature of assessment and labelling will only cause absolute misery.

So I therefore propose a handicap system as an antidote to our current educational system that nurtures failure. Any pupil who goes to a successful school (as identified by league tables) and is taught by an effective teacher (as deemed by the Office for Standards in Education, performance management, etc) should have their Sats scores, marks at GCSE, ASA2 etc, reduced. Any pupils in a poorly-performing school and taught by a poorly-performing teacher should have their grades increased. This could be extended to become even more rigorous to include gender, ethnic group, special needs, regions, birth date, family make up, learning style, and so on, so that instead of having a simplistic first-past-the-post approach we have a responsible and mediated success-for-all approach.

Of course, such a handicap system is nonsense, but so is the fact that we currently ignore and turn a blind eye to such inconsistencies in our crude education system. Such a system inevitably generates diversity, embraces failure and builds in inequality - but ultimately fails to acknowledge its failures. Therefore, good luck to all the millennium children starting in September - you will certainly need it!

David Spendlove is a lecturer in education at the University of Manchester

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