New government, new challenges

18th April 1997 at 01:00
Like many countries, we are struggling to come to terms with the challenges of modern life. New knowledge is being created ever more rapidly; most jobs require higher levels of skill, and science and technology are increasingly affecting our daily lives. Our education system has to contend with these changes and, not surprisingly, it is encountering a number of problems. Yet it would be unfortunate if an undue emphasis on problems eclipsed our undoubted strengths - a predominantly hard-working teaching profession concerned with the development of the whole child and with the dissemination of the values of democratic citizenship.

A new government will face serious problems which demand urgent attention.Over the past 18 years successive administrations have introduced wide-ranging reforms. Some - for instance, the national curriculum and local management of schools - after teething difficulties, have started to have a positive impact. Others - such as league tables and the separation of school inspection from the Department for Education and Employment, often introduced against professional advice - are flawed and are contributing to a reduction in parents' confidence and to an unprecedented number of teachers seeking early retirement.

One major weakness of the reforms is that too many have been imposed on the profession. This may have been necessary initially but the macho style of innovation has become counterproductive. A new government must grasp the chance to work with, rather than against, teachers, since it is on them that educational reforms ultimately depend.

There are many challenges facing a new government but I offer the following as priorities.

* Raise the level of achievement reached by each generation:

Most of the available indicators of standards of achievement in England show that there has been a slow but steady rise over recent years. The DFEE statistics for the proportion of pupils gaining the equivalent of five A-C grades in the GCSE examination show an increase from 24 per cent in 1980 to 44 per cent in the latest figures. We have, however, grown accustomed to the view that pupils in other countries are constantly performing better. The results of the Third International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS), which show English pupils scoring in the top quartile for science and above the mean for mathematics, challenge the view that English education consistently lags behind the rest of the world.

Nevertheless, it would be foolish for us to be complacent; international comparisons are notoriously difficult to interpret. Furthermore, other countries are investing more in their public education systems and our young people are increasingly likely to have to compete with their graduates in the international work place.

A new government should drop the policy of "shame and blame" expressed so clearly by league tables, make inspections less punitive and more diagnostic and seek to raise the standing of teachers. They should encourage local education authorities to focus their work on supporting improvement projects in their schools and empower heads and governors to support teachers in experimenting with new ways to promote pupils' learning.

* Raise the standing of teachers:

The teaching profession has been increasingly subject to attacks by politicians, officials and the media over the past few years. Teachers are presented as being unambitious on behalf of their pupils. There is little recognition that teaching is actually a very difficult job, often embraced by those with a sense of vocation. Even in comparison to other challenging occupations, teaching is hard: striving to motivate a class of young people who do not want to be in school is not for the faint-hearted. Unlike many other jobs, teaching is both public and isolated and teachers accordingly have vulnerable roles. Of course, the work is often highly rewarding and many teachers today - despite the problems - refuse to be cast as victims but celebrate the opportunity they have to influence the next generation by changing the lives of individual pupils.

How can the Government maintain and enhance this positive spirit, while rewarding more appropriately those who are feeling unappreciated? Creating a General Teaching Council and enhancing the status of teaching as an all graduate profession would help. A GTC, with responsibility for entry qualificati ons and the discipline of members, working with universities to provide a route from beginner teacher to highly-skilled "Fellow" would do wonders to lift the standing and morale of the profession.

* Increase the level of resources devoted to education:

No one visiting schools can fail to notice that many buildings are in poor shape. Similarly, there are shortages of books and computers. Governors will know that some schools are having to make teachers redundant. In comparison with other countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the resources devoted to education in the UK are relatively low. While in 1975 we spent 6.8 per cent of our gross domestic product (1 per cent above the average) and were ranked fifth out of 18 countries, the latest figures show that our spending has dropped to 5.1 per cent (0.7 per cent below the average) and we are now ranked 14th.

Injustice is also caused by the uneven distributio n of resources to schools. This has been exacerbated by differential funding between grant-maintained and local authority-managed schools. Where you live and which type of school your child attends - rather than any disadvantage she or he might have - can make a significant difference to the amount of public money being spent on his or her schooling. No government which has tied itself to policies of tax reduction is likely to have the revenue to increase educational funding immediately. It should - at least - introduce an equitable funding formula across all schools as a matter of the utmost priority.

* Dismantle the pecking order of schools:

The range of independent schools, selective grammar schools and church schools has in recent years been increased to include city technology colleges and grant-maintained and technology schools. The result is a sophisticated pecking order, starting with Eton and ending with whichever unpopular school is currently receiving media attention.

Changing public perceptions of schools is not easy and some will take years to recover from the damaging effects of league tables but, as the good work on failing schools undertaken by the Office for Standards in Education demonstrates, with hard work and extra resources it is possible to improve a school's image. Creating an equitable funding formula will help convince teachers that the Government is trying to improve all schools rather than consciously trying to create and sustain a hierarchy of school status. Such a strategy is also more likely, ultimately, to satisfy more parents.

These are four of my priorities for a new government. There are many other tasks requiring attention (nursery vouchers, special educational needs, student grants, vocational qualifications and the reform of OFSTED and other quangos) but most of these are already on politicians' agendas.

The issues I have outlined need to be addressed immediately.They offer a new government a positive way forward, a way which does not set government against teacher or citizen against school. Moreover, they strengthen the view that education should be seen as a public good rather than as a private commodity.

Peter Mortimore is the director of The Institute of Education, University of London

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