School diversity lowers standards and raises costs

12th June 2009 at 01:00
The Nuffield review's final report calls for a rethink of the national curriculum

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

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 review's final report 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 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, say 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 lack experience in vocational areas such as hairdressing, construction and engineering, which pupils ought to be able to study from 14 onwards.

He believes it is not enough for those who do have the experience and knowledge from working in industry to become instructors or teaching assistants. To play a full role, they must be fully qualified teachers.

The wide-ranging review also warns that thinking is shaped by the words policymakers use.

"The Orwellian language seeping through government documents of `performance management and control' has come to dominate," it says.

"The language of measurable `inputs' and `outputs', `performance indicators' and `audits', `targets' and `curriculum delivery', `customers' and `deliverers', `efficiency gains' and `bottom lines'. There needs to be a return to an educational language."


There is no doubt that the Nuffield review of 14-19 education and training is a major work.

The final report, or rather book, weighs in at 238 pages, took six years to complete and cost nearly pound;1 million.

Its authors proudly bill it as the largest review into this phase of education since the Crowther report, which 50 years ago recommended raising the school-leaving age to 16.

But does that mean it will have any impact? Like the Cambridge Primary Review, the Nuffield study is an independent study produced in parallel with a government-commissioned review into the same subject.

Nuffield's official counterpart - the Tomlinson report into 14-19 education - was already halfway through its 18-month inquiry when Nuffield was launched in 2003.

Richard Pring, the Oxford University professor who led the Nuffield review, denies that it is going back to Tomlinson by calling for a more unified qualifications system.

But it does sound remarkably similar to the overarching diploma rejected in 2005 by the Labour Government that commissioned Tomlinson.

If that idea was ignored, then what chance do some of Nuffield's more radical proposals stand?

In a sense, they could be seen as well timed. With the increasing likelihood within a year of a Conservative government that would reject the idea of academic diplomas, the 14-19 system could again be in a state of flux.

But as Professor Pring readily admits, some of the ideas in his review, such as less state school diversity, are unlikely to be a hit with the Tories.

And although he has had talks with David Willetts, who has led on further and higher education for the Conservatives, the academic says contact with Michael Gove, the shadow schools secretary, has yet to be established.

Professor Pring said: "It may well be the case that policymakers will say `We disagree' or `This is not practical'. But I want to see this as a thorough review of a whole range of issues that should at least enter into people's thinking."

Nuffield in brief

  • Teachers should have a greater say in policy and curriculum, especially at a local level, to counter damaging central government micro- management.
  • "Orwellian" language of policymakers and their advisers undermines education.
  • Government's vision of learning too narrow and does not recognise the practical, social development and moral commitment.
  • Resulting targets and inspection criteria focus on the easily measurable and encourage teaching to the test. Assessment must recognise all achievement.
  • "Three-track" qualifications framework with GCSEA-levels, diplomas and apprenticeships is obsolete. It should be replaced with a more unified and flexible system, recognising all types of learning.
  • Those without degrees but with "much-needed" practical and work-based knowledge should be able to become qualified teachers.
  • Collaboration between schools, colleges and work-based learning providers essential but undermined by the creation of different types of school, underperforming sixth forms and league tables.
  • Schools and further education colleges should be funded equally.
  • Higher priority needed for Neets - young people not in education, employment or training.
  • Involving all 16 to 18-year-olds in some form of education or training would be better achieved by enticement rather than coercion - as in Wales.
  • All employers should be encouraged to provide better work-based learning.


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