The survival of the fattest

4th April 1997 at 01:00
Enough of the market revolution. A new government needs to create a climate where learning is valued, says Simon Williams.

James Tooley is right to say that we can't turn the clock back on parental choice of schools (Opinion, January 31). Whatever the arguments over principle, the result of returning to allocation of places by local authorities would be to drive more middle-class parents out of the state system. However, Tooley failed to deal with Peter Wilby's key point (Opinion, January 17) that the market, far from merely exposing schools in difficulties, actually helps to create them. In competitive catchment areas the market has triggered a scramble for the bright students who are easier to teach and likely to boost the school's position in the league tables. Michael Rutter pointed out in 1979 the importance of schools having "a reasonable balance of academically successful children" if they are to be effective. Schools which fail to attract such children in sufficient numbers may be forced into a spiral of decline which has nothing to do with the quality of education they have been providing.

In the last 10 years, schools have been in the forefront of an ideological revolution which has used market values to shake up the system and raise educational standards. In its own language, power has been shifted from the producer to the consumer. The revolution has achieved some success. The producer monopoly has been broken along with the notion that schools don't make a difference. The school improvement industry thrives: the pages of The TES bristle with weekly examples of school initiatives which show they do make a difference. Factors crucial to good schools, such as methods and quality of teaching, are now the subject of public debate instead of being closed to non-professionals. However, evidence is accumulating to show that not everything in the market garden is flourishing. Research from King's College, London, demonstrates that parental choice favours schools and families that are already advantaged. The natural tendency of the market in this direction has been artificially boosted by the creation of grant-maintained schools and the encouragement of selection. How easy it is to secure a strong position in the league tables if you have a large measure of control over those you take in and those you get rid of. But at whose expense and at what long-term cost to the community? This is flabby Social Darwinism: survival of the fattest and that is not healthy for any of us.

The market model encourages the view that schools are solely responsible for their success or failure without reference to the wider society from which their teachers and students are drawn. But cultural attitudes are crucial determinants of educational success. Recent research has highlighted what the Independent has recently called "the anti-education ethos" which "still runs deep in the national psyche . . . and is the biggest obstacle in solving British under-achievement in education". The torrent of reforms over the past decade has concentrated on the education system and the schools within it. But reforms that stop there miss the whole picture, leaving stressed teachers cast as scapegoats, vulnerable to the charge of failure and alienated from the process of change. Unlike the national curriculum under Ron Dearing, the former chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, there will be no five-year moratorium on further educational change. Rather the reverse as education becomes everyone's priority. But if future changes are to lead to lasting improvement rather than the continuing upheaval of permanent revolution then I suggest the following objectives for the incoming government: * Improving parental choice for all by creating a more level playing-field. This means reversing the move to selection and requiring all non-denominational state schools to operate a common admissions and exclusions policy determined democratically at local level.

* Promoting grassroots projects involving home and school of the sort being pioneered by the National Literacy Trust. These will be underpinned by the notion that education is a process requiring home and school to act as partners in carrying out reciprocal responsibilities, not a commodity to be delivered by teachers and consumed by parents and children.

* Establishing a national research and information centre to investigate and promote good practice.

* Replacing the system of inspection with regional advice and inspection teams with the task of advising schools on their development plan priorities, reporting on outcomes in relation to three-year targets, providing a value-added analysis of performance and carrying out classroom appraisal of teachers. Within this structure, schools should be encouraged to experiment, innovate and collaborate with each other.

Extending the market revolution will not achieve sustained educational improvement. Instead it will widen the gap between schools, reinforcing the growth in inequality that has taken place since 1979. But there can be no question of returning to the pre-revolutionary era. The main task of the new government is to create a climate where learning is valued by all of society. We need a new conceptual and organisational framework that will mobilise the skills and energies of teachers and enlist the involvement of parents and children so that all schools can be winners.

Simon Williams is headteacher of Shene School, Richmond.

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