Where has the trust gone?

5th August 2005 at 01:00
From primary school to university, government prescription is the order of the day, says Graham Fowler

Harriet Gross's experiences during her research in primary schools (Talkback, July 1) left her with a positive feeling that trust still abounds in education. The fact that she arrived at the school as arranged, and fully equipped, would, of course, give reason for schools to believe that she was who she claimed to be. Like other visitors she was simply asked to sign in on arrival, wear a badge to show her visitor status, and sign out on leaving. Schools tend to be very trusting places; it's a shame that trust isn't always reciprocated.

Parents and communities might have faith in their local schools, but the message from government is clear: schools are not to be trusted.

The national curriculum suggested that teachers were no longer capable of deciding what went on in their subjects and their schools. The growth of "accountability" proceeded apace. Now a range of performance indicators measure the "quality" of a school. They are part of the concern for, one might even say obsession with, choice that has become a contemporary malaise.

For many parents, choice is a fiction. And options for schools are becoming more prescribed as the sands of accountability shift. An obvious recent example is the criticism that schools which have entered students for GNVQ intermediate courses - the equivalent of four O-levels - have somehow cheated the system. Did schools create this system? No, the Government did.

So schools that have conformed to a government edict are having their integrity questioned.

The way trust operates in education as a whole is exemplified by the university admissions procedure. Their school records are a guide to likely performance at A-level - but only a guide. Admissions tutors and administrators rely on the grades that teachers predict for their students.

Universities and schools trust one another. Yet the Government does not trust universities any more than it trusts schools. Universities are subject to a similar kind of inspection regime; they are judged on teaching and research performance, and the results, combined with additional, often rather random, criteria, are used to compile league tables.

Perhaps even more worrying for intellectual development is the way in which university departments are required to link their degree programmes to a series of benchmarks. This may not quite amount to a national curriculum at university level, but it threatens the organic growth of subject disciplines.

Those who work in education, whether at primary, secondary or tertiary level, continue to display a great deal of trust, personal and organisational. However, despite the evidence that schools and universities are producing better "products" in terms of student outcomes, we still don't seem to have done enough to earn the trust of those in power.

Graham Fowler is a researcher, writer and consultant

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