Having recently retired as a sixth-form college principal, I have been able to take a brief rest from the medieval battlefield that our current educational system resembles; ride to the top of a nearby hill; and survey the scene below.
The marketisation of education has led to internecine warfare between those notionally on the same side. Schools and colleges battle for students in an environment where even if numbers can be maintained, a declining level of per capita funding results in financial unviability. Competition between institutions is rife. School sixth forms are engaged in bitter rivalry with sixth-form colleges and local authorities with multi-academy trusts.
Zombie schools with poor inspection outcomes, desperately looking for an academy sponsor, wander the field like severely wounded soldiers. The “turf wars” between regulator Ofsted and the regional schools commissioners continue, while both can strike terror into the institutions they visit. Local authorities retain significant responsibilities but have been denuded of power. Described by the Department for Education as “champions for all parents and families”, they stagger around the battlefield clutching a bloody standard, but no weapons.
Universities, pitted against each other, are struggling to recruit from a declining pool of 18-year-olds, resulting in more unconditional offers and degree-classification inflation. At the same time, they are striving to avoid the caltrops of the Research Excellence Framework and the Teaching Excellence Framework.
Notwithstanding the carnage, staff in schools, colleges and universities are still winning the struggle to ensure students are well-taught and achieve outcomes that continue to result in UK education enjoying a reputation for excellence.
Unfortunately, they do this against a background of diminishing resources, and an increasingly stressful and bureaucratic accountability regime. They are fighting with broken weapons and one arm tied behind their backs. Leaders of sixth-form colleges survey the battle with despair, as they see their troops starved of resources and at breaking point.
Some will be forced to quit the field forever. The battered crown of the educational system, of which they were once the jewels, lies in a hedge. The lack of reinforcements promised to those struggling in the post-16 sector is scandalous. Some college leaders scaled the battlements of the academy citadel, but the paltry treasure it contains serves only to provide meagre rations to postpone inevitable starvation unless funding is improved.
Amongst the chaos, a misguided group of zealots have been allowed to establish “free schools”, which have frequently resulted in duplication of existing provision, poor outcomes for students and a scandalous waste of public money. Those who have led this misguided “children’s crusade” should accept the failure of these experiments, which have taken scarce resources out of the system (millions of pounds in Hereford alone) and ultimately failed their pupils.
Ministers and officials overseeing the scene are too far away to comprehend the ebb and flow of the melee. They can dimly perceive the “standards” of their armies, which they say have “never been higher”.
Perhaps it is too much to hope that the government, whatever its political hue, will establish a coherent education service and fund it appropriately. But after a lifetime in the profession, I shall spur my horse down the hill and rejoin the fray because those actually fighting each other are committed to ultimate victory for the students caught up in the battle.
Jonathan Godfrey was principal of Hereford Sixth Form College from 1996-2017. The college was the inaugural winner of the Tes sixth-form college of the year award and the first sixth-form college to become an academy