‘We’re fighting each other – make all schools the same’

27th November 2015 at 00:00
Outspoken academic Stephen Gorard on hard truths, centralised education – and standing up to injustice

In Stephen Gorard’s ideal education system, teachers would be employed by central government, and then sent wherever in the country they were required.

“If it’s a national system, we should all be working together,” the Durham University sociologist of education says. “And teachers are national servants: to some extent, they should be employed where they’re needed the most.”

He pauses. “I’m not saying this would be very popular. This is why I’ll never be minister of education.”

Professor Gorard has made a career out of telling it like it is, to the people he thinks need to hear. He has habit of coming up with uncomfortable truths on everything from the “useless” contextual value-added measure, to the negligible difference that choice of school makes to results once pupil background is taken into account.

The academic began his career as a computing and maths teacher, before “taking a hit to my salary” and moving to work on a PhD full-time. He had initially been interested in researching issues concerning teaching; quickly, however, he moved into areas of policy and injustice.

‘No easy solution’

“I once said in a meeting, ‘I hate injustice’,” he says. “And everyone groaned, as though I’d said, ‘I quite like breathing’. But injustice angers me in ways it doesn’t in other people. I try and expose it.

“Perhaps ‘anger’ is too strong a word, because I’m quite a mellow person. But I do hate lack of clarity. It’s not just about shoddy research – it can actually endanger people.”

As an example, he cites the time and money spent attempting to raise the aspirations of disadvantaged children, in the belief that this would have a dramatic effect on attainment.

“Make them want it, and it will happen,” Professor Gorard says. “It doesn’t require lesson plans or new schools. But evidence suggests that none of that is true. There’s no easy solution. And raising aspirations could be harmful: you’re setting people up for disappointment.

“You’re better off teaching them to read and write, and their aspirations will change as appropriate.”

The problem, he says, is that research findings are often politically inconvenient. “Politicians will assemble evidence to support the policy they’re going to propose,” he says. “What we all do as people is avoid the things we don’t like, in favour of those we like.

“But for teachers and politicians, as users of evidence, it’s a very dangerous thing, and something that has to be overcome if they want to improve the education system.”

For example, he says, the government was keen to listen to researchers who said that value-added league tables worked. They were less keen to listen to those, like Professor Gorard, who said they did not.

“It was nothing to do with the quality of the evidence we had marshalled and presented,” he says. “And I think that’s a concern.”

His objection to value-added league tables is that a school can improve only in comparison with others: it can be above average only if half of all schools are below. Professor Gorard sees this as a wider problem for education.

“The system is set up so that we’re fighting with each other for resources or prestige,” he says. In the valleys of South Wales, for instance, he says there is only enough money for one school in the area to have specialist departments, like photography or woodwork.

“If we could allow schools to share resources…” he begins, then pauses. The problem, Professor Gorard concludes, is that giving support to help a neighbouring school to improve could potentially compromise your own position in the league tables.

Opportunities for all

Professor Gorard’s solution – backed up by research, he is quick to point out – is a system where schools would be the same for everyone, and every pupil would have the same opportunities.

This would mean no faith schools, no grammar schools and no academies. (However, he adds that, as an alternative, “if academies are really the best, then all schools should be academies”.)

But the model also means uniformity elsewhere: no choice between an 11-16 or an 11-18 secondary, for example, or between primary and secondary or an all-through school.

“If we know that one age range, one form of organisation, one form of funding for schools is better than any other, then all schools should have that,” Professor Gorard says. (Pupil premium funding would be used to ensure equality in poorer areas.)

“There’s an entitlement for all young people to learn certain things, and we should all learn the same thing,” he says. “It wouldn’t matter if you moved from London to Middlesbrough halfway through your education – the structure and the teaching would be the same.”

There would still be space for teacher autonomy – unlike in the heyday of French centralisation, there would be no mandate that all 15-year-olds should study the same topic at the same time on the same day. But the underlying principle of equality would remain.

“It’s a taxpayer-funded system, isn’t it?,” Professor Gorard says. “The government is providing a system that everyone is compelled to take part in. So it shouldn’t matter where you live. The national school system should be the same, everywhere you go. It should be equal for everyone.”


Gorard’s vision

Further reading from Stephen Gorard, who tweets at @SGorard:

Overcoming Disadvantage in Education, a book about an ideal education system, jointly written with Beng Huat See, is available at bit.ly/Gorardbook

On injustice in education: “Querying the Causal Role of Attitudes in Educational Attainment, and the Fact that Shoddy Research Can Endanger People”. bit.ly/ShoddyResearch

On the use of politically convenient research findings and the idea that “numbers are like people; torture them enough and they will tell you anything”. bit.ly/PoliticallyConvenient

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