Keeping a close eye on education

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The Education Select Committee plays a crucial role in scrutinising education policy and performance. Its chairman Graham Stuart MP speaks to Dorothy Lepkowska about some key issues, including academies, awarding bodies, the EBacc, and Michael Gove.

If the House of Commons Education Select Committee is intended to be a critical friend to ministers, it could not have chosen better than Graham Stuart MP as its chairman.

The no-nonsense head of the all-party panel has put tough questions to Michael Gove, the education secretary, and the prime minister on education policy and he makes no apologies for it. 

As the first elected chairman of the committee, under changes introduced at the start of the current administration, it is perhaps doubly important to be seen to be applying the appropriate scrutiny.

“The government has carried out a fairly radical change to the education system and is determined to turn around the reversal of fortunes as outlined in PISA and other research,” he explained.

“Despite the large investment in education of the last government this has not been reflected in the level of rising standards that we would want to see.

“With so many countries around the world working so hard to improve their education systems, the stakes have never been higher.”

Mr Stuart expressed concerns about the speed with which the Academies Act was pushed through Parliament, but he added: “After 13 years of another government it is understandable that the new ministerial team would want to give a new sense of direction.

“The Act has freed up schools from the sometimes dead hand of local authorities but we have to ensure we have sufficient checks and balances to support those that don’t succeed. I questioned David Cameron about this.”

The prime minister admitted to MPs during his Select Committee appearance in March that the role of local authorities would be “quite changed” by the expansion of academies and ministers had yet to decide how best to support those in difficulty. 

In response, Mr Stuart said: “This is not (an issue) we can continue to avoid. We will soon have more than half of all secondary schools as academies and the prime minister wants thousands of primaries to follow. We can’t wait any longer for answers.”

He continued: “These changes need to occur by evolution and not revolution. What we don’t want is to afford less scrutiny to the larcenous, idle and incompetent. The drive towards academies is leaving more and more people who are not outstanding practitioners at the helm. 

“Politically and educationally we cannot have a huge number of failing autonomous institutions spending lots of money. We need to harness the positive energy out there but at the same time ensure that this revolution is sustainable in the long run.” Elsewhere, the committee’s report into the administration of the examination system for 15 to 19 year olds is due to be published shortly.

“The central question concerning us was the dumbing down of examinations, whether they need structural change and whether we need to look at franchising out individual subjects to one board,” Mr Stuart said. 

“I am concerned about how, and whether, the examination boards are competing. Are they in competition over how accessible their examinations are – which is another way of saying how easy they are – and do they suggest that if a school chooses them more students will achieve grade Cs and above?”

Mr Stuart has also been critical of the manner in which the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) was implemented. 

He explained: “It was done retrospectively as a performance measure, and was harsh by any definition. Many issues hadn’t been ironed out.

“I spoke to a headteacher who offered half courses in history and geography. But because the school scored 0 per cent on EBacc measures he is now going to move to full conventional courses, resulting in a lower uptake.”

This focus on a handful of subjects was one of the key questions put to Mr Gove during his appearance before the Select Committee in January (pictured). The chairman suggested it could result in schools targeting pupils capable of reaching grade C, rather than supporting the lowest-achieving pupils and those from the poorest backgrounds.

He accused Mr Gove of being “naïve” in failing to recognise that a framework of incentives would become a “driver of behaviour”, and gave the example of the school manipulating its subject options to increase its EBacc score.

The education secretary argued there must not be assumptions that poorer children could not achieve high results – or that they should not have access to a full range of academic subjects.

So what is the nature of Mr Stuart’s relationship with the education secretary? “We get on quite well personally but as chairman of Select Committee it would not be appropriate to get too close to him. I raise issues regularly with him in the division, and I am in regular contact with ministers and the chancellor.”

Mr Stuart is trying to persuade George Osborne to look more closely at the value that good teachers add to their student’s lives beyond their formal education, with a view possibly to offering better remuneration. 

He was inspired by a recent talk on teacher quality given to the Policy Exchange, an influential UK think-tank, by Professor Eric Hanushek of Stanford University in the United States.

“He has looked at the economic success of students and the correlation between that and good teaching,” Mr Stuart said. 

“Teachers in the 90th percentile created an impact of £800,000 more in earnings over a lifetime than an average teacher. The ugly corollary is that the 10th percentile of poor teachers will have a negative effect.”

Mr Stuart casts doubt on plans to attract the best graduates with bursaries. Under government proposals, it will become tougher to enter teacher training but candidates offering priority subjects could get up to £20,000.

“It might be better to recruit more people through a wider funnel but to have fewer graduates, so you have the best candidates left at the end of initial teacher training ready to go into classrooms. 

Who cares if you only have a third-class degree if you can actually teach and inspire pupils?”

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education journalist. The full version of this interview can be found in the summer issue of Make the Grade, the magazine of the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors.

Further information
For more on the work of the Education Selection Committee, visitwww.parliament.uk/education-committee.
 


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