Bringing down the ‘wall’


The recently repeated suggestions that state schools should operate more like private schools ignores the elephant in the room, says Deborah Lawson.

As the political machine gears up toward the next general election, there is no doubt that education is a political priority for all parties. Everyone, it seems, has been infected by the current trend or fashion of comparisons. Internationally, PISA leads the field while domestic comparisons have recently been made between teaching and pupil achievement in the state and private sectors.

Although such comparisons have some merit, there will always be political, academic and teaching pro and anti lobbies for them.

Politicians simultaneously praise the teaching profession for embracing change and its pace, and disenfranchise it by prescribing the curriculum and how it is taught. They also hold the private sector up as the exemplar to which all state schools should aspire in order for our education system to be world class.

Praise is welcome. However, it is hollow praise when accompanied by the implication that the judgement of experienced, trained, qualified professional teachers is not to be trusted. It is hollow praise when it is claimed that the only reliable way for teachers to understand what pupils know is by testing – whether at four or 13. 

Too many tests will only increase bureaucracy, administration, costs and the stress of teachers and pupils. They will only tell teachers what they already know through their own observation and assessments. 

Time testing reduces time teaching and can encourage “teaching to test” cultures, especially if school accountability is a factor. Do we really want or need testing and the data it produces to become more important than education or pupils?

The laudable aspiration for the English education system to be world class is not in question. What is in question, however, is how this will be achieved and if the motivator is political, or if it is led from the front by those who really know about education – the teaching profession. 

The “Berlin Wall”, as it has been described, between state and private education is a further indication of the marketization of the education system. The aspirations, prospects and achievements of private sector pupils cannot be denied. We only have to look at the backgrounds and stellar career paths of so many MPs and Cabinet members to see evidence of this. However, this success is achieved with small, often tutorial-sized, class teaching – which promotes teacher-pupil relationships and gives greater time for explanation – and enhanced school facilities. Of course, all of this also comes at a price – the fees paid by parents. 

Teachers in the state sector would welcome and embrace such advantages for their pupils. That the private sector delivers good results consistently is true, and the achievements of those professional teachers who work hard to ensure that delivery should be recognised (Tristram Hunt, take note). So too must the achievements of those who work hard to achieve the same in the state sector. 

However, the suggestion that state schools should operate like private schools avoids the elephant in the room – the issue of affordability and funding, at school, county and national level. The state sector will need significantly more resources so that it can also offer smaller small classes, enhanced facilities and more extra-curricular activities in order to rival the independent sector and break down the “wall”. This has implications for any funding formula, especially should payment by results be introduced into it. 

Will any of the political parties break the mould and relinquish the political stranglehold on education by handing responsibility back to the profession? If politicians really do trust the professionalism and expertise of our teachers the next step should be to grant the same flexibilities, freedoms and powers at whole school operation level to teachers in the classroom. 


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