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Tim Clark: A headmaster's top ten proposals to help rebuild Britain's failing education system

Tim Clark is Headmaster of a Lincolnshire grammar school, recently judged “outstanding” by Ofsted, and on the approved list of Conservative parliamentary candidates.

“Education, education, education” was a memorable, but totally vacuous, catch phrase; twelve years later one third of 11-year-olds cannot read or write properly, only one half of all 16-year-olds manage to attain five GCSEs including English and Maths, and independent fee-paying schools continue to punch above their weight in getting pupils into the top universities. This is all despite increased government spending on education. So what has gone so terribly wrong?

As with most New Labour (and Old Labour) policies, one problem has been the massive expansion of education bureaucracy at the expense of practical front line strategies; paperwork and meetings strangle education as they do most public services. Secondly, the Government has failed to concentrate on the basic essentials; the Department of Education is now the Department of Children, Schools and Families, as if trying to raise educational standards is not a big enough job for one department.

Teachers are often criticised for moaning and being negative, but we must face facts: within the next ten years one third of all teachers will have left the profession, and they are not being replaced. Schemes to attract new graduates have increased the numbers training to be teachers, but most are not sticking at the chalk face. Most who are retiring, or, more importantly, retiring early, are still quoting poor classroom behaviour and endless initiatives as the prime reasons for quitting.

So, what can be done? Here are ten suggestions (although the list is not exhaustive):

  1. Improve discipline by giving Heads the final say on exclusions; places must also be provided in Pupil Referral Units for those excluded rather than, as at present, most trouble makers simply being passed to other schools where they can continue to disrupt teaching and learning.
  2. End the fallacy of inclusion; of course all children matter and all must be provided for, but where an individual is unable to cope with mainstream education, special provision must be available elsewhere so that the individual can develop whilst not disrupting or holding back the education of the majority.
  3. Forget the pointless debate over academic v. vocational subjects - both are equally important in a diverse modern society, and pupils should have the freedom to choose, with professional advice, the combination that is best for them.
  4. Relax the curriculum and permit professionals to provide an educational diet that is right for each individual pupil; for some, physics, Latin and modern languages are the most appropriate, for others, plumbing, carpentry and car maintenance are the key to employment and to playing a valuable role in society.
  5. Stop the endless “grade inflation” which only makes a mockery of exams. A useful and meaningful system would be to link a grade to a percentage pass, so, for example, an A* would mean the pupil came in the top ten percent nationally, an A the next ten percent, and so on. Employers and universities would then have a simple and comparative measure of pupils’ ability which would remain constant from year to year.
  6. Stop sending out mixed messages: schools were told that uniforms were good, but then criticised because some were expensive; schools were told to insist on high standards of dress, but then criticised for sending pupils home to get changed. Schools should publish clear rules and expectations, and the law reinforce the common law principle that by sending a child to a school both the child and the parents agree to be bound by the published requirements.
  7. Scrap Building Schools for the Future, a grand-sounding name given to a disastrous programme to build new flagship schools. Why do we need new ones, when, at half the cost, we could rebuild and redevelop many of the ones we already have? The project was a failed attempt by Labour to appear to be improving education by erecting a few glitzy new schools.
  8. Change the nature of Ofsted. Schools need to be accountable, but “banging on the chicken shed” every few years does nothing but raise stress levels and detract schools from their real purpose. Self-evaluation, supported by external monitoring, is a far surer way of encouraging real development in our schools.
  9. Give schools the freedom to develop as they see fit. Genuine financial independence would allow schools to provide real choice without the burgeoning of bureaucracy at national or Local Authority level.
  10. Cut out ever-growing bureaucracy. Two examples will suffice: Every Child Matters, the grandiose scheme to co-ordinate services dealing with children, is so cumbersome and complex that it has possibly put children more at risk, simply because lines of responsibility are less clear than they used to be. Likewise, the new safeguarding procedures which, despite being well meant, are little more than a paper exercise.  The result is to create, “The illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation”. (Gaius Petronius, AD 66)
None of the above is difficult or demanding. I hope that a new Conservative administration can do much to reassure the teaching profession, rebuild our failing education system, and provide a highly skilled generation for the future. Disraeli once said, “Upon the education of the people of this country, the fate of this country depends”; what a tragedy that New Labour has failed in such a crucial mission.


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