UK schools have hit the headlines repeatedly in recent months, and not for the right reasons. We look at the troubling areas in which English schools are failing and ask what might be done to solve the problems.
The Evening Standard sensationally revealed that one in four children is practically illiterate upon completing primary school; that one in three children does not own a book and one million British adults are unable to read.
The Evening Standard launched “Get London Reading,” a campaign to recruit volunteers and raise funds to individually tutor children learning to read in the capital’s schools. Yet this scheme will do little to tackle the problem nationwide and is unlikely to catch every child slipping through the net.
Following a mass protest in which schools all over the country boycotted the SAT examinations, they are set to be reduced to just a maths and reading test next year. In a highly embarrassing furore for the government, 4000 schools refused to take part in last year’s tests, while a further 2000 head teachers complained of “severe” and “outrageous” failings in the marking of this year’s papers.
Already in motion, the solution is to abandon the controversial SATs in favour of teacher-led assessments that take into account a child’s progress and performance over the whole year rather than in just one test.
English Baccalaureate Criticised
The English Baccalaureate was designed as a new benchmark for schools, creating a league table based on pupils’ performance in key subjects including English, Maths and sciences. However Shadow Education Secretary Andy Burnham slated the scheme in the House of Commons this week, claiming that competition for league table places has lead schools to heavily restrict student subject choices to favour those measured by the system.
43% of schools questioned reported restricting students’ choices, with some even admitting to transferring students to different GCSE courses midway through the year to improve league table results.
A heavy reliance on league tables has long plagued the British school system. Lower rankings for schools in disadvantaged areas can give an unfair impression of low performance when teachers might actually be doing a fantastic job. Meanwhile, students are drilled to learn formulaic answers and jump through hoops rather than encouraged to think creatively and independently. The ideal answer seems ultimately to be a move away from league tables to allow schools to refocus on the importance of teaching and putting students first.
Free Schools and Academies Condemned
Coalition Education Secretary Michael Gove has come under heavy fire for his ‘free schools’ scheme, which would see any group of people who want to open their own school able to apply for government funding. The academy scheme similarly aims to reduce government control, with schools gaining independent status but remaining publicly funded. Gove has written to every school in the country asking them to apply for academy status.
Yet critics have been vitriolic in their condemnation of the scheme, which they say puts educational power in the hands of any group of pushy parents who ‘think they could do better’. Meanwhile, unfair competition will be created between schools, with failing state schools lagging further behind as public funds are pumped instead into new ‘free schools,’ over which the government will have little control. Some also fear the rise of fundamental and extremist schools under the scheme, which will allow administrators to preach whatever doctrine they like to pupils.
Only 8% of teachers believe that Gove’s scheme will improve education for poor children in England, with the National Union of Teachers feeling so strongly that it announced an unprecedented “vote of no confidence” in Gove’s education policy. Accusations are rife that Gove has “railroaded” his plans through parliament using emergency measures without any proper consultation with parents and teachers. So it seems the only helpful solution would be to return to negotiation stage, involve more education professionals in the policy-shaping process and reinventing the new education policy to avoid fears of a two-tier school system emerging.
In reality, it is unlikely Gove will be prevented from putting these plans into practice, with many groups already having been given the green light for free school plans.
Aim Higher and EMA Abolished
Amidst drastic budget cuts that saw university tuition fees soar to £9000, the government chose to axe a number of programs designed to support the most disadvantaged children in education. These included the Aim Higher scheme and the Education Maintenance Allowance, which provided pupils from low-income families with financial support if they continued to sixth-form after completing their GCSEs.
The government has replaced the EMA with a new, drastically reduced fund, which they claim will be better targeted at those who really need it. However teachers and pupils claim the loss of the EMA will strike a huge blow to education for the most disadvantaged children and contribute to a dearth of poorer students applying to top universities in 2012. A reinstatement of the EMA seems to be the ideal solution, but that is extremely unlikely to happen in practice.
Oxbridge Entry Biased
On top of the UK schools crisis, a vast gulf of inequality has also been revealed at university entry level, with figures released last week showing that some 5 top independent schools send more students to Oxbridge than 2000 others put together. This suggests a huge crisis of inequality between public and state schools in England, resulting in a massive bias at university, and consequently within society. Social mobility is limited and equal access far from a reality, but the situation seems likely only to get worse.
Real targets and a much harder crackdown on university admissions teams would be the ideal solution, combined with better, government funded programs to mentor and encourage children from the most disadvantaged areas to take the right A-levels and consider applying for top universities. However, with EMA and Aim Higher axed and the government allowing Oxbridge to charge £9000 fees whilst only promising to increase their state school intake by a measly 3%, the solution sadly seems to be out of reach.