Since 1979 the issue of how students are divided into schools has become less central to the question of how schools are run. Despite the rhetoric and the celebrated battles between progressives and traditionalists the big changes have been in where the power lies. The following are some of the main developments:
The National Curriculum: Introduced in the 1988 Education Act this dictated the contents of the curriculum. Although it has been much changed since, and no longer holds as much sway at Key Stage 4 (ages 14-16), it has led on to central control of not only teaching content but also teaching methods.
League tables (and greater use of assessment): Another result of the 1988 Education Act. This has made it possible to monitor schools more closely, calculate added value and compare results. It has also given parents more opportunity to choose between schools.
Changes in Assessment: The introduction of the GCSE and the abolition of O levels and CSEs helped cement changes in the nature of assessment. No longer would a pass indicate success, meaningless low grades were added, moreover use of coursework and later modular exams would move the emphasis away from one off performance in exams making qualifications far easier to obtain.
Devolution: The creation of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly has led to greater diversity within the United Kingdom’s Education system. Most noticeably the teaching unions appear to have far more influence as a lobbying group on these devolved authorities than they ever did on the DFES and the Scottish Office.
Inclusion and greater tolerance for poor behaviour: In theory Inclusion refers to efforts being made to allow the disabled and those with learning needs the option of being educated within mainstream schools. In practice it has resulted in the mass abolition of Special Schools for those in need, against the wishes of parents, and the bullying of schools into accepting students that will be unable to behave or learn there. The Warnock Report into Special Educational Needs in 1978 and the 1981 Education Act that followed it laid the groundwork for inclusion. The subsequent tolerance of poor behaviour can be traced to the abolition of physical punishment in several Education Acts through the 80s and 90s, the 1994 circulars that demanded schools avoid exclusions, and the 1998 School Standards and Framework Act that dispensed with the requirement that exclusion appeals panels take into account the interests of staff and students (other than the student being excluded).
Changes in types of school: In recent years the government has pushed for greater diversity in schools, encouraging the setting up of Faith schools, Specialist Schools and Academies. All of these have led to allegations of a return to selection but there is very little evidence to support this allegation.
The greatest effect of these changes has been to the role and status of the teacher. No longer were teachers to be trusted, understandably when the entrance criteria for teaching courses was falling to unheard of depths. Talk of “left wing teachers” hides the fact that teaching was overwhelmingly a Conservative voting profession up until the mid to late eighties where the Conservative Government’s distrust of teachers came to the fore. It had become normal for Government to see teachers as the cause of problems in education. The changes in the curriculum that could have been used as a method for limiting the power of LEA bureaucrats have instead seen power removed from schools and teachers. The changes in assessment could have been used to identify failures in school management. Combined with the creation of OFSTED as a replacement for LEA inspection, they could have made it possible to identify and transform the schools that were failing to educate. However this has been prevented by the belief that changes in teaching are necessary rather than changes in management. Attainment data is now being used to identify teacher failure – as if any teacher’s ability can be accurately judged on the exam results of one or two classes – rather than school failure.
The changes in school discipline (mainly centred around inclusion) have ensured that it is now normal for teachers to be subject to physical and verbal abuse and for school management to be engaged in concealing it. Even more than the removal of trust in teachers’ judgement, this has downgraded the role and status of teachers. The ability to survive in the jungle of modern secondary schools, to put up with the abuse, to have patience with the unwilling and uncooperative, are now more important than subject knowledge or the ability to explain material. By extension school management cannot be about managing the students, this battle is already lost, it must instead be about managing teachers, scrutinising them for signs that they are not doing their job rather than creating the climate where they are best able to do their job.
The other changes, for all the sound and fury in the media and with the unions, are actually fairly minor. Reform of qualifications has invariably made them easier to pass, making it difficult to use results to judge whether the education system is getting better or worse. The efforts of the government to makes schools more diverse have very little effect. Schools will do the paperwork but will rarely change their ethos. League tables can highlight schools falling to the depths of ineffectiveness, but they are only competing with other ineffective schools and they will always find people ready to excuse their failures as a result of having a “poor intake” or “serving a deprived area”. No league table can expose a failing system, it can merely rank the failures.
Lowe, Chris, Pupils, Their Education and the Law, The Questions Publishing Company, 1999
McKenzie, Janet, Changing Education: a Sociology of Education Since 1944, Pearson Education Limited, 2001
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