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Rab Butler revolutionised education in 1944. Let’s do it again

Rab Butler revolutionised education in 1944. Let’s do it again
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In the last 100 years there have been two defining education acts – Butler’s in 1944 and Baker’s in 1988. They represent two distinct chapters in England’s educational story.

Tim Brighouse

Tim Brighouse was the schools commissioner for London. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

The first witnessed new schools, colleges and curriculum innovation, especially in the arts, as well as new youth and career services. Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberalism underpinned Baker’s 1988 reform bill, which meant a prescribed national curriculum and tougher accountability, along with diversity in school provision and autonomy.

Now once again we doubt our schools – and it isn’t simply exams or test results we question. Terrorist attacks? Introduce the Prevent agenda and promote “British values”. Fall behind in the Pisa tests that compare achievement worldwide? It’s the fault of schools.

From economic woes to sporting failures, from concerns about mental health and eating habits, to a rise in drug and drink problems, schools are simultaneously seen as the cause of the problem, and the key to the solution. Schools, however, have no chance of rising to the challenge until at least five systemic structural issues have been addressed.

The first is a growing crisis in teacher recruitment and retention: teachers stay for less and less time in the profession. “Securing and retaining a sufficient supply of suitably qualified teachers” was one of the original three duties of the secretary of state (there are now more than 2,000). Michael Gove abandoned this, believing the market would find a solution. It has: gluts in some areas, acute teacher shortages elsewhere. Without good teachers we are a lost civilisation.

Second, the curriculum is not fit for purpose. That won’t be corrected unless the deficiencies in exams are tackled simultaneously: at present these are unreliable, costly and privately run for profit by three boards. By focusing on the essential skills of numeracy and literacy we neglect others equally vital to our youngsters’ futures – such as high-level IT skills, thinking analytically within disciplines, solving inter-disciplinary problems, working in teams, interacting civilly with individuals from different cultural backgrounds and thinking for themselves while acting for others.

Third, the over-centralised governance and accountability system also needs reform. Ministers exercise too much power and too little judgment. Schools should of course be accountable – but not as academies are to the minister. Those in effect are nationalised “government schools”, a model usually found in totalitarian states.

A combination of exam league tables and high-stakes Ofsted inspections has re-enforced a myopic and narrow interpretation of what education is for. At best it celebrates the winners in a competition focusing on the measurable at the expense of the valuable; at worst it creates a climate of fear, bullying and human failure.

Rab Butler



Rab Butler, who was responsible for the 1944 Education Act. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty

Meanwhile, in every other developed democracy, including other parts of the UK, schools are accountable to a democratically elected local body. That is not true of the 7,000 free schools and academies that are an unholy hybrid of private company and charitable foundation, leading to financial scandals.

To these three structural failings add a fourth: school admissions arrangements based on a false prospectus of parental choice when the reality is that schools choose parents through covert selection, favouring the children of the rich over those from challenging families.

Finally, since 2010 the huge funding deficit between state funded schools and the private independent sector has widened further. Social mobility, a declared aim of both government and opposition, will remain a pipe dream until we tackle the unfair privileges this funding gap symbolises and perpetuates. Equity and equality of opportunity to live a fulfilled life are illusory unless these five issues are resolved.

An education act of 2020 should be passed after a cross-party parliamentary “conference”, jointly chaired by the education spokespeople from the three main parties and modelled on the select committee. Its task should be to take evidence from all interested stakeholders about what our future education service should look like. It would deal with the five systemic issues highlighted here and provide a comprehensive action programme for all educational entitlements, from the earliest years into old age.

It would herald an age of ambition, hope and partnership and a society committed to unlocking the talents not of a few, nor even the many, but of all its citizens.

Tim Brighouse was the schools commissioner for London from 2002-07



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