28 September 2007

Failing Schools: Stating the obvious

Hot off the press from The Department of the Bleedin Obvious (DotBO) is the news that failing schools could harm the economy. "Could" is not the term I would use - "almost certainly will" is how I would phrase it.

Failing schools mean failing pupils. It then suggests failing adults and failing parents leading to more failing pupils. Some will climb out of this ongoing train-wreck, but many more will not. Many DO not.

The State should not get in the way of opportunity. The State should work to remove barriers to opportunity it has created. The State monopoly on education, LEAs and the shortage of good places and good schools created by this system is standing in the way of opportunity, in the way of anxious parents and potential talent in our young people.

It is counter intuitive to create more capacity than you require, but that is precisely what is needed in schools. We need a surplus of good schools and good school places to enable parents to pick a good school near to home, with enrolled siblings or their child's friends. A surplus of good schools will make parents happier about moving home to seek work or be closer to work to avoid extended commutes. A State monopoly will not go about creating new schools when existing school capacity of whatever standard is sufficient for the pupils enrolled. Bad schools will always have children under such a system because all the other schools are full. The incentive for the school should be "improve or die", i.e. improve or find yourselves turning up to empty classes and ever declining funding. To peform this, a surplus of good schools is the simplest and organic way. Enable more schools to be formed outside the State system, not "permit", not "allow" but not stand in the way of more independent schools and the parents will have more choice and the worst schools will empty by themselves. The best teachers will be paid more and more kids will end up at a good school near to home, nearer to their parents workplaces, which cannot be a bad thing for home life and thus further improve the prospects§ for young people.

Vouchers are one way to achieve this.

§ Don't you DARE say "life chances".

9 September 2007

Coercion, coercion, coercion

Recently I reminded readers of the mediocracy blog why the 'educational conscription' issue is relatively important, as civil liberties controversies go (of which there are at present a not inconsiderable number).

The reason I am far more alarmed by this proposal than by (say) ID cards is that I see it as a way of surreptitiously floating a much larger and more radical notion, namely that coercion is, in principle, an acceptable way to address social problems. To some extent, I would not be particularly relieved if this proposal simply died a quiet death. It worries me that there has been so little resistance to the principle of the thing. In my view, if people don't object to this proposal on moral grounds, we could easily start to see the coercion idea applied in other areas.

Here we are, one month later, and the coercion concept seems to be gaining ground. Rather than oppose the idea — as we might hope from our opposition party — the Conservatives seem to have got a taste for it. First, we have a plan to make teenagers attend six-week community service projects, though Mr Cameron seems to have been persuaded (at least for the moment) to use the carrot of a cash reward, rather than the stick of compulsion, as inducement for attendance. Second, we have plans to force failing primary pupils to attend summer school or even resit an entire year.

Of course, we had hints of this aspect of new-style 'Conservatism' when Mr Cameron was appointed. The compulsory community service idea was first floated in January 2006, when we were told that it was a way of improving social cohesion.

Clearly, coercion is on the agenda. It's not limited to the main political parties, either. I get a sense of an authoritarian backlash brewing, as a reaction to all the ills which supposedly 'liberal' polices have generated. For example, there was recently a suggestion in the Telegraph that children should be forced to eat school lunches.

For the moment, coercion may seem to be limited to the under-18s, though we already have pending legislation for compulsory medication. Once coercion becomes seen as an acceptable remedy, however, I expect to see proposals to extend it to over-18s. Compulsory voting is an obvious possible area of application, but I can think of several others. (I am not going to mention them, because I don't want to give lovers of authoritarianism any ideas.)

Incidentally, the post that started this campaign blog — "What is wrong with you people?" — still gets an unusually high number of hits, six months after the event. (I have no idea why.)

3 September 2007

Spending without result

Cross-posted from Burning our Money, the ever-watchful Wat Tyler reminds us once again, with the help of hard data, what an incredible sink for money the state education system has become. It demonstrates the folly of supposing that just because more money is poured into "education" (or "health", "childcare", etc.) the extra spending necessarily makes things better. It can just as easily make things worse. The logic "more money = better service" is as crude as "more years = more learnt", and neither correlation is likely to be particularly high in a system in which there is no real consumer power.

Special plugholes for public spending surges

Education, education, education.

And as everyone should have understood, that was going to cost money, money, money.

Since Labour came to power, spending on Britain's state schools has more than doubled. Last year they spent £44.7bn, up from £22.2bn in 1996-97 (see here and prior PESAs). Even adjusting for general inflation, the increase is over 60%, a massive uplift.

Fair enough you say. That's what the voters wanted.

But spending money is easy. What we haven't had is the results.

Let's just recap the latest revelations:
  • Pre-primary skills among five-year olds are unchanged despite a £21bn programme to improve them (see this blog)
  • 3Rs skills among seven-year olds are stalled, with eg 20% failing to reach the minimum expected standard in writing (see here)
  • 3Rs skills among eleven-year olds are stalled, with 60% failing to reach the minimum expected standard in reading, writing, and maths (see this blog and this)
  • Core attainment among fourteen-year olds is also stalled, with nearly 40% failing to reach the minimum expected standard in English, maths, and science (see here)
  • At GCSE 54% still fail to gain 5 A-C grades including both English and Maths (see excellent Chris Woodhead article here)
  • A Level results continue to soar, but we now know they are two whole grades easier than twenty years ago (see this blog)

Once again- as if we needed any further proof- the dirigiste techniques of Stalinist central planning and tractor output targets have simply failed to deliver.

And today, we have an update on a key reason behind the failure: the escalating crisis in head teacher recruitment. Suitably qualified candidates are simply not putting themselves forward, because they don't fancy being the stressed-out disempowered middle management sandwich meat stuck between the commissars and the parents. And who can blame them?

We've blogged this many times (eg see here), but until now the main problem has been in secondary schools. It's now spread to primaries, with more than one-third of schools being unable to appoint after advertising the post.

As we've noted before, this problem simply doesn't exist in the independent sector. There, head teachers are much more firmly in charge of their schools. And they answer directly to the paying customers rather than indirectly through those ignorant self-serving spineless commissars.

The bottom line?

We're now spending 60% more in real terms on our schools, but our children's education is no better than it was. Indeed, given that schools now routinely teach to the test, it may very well be worse (see this blog).

Wat Tyler