Sunday, 21 October 2007

Kevin Rooney sets the target of first class education for the working class

There is much to agree with in the Tackling Educational Inequality report produced for CentreForum, the Lib Dem think tank. For a start it’s refreshing to see that they are prepared to state clearly that social and economic background remains the biggest single factor in determining a child’s educational achievements.

Looking back at the educational reforms over the past thirty years, including Thatcher’s 1988 Education Reform Act and Blair’s Curriculum 2000, it’s quite striking how the question of class inequality is overlooked or redefined as a ‘social exclusion’ or ‘low parental aspirations’ relevant to only certain pockets of people.

However, the problem with Tackling Educational Inequality is its recipe for changing this. While the report does argue for increased funding for the most disadvantaged pupils and schools, it locates the key to the problem of social inequality as further marketisation and the auditing of teacher and pupil performance.

The report sets out a range of proposals which will not only fail to solve the problem, but could make things worse: personalised learning strategies; foundation profiling; more use of the ‘Data Revolution’ to track individual student progress; training school governors in the assessment of school data; opening up the role of the head teacher to outside professionals; giving schools kite-marks on the quality of their data systems using a Michelin star style system and an increase in bonuses and performance target related pay for teachers.

To prove my point, let’s take just one of these ‘solutions’, the ambitiously titled ‘Data Revolution’. This irrelevant ‘solution’ views pupils as figures being tracked along a graph in robot-like fashion, immune from the active agency of the teacher-pupil relationship. Predicted grades, attainment targets, and the general culture of measuring and auditing, are a backwards step and will do nothing to reduce inequality of achievement between the richest and poorest pupils. Likewise, to propose yet more performance related pay assumes that teachers are motivated by financial incentives rather than a spirit of professionalism and public service – luckily, at least at the moment, that is not true!

As to the suggestion that outside professionals come into schools as head teachers – this process has already begun and has done little to combat educational inequality. ‘Outside Professionals’ have so far either been business managers who are brilliant at controlling budgets, or ‘super heads’ who will apparently inspire and give confidence to directionless teachers who don’t know what they are doing – a patronising assumption.

So top marks for this report for diagnosing the illness -but 0 out of 10 for their medicine. Call me old fashioned, but the main way for children from disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve their full potential is to lift them out of poverty. And aside from investing serious resources, the only other way I know of doing that is to offer the poor a first class education. Now that’s my kind of target!

The CentreForum publication Tackling Educational Inequality by Paul Marshall, with Sumi Rabindrakumar and Lucy Wilkins, published in July 2007 is available at: