Primary and Secondary Education – Analysis

Choice

Choice – a fine word but often meaningless.

To illustrate the point: in south Bristol (estimated population 130,000) there are no schools with unrestricted access rated as outstanding – every parents obvious first choice; of the 8 mainstream secondary schools; 2 operate restricted access on religious grounds; and 6 are open selection academies; there are no state run schools. 

Performance of unrestricted access Academies:

  • Ofsted ratings:  0 outstanding; 2 good; 2 requiring improvement and 1 inadequate (1 not measured);
  •  progress of pupils through the schools rated 0 as above average; 3 as average; 1 below average and 2 well below average. 
  • achievement of GSCE Grade 5 + in English and Maths: best = 39%; worst 17%; average 28.5% (England average 43%)
  • pupils on free school meals: only 1 below England average of 27.7%; highest 60.5%; average 44%
  • persistently absent: again only one – at 11.9% – less than England average of 13.7%; all the rest between 18.2% and 25.1%

(Source: All schools and colleges in Bristol, City of – GOV.UK – Find and compare schools in England)

And there is also reported to be an excess of primary school age pupils over the capacity of the secondary schools into which they should feed.

The choice for all parents in south Bristol is pay, pray or prepare for failure.

What choice there is seems to be exercised by the teachers.  Many start their careers in Bristol schools only to become totally disillusioned by the lack of action being taken to improve education across the city so choose to commute to schools in Somerset and Wiltshire where they can have a more fulfilling career.

In rural areas when the village school is run by the C of E and so is every alternative for miles, ‘choice’ may have rather a hollow ring to it.  In fact, it reveals the whole idea of parental choice to be a fantasy dreamed up by folk in posh London suburbs who have no idea of the unavoidable reality in much of the countryside.  ‘Choice’ is a townie word: there’s none in much of rural Wessex.  In parts of rural Wiltshire the illusion is of primary schools serving their village community.  Another myth.  In the Kennett valley area there are 13 villages but just 4 primary schools; every one of these is Church of England.  To maintain numbers these schools also take children from more distant towns up to 10 miles away.

Private/independent schools 

“The privately educated Englishman – and Englishwoman, if you will allow me – is the greatest dissembler on Earth. Was, is now and ever shall be for as long as our disgraceful school system remains intact. Nobody will charm you so glibly, disguise his feelings from you better, cover his tracks more skilfully or find it harder to confess to you that he’s been a damned fool.” John Le Carré’s character George Smiley.  

Privately provided education, including faith schools, isn’t education over which the public has a say and the public should not therefore be expected to contribute financially.  Private schools are claimed to reduce the cost of education to the taxpayer – fee-paying parents claim they pay twice but don’t use the public provision, freeing it up for others.  As with private healthcare, it is their choice to opt-out and not a debt owed them by society.  Private schools duplicate provision that could be more rationally organised, while the more parents can buy their children a way out of a bad school the worse it will become for those whose parents cannot.

With a community-funded, high-performing school in every area there would be no need for the community or state to subsidise rival private provision through tax breaks and charitable status, which allow private schools to avoid Uniform Business Rates, tax on investments, etc.  The tax system is being abused by the rich to offset the cost of school fees.  This means that taxpayers in the wider public effectively subsidise the school fees of the most elite, e.g.:

            Fees in advance schemes where schools use their charity status to earn non-taxed income and share the proceeds with the parent;

            Setting up a family business with “dividend” paid to non-tax-paying children to be used      to pay fees;

            Using an offshore bond: with tax-free children named as beneficiaries;

Getting a payout from their pension pot, which has already had tax relief on the contributions in the first place, as a lump sum when they reach 55, or increasing a     mortgage to pay school fees, and at 55 withdrawing the lump sum and paying it off.

Through private education and the social network that forms around having been a member of that clique, the 7% of the population who can afford the fees, according to the UK Government’s own statistics (see gov.uk report: Elitism in Britain  2019) are able to block the positions of 57% of working peers, 59% of civil service permanent secretaries, 65% of senior judges and 69% of Boris Johnson’s first cabinet, permanently retaining control over vast swathes of society in the hands of the few.  Establishments like Eton pride themselves in producing the country’s leaders – 20 out of the 55 PMs in total including 5 since WWII – but this merely produces generation upon generation of the same type of leadership, based on a ruthless winner-takes-all mentality rooted in the creation and maintenance of Empire and Nation.  And for whom?  We’ve ended up with an ever-narrowing group with only one kind of expertise. 

Many private schools rely on foreign students for a large proportion of their income.  In 2016 it was reported that 30% of all pupils were foreign, most particularly from China and Russia.  This means that the education of the children from foreign wealthy families is being subsidised by the tax-paying Wessex public.

Private schools automatically take resources away from the “whole” community.  They can pay better wages and attract the best teachers; these teachers would have been funded out of general taxes throughout their education but then pay nothing back.  

Faith schools

Schools funded by all should be for teaching and not for preaching.

Many of our village primary schools are Church of England schools, a result of our particular class history in the 19th century, the legacy of inter-denominational battles in which the rural landowners largely took the side of the Anglicans (see Appendices). If we were designing an education system from scratch, we wouldn’t start from here.  Nationally, between September 2014 and 2020, 132,216 pupils were assigned faith schools despite a non-faith preference. 

It must be right that local choice and local control should be meaningful.  At present non-communicants are second-class citizens.  Our established Church still has a privileged role in education.  Its position is deeply embedded and protected by law.  For example, when village schools are closed and the sites sold the money goes into national coffers, to be mismanaged by the Church Commissioners.  The Church nationally therefore actually benefits financially from the withdrawal of village schools.  Other concessions have been made over the years, such as the State taking on an ever-greater share of the cost of maintaining these buildings, which it will never own and whose eventual sale will produce a massive windfall profit for others.  Not forgetting, of course, the free transport to school.  Now the UK Government is increasing funding to C of E and Roman Catholic church organisations to take on more schools.  Sensible schools planning locally is frustrated by one-sided Church vetos

(see: https://www.secularism.org.uk/news/2021/03/church-intransigence-creates-school-planning-nightmare-in-somerset).

Whilst many faith schools strive hard to provide an excellent standard of education, that doesn’t necessarily help the local community, especially when the school is in a relatively deprived location.  Faith schools by their very nature are not part of their local community, serving, as they do, a specific religious sect.  There are examples of high profile C of E schools in cities taking only a small proportion of their pupils from the local catchment area (e.g. St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, in 2021 took just 17%).

Even where faith schools provide a good education, that’s never been the reason for their existence.  In 2003 the Archbishop of Canterbury issued instructions to his schools that they should see themselves as small churches, holding confirmation and communion services for their captive congregations.  In March 2021 the Education Minister reminded all schools – even those with no religious affiliation – that they MUST carry out a daily act of worship, and if they fail to do so they will be investigated.     In most schools this worship is expected to be ‘broadly Christian’.  No school can opt-out of worship altogether.  This openly defies the 2013 report from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child which has called upon governments across the UK to abolish legal provisions for compulsory attendance at collective worship in publicly funded schools and ensure that children can independently exercise the right to withdraw from religious observance at school.

The UK is the only sovereign state in the world to impose worship in all state schools: in other jurisdictions this would be not just illegal but unconstitutional.

Unregistered schools

There are over 500 suspected illegal schools, educating thousands of pupils, in England according to a 2019 Ofsted report but this was probably just “the tip of the iceberg”.  These have been found all over the country so there are probably at least 40 in Wessex, teaching around 500 children.  Some of the schools had appalling health and safety conditions and students were found being taught by teachers who had been banned and untrained staff who had undergone no employment checks.  A fifth (21%) were faith schools, including Islamic, Jewish and Christian schools.

Academies (and free schools)

Academies may operate to different, lower standards than state schools.  Much the same can be said of free schools.

No formal training in education is required for someone filling a teaching post.  Whilst this was intended to attract successful people from business and industry into education to bring in a new and sharper focus and to pass on useful life skills to pupils, it has been used by academies to fill teaching vacancies with cheaper staff, many of whom have no outside experience at all.  Some ex-6th form pupils are being brought back in to act as Support Staff initially then upgraded to full teaching jobs as soon as possible.  Some may be good, but the deterioration in teaching standards can only lead to deterioration in education.

A study prepared for heads of academies in 2016 gave a list of the “do’s” needed to improve the rating of such schools (Ross Morrison McGill @TeacherToolkit).  One of the key recommendations was to exclude poor quality students and improve admissions, i.e. become a mirror image of the now largely defunct and discredited grammar schools.  But where do the “poor quality” students go?  Back to the local authority schools, lowering league table results there and increasing their costs.

Yet these academies continue to pay eye-watering salaries to their executives.  That’s stealing books and laptops from pupils.  Analysis by the NASUWT found that chief executives at – in 2018/2019 – the 20 biggest academy trusts earned an average of £236,000 (higher than the Prime Minister’s salary).  It called some of the salaries “verging on criminality”. No organisation that’s an opaque law unto itself should be entrusted with the spending of public money.

The Finnish Model 

In Finland it is not permitted to charge fees for mainstream education – and only 2% of its schools are run by non-governmental bodies. Schools there have not been allowed to charge fees for almost 50 years, indeed charging for tuition in basic education is prohibited by the Finnish constitution.

Schools not operated by the government or local authorities are permitted (there are only 75 of them) – and are referred to as “private schools”- but they are publicly funded and free to pupils, although some charge parents and guardians registration fees.  Paid-for education, including private tuition, is not actually banned, although no-one can charge for mainstream schooling that leads to a formal qualification.

Finland has been held up as an example because the country scores so highly on the internationally recognised Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) for science, mathematics and reading.  Its 15-year-olds out-perform those in countries that do have private schools and also performs well for educational equality – pupils have an equal chance of doing well at school regardless of their background.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which runs the Pisa testing, says of Finland: “No other country has so little variation in outcomes between schools – and the gap within schools between the top and bottom-achieving students is extraordinarily modest as well.  “Finnish schools seem to serve all students well, regardless of family background or socio-economic status.”

Pupils start school at the age of seven after funded early childhood education that focuses on play.  Teachers are paid better than they are in the UK, undergo much longer training courses, and have greater flexibility and control over what they teach. 

The overall education policy protects education as a basic human right and public service.

Styles of schooling and curriculum

Schools must be trusted to teach well, provided they’re accountable to the community for their work.  We do not support a binding national curriculum, though we believe most schools would see value in teaching similar content and that parents would demand this.  Schools should be assessed more on how well they teach rather than on what they teach.  Generic skills and specific facts both have a role: the one underpins a critical mind, the other a shared culture.  It follows that communities may favour a range of styles of schooling, including Beach Schools, Forest Schools, Agora schools and more: knowledge isn’t necessarily to be found inside the school.  Ideally, a teacher should be more coach than lecturer, but for that to work there will need to be many more, high-quality teachers.

While we oppose prescribing from the centre what’s taught, we support people active in the community pressing local schools to ensure children understand certain key ideas.  One is environmental responsibility, covering climate change, resource use, population pressure and biodiversity loss.  Another is community responsibility, covering anti-social behaviour such as littering.  Community awareness can also include the history of the local area, how it’s changing and the challenges facing it in the future.  We support the offer of Wessex Studies as a university course and would encourage schools to incorporate the groundwork for this across a range of subjects, such as English (literature and dialects), history, geography, sociology, economics and food technology.  An important part of downsizing society is to teach a range of skills that can lead to greater self-sufficiency, at both community and individual/household level.

Failing schools

There should be no such thing as a failing school.  If inspections identify one, the answer’s not to hand it over to corporate vultures in the form of an academy.  It’s to rectify the specific problems identified, with new leadership appointed where appropriate.  Failures aren’t necessarily the result of under-resourcing but the leadership team must be confident that they have what’s needed to deliver the required improvement.  The poorest performing schools should get the greatest support, whether in terms of expenditure or expertise.

Education for Traveller Communities

Children for traveller communities have the lowest level of education attainment of all communities in England (source: House of Commons Education Committee 2021).  These children deserve an education system that matches their lifestyle and gives them real chances for the future.  The pragmatic approach would be to give them the right to enrol at a school in an area they frequent the most.  When away from that school classes would be delivered through the use of the internet using publicly accessible broadband and laptops provided by the school.

School meals

There is a stigma that goes with pupils having to be on free school meals.  To remove this stigma free school meals for all is a policy that ticks many boxes and would help make the school a genuine community.  It would provide opportunities for food issues to be incorporated into lessons.  Menus and procurement policies can ensure better diet and support local producers.  The system in Sweden is that the centre sets nutritional standards and the municipalities then use these to design menus and source ingredients based on seasonality and minimising food miles.

Funding

Community-based education should be automatically funded by a grant per child of school age, based on home address.  This would be paid by the Wessex government to the local communities organising schools in their areas. 

Teachers and teaching standards

Best practice is better spread by example than by decree but there’s a reasonable expectation that children shouldn’t be let down by sub-standard teaching.  Examinations and school standards would, as in Scotland and Wales, be a devolved matter.  We would expect a Wessex government to set its own examinations and standards.  In the interests of impartiality, it might have its own version of Ofsted, if local authorities have a continuing role in direct provision.  Alternatively, if schools are devolved below county level the county council or equivalent could be the standards enforcing body.  Other parts of the present top-heavy monitoring and regulatory system – the Education and Skills Funding Agency and Regional Schools Commissioners – are unnecessary additions, brought about by an ideology of working through academies to deliver national objectives.