Thursday 26 July 2012

How school reforms can go wrong

The Education Secretary Michael Gove is introducing some of the most radical reforms of the English school system in a generation and the changes have drawn substantial criticism from local authorities and teacher unions. Gove has been smarter than other cabinet members in formulating his reforms as a continuation of the Blairite reforms. And he is right to lay claim to Blair’s legacy insofar as his reform programme is in essence a speeding up of the removal of schools from local authority control, otherwise known as the Academy programme. 
The motifs are equally undisputed. Gove is on record that the main impetus for education reform is the dissatisfaction with local authorities which often keep up to 25% of the educational budgets for services that often lack transparency, accountability and, more importantly, do little else but increase the burden of bureaucratic control on school teachers without improving school performance. 
So far so agreeable. One main criticism of Gove’s reforms however has focussed on educational budgets for local authorities. Critics argue that removing schools from local authority control and fund them directly from the Department of Education may increase temporarily their available funding, but may undermine the financial viability of those schools that remain under local authority control. 
This is an important point since reductions in funding for those schools that are already underperforming is unlikely to improve their quality of teaching. In a way then, freeing some schools from local authority control and increasing their available budget may improve the lot of those kids who have the chance to enroll there while those staying behind in ordinary schools are likely to face deteriorating conditions. 
Now there is more evidence from the US in a recent piece of research about charter schools (similar to academies in the UK system). The New York Times, referring to the study, writes that the main effect of opening charter schools is that student numbers drop in normal schools, at times up to 10 percent which makes the provision of certain academic subjects unviable. Those schools that remain under local control often need to reduce their teaching portfolio and lay off teachers. 
On the face of it, this would undermine Gove’s claim that more competition in the educational sector through the introduction of free schools and academies lifts the quality of teaching for every pupil in the long term, no matter where he or she is enrolled. 
On the contrary the study seems to demonstrate that in the short term, students remaining in schools under local control are worse off, creating a division of quality between schools that more competition was supposed to eradicate. In order to make Gove’s reforms work for everyone, we may need to look carefully at the funding of those schools left behind. Allowing some schools to move ahead of the pack may be laudable but the reforms will ultimately fail if they fail to improve schools for everyone. 

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