Our schooling system needs a major overhaul

Olisa Clifford

January 25, 2022

Following two years of on-off school closures, online lessons and mask mandates, it is abundantly clear that while interrupted schooling has affected all pupils some groups have been far worse-off than others.

It is undeniable that parts of the state sector have been ill-equipped and slow to respond to the challenges faced as a result of the pandemic. On the whole, independent schools seem to have been faster to innovate and deal with challenges from school closures, more effectively delivering online and personalised support for pupils.

The evidence confirms this. In March 2020, 28 per cent of private schools, as opposed to 2 per cent of state schools, had already begun to use Zoom and other video conferencing platforms with their students. State schools aimed to close the gap; however, they were not able to completely catch up. By the first week of the term beginning in January last year, 86 per cent of private schools compared to only 50 per cent of state schools were engaged in video-conferencing.

At the same time, on the surface, we have seen attainment levels shoot up, with rising numbers of children achieving top grades at both GCSE and A Level. A total of 19.1 per cent of A level students achieved A* grades in 2021, compared to 14.3 per cent in 2020 and 8 per cent in 2019. The last time exams were taken in person in 2019, just 25.7 per cent of entries achieved an A or higher.

It’s likely that this upward trend is largely – if not entirely – illusory. Due to the pandemic, the way students’ A-levels were assessed moved from formal examinations to teacher-assessed results based on coursework and mock examinations, which led to significant grade inflation.

At the same time as results have had a superficial boost, studies show that 15-20 per cent of children leave school functionally illiterate.

There is no excuse for children in 21st century Britain to leave school without a basic handle of reading and writing. But addressing these failures will require more than piecemeal reform. If the government is serious about its agenda to ‘level up’ the country, the system needs radical cultural and structural changes. This will include taking note of best practice.

In the private sector, schools are forced to innovate in order to attract families with the means to shop around. The very existence of these schools depends on innovation and raising standards, in what has become a highly competitive market. Sadly, the reality is that many state schools lack this same incentive.

A potential solution to the problem may be the introduction of education vouchers, as advocated by the Institute of Economic Affairs These vouchers would be administered by the government to parents, in the amount of the annual expenditure per student. Parents could choose which school to spend this voucher on, meaning schools would have to compete for students and would be forced to deliver a better service or face bankruptcy.

If these vouchers could be used in the public and private sector, we would see more students given the opportunity to attend private schools and access better education. At the same time, more parental choice could act as an incentive for state schools to improve standards.

Further, there is a strong case to revise catchment areas as they greatly reduce parental choice, by limiting options to a small area. They are also deeply unfair. Research conducted by London estate agency Bective, found that homebuyers looking for a property near outstanding schools pay the highest prices. This takes into account house price data or postcodes within 0.25 miles of schools rated outstanding by Ofsted. The research shows that parents hoping to live close to excellent schools are willing to pay 2.5 per cent more for their home on average, £7,235 more than the average house price of £285,113. These inflated prices effectively price out a large number of parents from sending their children to high-achieving schools.

Government funding is also not equally distributed. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the bottom 20 per cent of English secondary schools have faced the biggest cuts to their funding. There has been a 14 per cent real-terms fall in spending per pupil between 2009 and 2019, compared with 9 per cent for the least deprived schools. This also validates earlier findings showing that the most deprived schools have been the worst affected in the reorganisation of schools funding through the national funding formula. Schools in the most affluent areas are shown to be receiving real-terms increases of 8-9 percent, in comparison to 5 percent for the most deprived, between 2017 and 2022.

A radical proposal would be to completely abolish the consideration of catchment areas in school admissions, giving parents complete choice in sending their child to any school anywhere in the country. This would serve to help level the playing field.

We also need a cultural shift in the way we view education in this country. The appointment of Katherine Barbalsingh as the head of the Social Mobility Commission in October is an attempt to do just this.

Barbalsingh rose to prominence during and after the Tory party conference in 2010. At the conference she was applauded for her speech about the “broken” education system, which she claims is keeping “poor children poor”.

She then went on to found Michaela, a free school in North London, which is known for its “no excuses” behaviour policy. Ofsted inspectors have described the school as outstanding in all aspects. In 2019, more than half of all GCSE grades were level 7 or above.

Katherine emphasises the importance of what she calls “small c” conservative values, ideals like personal responsibility and responsibility towards others. One area in particular which Katherine focuses on is the role of parents and family in their child’s education. Acknowledging the importance of standards, discipline and parental support is a step towards improving the system that is failing too many children.

Young people were badly let down during the pandemic. Catching them up will require herculean efforts. But we must not stop there. The pandemic could, just maybe, be a catalyst for real, tangible change – after a torrid two years, we owe it to children.

Author

  • Olisa Clifford

    Olisa is a Master's student studying journalism at the University of Westminster. He has a keen interest in political journalism.

Written by Olisa Clifford

Olisa is a Master's student studying journalism at the University of Westminster. He has a keen interest in political journalism.

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