schools system

schools system
   The 1944 Education Act in England and Wales enshrined the principle of balanced responsibilities for the structure and content of education. One of the corollaries of the system of checks and balances was individuals’ perception that power seemed to reside anywhere but where they happened to be working in the school system. Lines of accountability and responsibility were unclear, but this was not necessarily a problem because central and local government and teachers had influence in their own domain at a time when what was regarded as their proper domain was relatively unproblematic. This kind of arrangement suited a stable environment, where change was incremental and conceived as largely a professional matter.
   Central government’s role was restricted mainly to approving the local structure of provision, planning the supply of teachers and attempting to influence the content of education through advice and guidance issued by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate for Education. Teachers, largely through the influence of their professional associations, had considerable flexibility in curriculum development. Local Education Authorities (LEAs) were, in theory, the managers of the system, responsible for allocating resources, planning the numbers of school places and shaping the local pattern of educational provision, which often owed as much to demographic factors as to any coherent educational philosophy. LEAs also exerted influence on teaching methods, curriculum development, the promotion of teachers and the selection of headteachers through the activities of their advisory services. Until the early 1970s, the conduct of the school system was seen as a professional matter to be determined largely at the local level, with national debates confined most to structural issues, most notably the issue of selection and the replacement of grammar and secondary modern schools with comprehensive schools. During this period, dominant explanations of patterns of educational achievement shifted from a focus on the individual intelligence of children to the identification of a succession of structural and cultural barriers that located failure in factors such as the inefficiency of the eleven-plus examination, the iniquities of provision between different areas of the country, the nature of society itself, the failings of parents and the cultural mismatch between home and school. The internal workings of schools were left largely unexamined except for a focus on the grouping of pupils and the lowly expectations that teachers had of children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
   The critical scrutiny of schools was not an issue, since schools were assumed to be doing their best with the particular children they were working with. Although social class was seen as a major influence on achievement, once most of the country had abolished selection and introduced comprehensive schools, it was generic features of schooling that were held to be the problem rather than the particular school a child attended. The debate on a wider range of issues, for example, reforming the ‘secret garden’ of the curriculum, was begun in the early 1970s. Inappropriate teaching styles, the dilution of the curriculum in the interests of ‘relevance’, perceptions of declining standards of literacy and numeracy and the lack of effective preparation for the world of work were all held up as examples of an educational ‘crisis’, compounded by the limited powers of central government to act. It was not until the 1980s that the dominant mode of government influence based on advice and guidance gave way to an approach based on legislation to achieve policy objectives.
   The 1980s saw the start of a root-and-branch reform of school education that marked a long march through the educational institutions aimed at introducing greater accountability and reducing the influence of the providers as opposed to the consumers of education. At the same time, central government acquired new powers for itself to give it greater leverage over educational policy and practice. ‘Blame society’ and ‘blame the home’ gave way to ‘blame the school in general and teachers in particular’. This was bolstered by research that demonstrated the differential achievements of schools with children from similar backgrounds. Although there were numerous Education Acts passed during the Conservative government’s period of office, the 1988 Education Act introduced the local management of schools and the National Curriculum; it extended the scope of school ‘choice’ through open enrolment, and enabled schools to opt out of the LEA system through the creation of grant-maintained (GM) schools. It was the most significant piece of legislation since 1944, and altered decisively the balance of power and responsibility between central and local government and individual schools and introduced clearer lines of accountability. Subsequent to that legislation, the introduction of independent school inspections and the publication of league tables of examination results and truancy rates contributed to the development of a competitive quasi market for schools. The key themes of the Conservative approach to education were diversity, choice, accountability and quality.
   Diversity was promoted through the establishment of GM schools, city technology colleges and a network of technology, language, arts and sports colleges. They were allowed to select a percentage of their intake based on aptitude in the respective curriculum areas. Choice was to be furthered through enabling parents to express a preference for which school their child should attend and the creation of an assisted places scheme for attendance at independent schools. Accountability was intended to be achieved through the reform of governing bodies that placed ‘lay’ interests in the majority and the publication of a variety of information about school provision and performance including school inspection reports; the introduction of the National Curriculum also meant that schools could be compared on the basis of tackling a similar curriculum.
   The government’s approach to ‘quality’ rested largely on the introduction of the National Curriculum, examination and assessment reform and raising achievement through inspection; the public identification of failing schools and the use of its powers to send in a team of people to take over a school, leading ultimately to its closure, were rarely used. The introduction of teacher appraisal was also intended to improve the quality of teaching, and at the same time reforms, of teacher education were pursued including the introduction of national curriculum for teacher education. Increasingly, ministers and the Chief Inspector for the Office for Standards in Education were vocal about a range of issues that had hitherto been regarded as the preserve of the profession. The quality of teachers, methods of teaching and the organization of classes were all the subject of adverse comment. LEAs had an ambiguous relation to these developments; they provided many of the personnel that undertook ‘independent’ school inspections and offered pre- and post-inspection advice to their schools. Some LEAs also intervened when schools were deemed as failing to offer an acceptable standard of education, but ultimately a governing body that did not want the advice of its LEA could reject it.
   It is inevitable that reforms driven primarily by legislation and centrally imposed with limited consultation tend to be blunt instruments. The National Curriculum quickly ran into difficulty because of overloading and the unrealistic demands made of teachers, leading to a review that reduced its complexity. From work undertaken by the Audit Commission, it has been shown that open enrolment still leaves 20 percent of parents unable to realize their preference, and in some urban areas the figures are much higher. Teacher appraisal is regarded universally as a failure in most respects, and the evidence that inspection leads to improvement is mixed. There are a number of examples of schools identified as requiring special measures improving sufficiently to be taken off the list, but there are other examples of schools who remain on the list following a critical inspection report. The reform of school governance has done little to increase parental involvement, and governing bodies are often either unwilling or unable to monitor educational provision in their schools and reluctant to take action when problems arise.
   Examination reform at 16-plus shifted the emphasis away from norm to criterion-referenced assessment where pupils need to demonstrate what they know, understand and can do. There has been an increase in the number of entries and the proportion of candidates achieving grades A to C, but there is a debate about the extent to which this represents a genuine improvement or whether examinations are now easier than they have been in the past. International comparisons appear to show that British pupils achieve relatively well in science but less well in numeracy, although the murky waters of comparative statistical analysis make international comparisons difficult. The debate about provision for the 16-plus age range centres on the appropriateness or otherwise of the ‘A’ level examination, the need for breadth as well as depth of study, the amount of specialization and the desirability of combining vocational and academic elements in individual’s programmes. However, a preoccupation with educational high performers has given way to a more inclusive emphasis driven largely by changes in the occupational structure and an overall reduction in the numbers of unskilled jobs. Poor educational attainment and the prospect of social exclusion for young people lacking in ‘employability’ skills is one of the driving forces behind the ‘Welfare to Work’ scheme introduced by the Labour government. The creation of a single body, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) to oversee vocational and academic qualifications, will facilitate the development of a single framework enabling equivalencies between different approaches to be worked out, as well as pathways through and bridges between academic and vocational routes. In recent years, the 14–19 age group has emerged as a phase of education that needs to be looked at as a whole, and it is likely that more vocational options will be introduced and collaboration encouraged between schools and further education colleges.
   The past few years can be characterized as having had a number of distinctive shifts in thinking about the nature of education. Some of the old philosophical debates about, for example, equality of opportunity and how it should be measured and the purpose of education are more muted, but equity is now a much more widely used term, as is the debate on how to ensure it. A political consensus has emerged about the primary instrumental purpose for education, which is to master the basics as a foundation for lifelong learning in a global economy; there is also a consensus that schools do make a difference to pupils’ achievements. While there is much debate about what else education should strive to achieve, there is at least a widely shared view that without the basic foundations, children cannot easily access whatever else is on offer in the school curriculum. The underachievement of boys has emerged as a concern in recent years, now that they are outperformed by girls, and the ethnic minority experience of education, particularly racial harassment, is beginning to be taken more seriously. Gender issues continue to be a focus for academics and researchers, but have rarely found their way on to national policy-makers’ agendas. Structural questions are now of relatively minor concern; few people believe that independent schools or grammar schools will be abolished. Although grant-maintained schools will be able to call themselves foundation schools, it is only minor differences in governing body representation that will distinguish them from community or LEA schools. Gone are the days when the jibe about the National Union of Teachers making Labour Party education policy had the ring of truth about it. Gone also are the days when standards and quality were regarded as part of the exclusive discourse of the Conservative Party and right-wing reactionaries. The Labour Party learned some lessons from the ‘Educashun isn’t Working’ campaign run by the Conservatives in 1979. There is now a basis for an emerging political and professional consensus around educational issues and priorities, and it is likely that teachers, although not necessarily their representative bodies, will have a greater involvement in and be consulted about educational change. The creation of a General Teaching Council similar to that which has existed for a long time in Scotland will also contribute to raising the image of the teaching profession. While the school system in England and Wales can be characterized as the site of much political and professional conflict in recent years, the situation in Scotland has been rather different. Professionals have not had their judgements or capability questioned in the same way, and the reforms that have been introduced have been accommodated without seeming to threaten the professional status of teachers. Devolved management and the creation of school boards has been a low key affair, and teachers have been fully involved in the development of the school curriculum.
   In Northern Ireland, the ‘Troubles’ give the school system a particular character, and it is noteworthy that the government reserved the category of grant-maintained status exclusively for previously segregated schools that wanted to become integrated. Not only is the school system divided along religious lines, but the 11-plus examination and an extensive selective secondary education system have been in existence for a long time. The assessment of the 11-plus examination also leaves 55 percent of the cohort with a ‘D’ grade.
   See also: school examinations

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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