Education Matters

I joined the Liberal Democrats ten years ago. After fifteen years as a teacher, it seemed to me that they were the only party who had any idea about the importance of education. And they were prepared to put taxpayers’ money where their mouths were – promising to raise income tax by a penny to put £billions into schools, colleges and universities.

Imagine how pleased I was when a new Labour government came to power in 1997, elected partly on the slogan “Education, Education, Education!” A Liberal Democrat government would have been better – but at least the new government were about to invest in the public services I believed in.

Well … let’s just say that all teachers are optimists. We hoped that the Tory days of shrinking school budgets and increasing central control were over. Sadly, our hopes were dashed, as Labour maintained Tory spending plans, and ended up funding education less generously than the previous Tory government.

Worse still, their failure to support education financially was coupled with a fanatical urge to achieve improvements by increased central control. Schools had been piloting a new approach to literacy (now known as the National Literacy Strategy); without waiting for the results of the pilot studies, the new Labour government imposed the new scheme on all schools. Teachers suddenly discovered that we had elected a government which knew how to teach children to read.

Don’t get me wrong – I have no doubt that many children now have better skills in literacy than they would have had without the strategy. But teachers have wasted thousands of hours on the revisions to the strategy which could have been avoided if the government had waited for the results of the original trials. And this disregard of the skills of teachers worries me deeply.

Central control has also led to the mushrooming of a new culture of audit and regulation. In 1997 we were spending £1 billion a year of taxpayers’ money auditing public services; I would be prepared to bet we’re spending twice that now. And that doesn’t include the costs of those who are being audited; an OFSTED inspection costs a school about £20,000, money which could be well spent on new equipment for pupil’s education – or on the increasing backlog of repairs which bedevil every school in the country.

At the centre of this ‘audit explosion’ is the proliferation of targets. This government seems to be obsessed with target setting, and it is worth pausing for a moment to consider the effects that this obsession has.

There is a famous story about a Russian departmental agriculture minister who was set a target of doubling annual beef production; he met his target, was awarded the highest honour the state could offer, and promptly killed himself. Why? Because he had only been able to achieve his target by slaughtering all the cattle in the state – which meant that next year there were no animals left – no calves, no milk, no beef.

It is a now widely accepted that setting targets in one area is likely to have unwanted results in another. This applies to education as to every other area. Schools are compared in league tables by the number of children reaching a particular level at age eleven, or gaining a number of GCSEs at a particular level at age sixteen.

Would it surprise you to learn that a huge effort goes into ensuring that children who are just below the required standard receive a disproportionate amount of extra help from teachers? What would you expect? How can you expect a teacher to spend valuable time with a child who is either easily going to achieve the required target, or who doesn’t really have the slightest chance of getting near it? To make matters worse, teachers’ pay is now closely linked with with their pupils’ results – a recipe for disaster, in my opinion.

There is an old saying: “You don’t make a pig heavier by weighing it.” Yet this just the strategy we are asked to pursue in our schools. We are required to test children at ever shorter intervals, with the expectation that their results will improve with every testing.

Teachers are seriously worried that the time spent on testing is damaging children; teaching is being replaced by a ‘train-test-retrain’ regime, which enables children to pass tests – but not to do much else. Children are not being educated: they are being trained to pass exams. No wonder universities are complaining that they have to teach new undergraduates basic skills.

So what should we do?

First, we should trust teachers to do their job. They are professionals, and they have the skills they need to educate our children. We should also be aware that designing quality into a product from the start is cheaper and more effective than inspecting it at the end. (This is one of those principles which is well-established in commerce and industry, but which we are asked to ignore in public services.)

We need to encourage schools to review their own performance, to set their own targets, to educate their children to the best of their ability. We need to recruit and train the best people, to make sure that our educational systems are well designed, to get our values right. Then we will have an educational system we can be proud of. The Liberal democrats would have worked to provide such a system; they are still the only party which really believes in education.