Sunday, June 08, 2008

Labour's cynical rhetoric over schools

'Schools get ultimatum: improve or face closure' is the screaming headline in today’s Observer. This outburst of tough talking is simply Ed Balls ‘dog whistling’ at right of centre voters, and using teachers who have to work in difficult schools as sacrificial lambs. The Education secretary’s comment that

With all the support on offer for parents and schools, no child is on a pre-determined path to low results - whatever their background and wherever they go to school

is empty rhetoric. The experience of my own local area is that the schools that get the worst results are those with the most challenging pupils – those who for social and/or intellectual reasons are unlikely to get five good GCSEs. There are schools in this part of Hertfordshire that have first-rate facilities, charismatic headteachers and highly-motivated staff, yet which still struggle to attract bright pupils with academically aspirational parents.

The challenge is how to ensure that schools achieve a balanced intake. This is more easily said than done. Some of those on the left (including Liberal Democrats) are critical of parental choice. Yet for the state to allocate school places regardless of family preference is paternalist social engineering of a kind that liberals should surely not support – although a depressing number seem to do so.

To be fair to the government (although I don’t see why I should be), I can imagine circumstances where the ‘brand image’ of a particular school has become so damaged that renaming, rebuilding, relocating and relaunching under new management might be a way of attracting children from a wider range of backgrounds and abilities.

There are no easy answers, and it is a subject about which all political parties need to do more thinking. But Nick Clegg is on the right track with the pupil premium policy. It has to be better than macho rhetoric that will do little to improve schools, but will further demoralise teachers who have to cope with some of the country’s most difficult children.

1 comment:

mhuntbach said...

Agreed - the intake to schools is the biggest factor influencing exam results. Of course, shared information on how to tackle pupils who come from backgrounds which lead to poor performance is good, but the big stick approach will just have the reverse effect of the intention.

If you're a teacher in a school which is threatened with closure due to poor exam results you'll be thinking "Oh shit, I'll soon be out of a job and branded 'sacked for being a bad teacher' so I'll never work again". This will just lead to depression and demotivation.

If you're a good teacher, you'll steer clear of going for jobs in schools like that for fear of being caught in this trap. So the only teachers they will be able to recruit are those so poor they can't get jobs elsewhere.

Labour's Education Ministerial team seem to be remarkably thick, or just ill-informed about reality in the teaching profession.