Sunday, January 15, 2012

Is lack of funding really the only possible explanation for a school's weakness?

We only get newspapers at the weekend and have just reverted back to the Guardian and Observer after an unhappy dalliance with the Independent (too boring and worthy, often still unread by Monday).

To my delight it appears that Polly Toynbee's column has disappeared from the Saturday paper, with the slot now occupied by Jonathan Freedland, who at least has other things to say besides calling for higher public spending.

But the spirit of Toynbeeism is present in a letter from Dr Selina Todd, an Oxford admissions tutor. Her main point, with which I agree, is that comprehensive education gives students an 'excellent foundation for university' so it is wrong to think of students succeeding 'in spite' of going to comprehensive schools.

So far so good, but Dr Todd then concludes:

Any weaknesses with comprehensive schools are due to the lamentable lack of government investment in them.

Hang on a minute here. Even the late Labour government's worst enemies would concede that it spent a lot of money on schools in the days when boom and bust had still been abolished. There hasn't been time for the effects of austerity (whether one considers it painful but necessary or ideologically driven) to filter through. So if comprehensive schools have been failing because of lack of funding, then there really is no hope. Whatever party is in power, they are unlikely to preside over a further massive increase in school funding so if one accepts Dr Todd's argument then struggling schools will never succeed.

It does seem crudely reductionist to suggest that the only possible explanation for the failure of a school is lack of government investment. Surely schools are complex organisations whose success or lack of it could have a number of explanations (and certainly level of funding is an important one). Do the performance of headteachers, governing bodies, the nature of the intake, the quality of the staff, whether the school has an ethos of aspiration for its students etc. have no impact at all on a school's performance?

One would hope that in the 'imaginative lessons' students take part in at comprehensive schools they learn that explanations for social phenomena are often complex and not easily reducible to a monocausal explanation. One hopes that recognising this won't disadvantage them when their application is read by an Oxford admissions tutor.

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