Britain’s education system is being tested to destruction

Writing in the Guardian, Oxford University Historian David Priestland argues that it is a dated management dogma that drives Michael Gove’s education reforms, not evidence of what works. Here’s an extract…

With the demise of the “big society”, the coalition’s claims to be anything more than an unimaginative deficit-cutter are in tatters – except in education, where it has been extraordinarily radical. Last year saw, among other things, plans to impose performance-related pay on teachers, the development of the EBacc exam, and the introduction of £9,000 university tuition fees.

What lies behind this hyperactivity? Critics accuse the government of softening up the sector for privatisation. But the education secretary, Michael Gove, and the universities minister, David Willetts, insist that ensuring accountability for taxpayers’ money and driving up academic standards are their goals. Gove’s own fogeyish style completes the picture of the old-fashioned, no-nonsense grammar school headmaster. But the government is not simply stuck in 1950s “3Rism”, nor is it planning wholesale privatisation (yet). Rather, it is still stubbornly pursuing a discredited 1980s ideology of quasi-markets, even though 30 years of experience shows that far from improving quality, it is destroying it.

At the root of the reforms is a doctrine that, though unfamiliar to most outside thinktanks, still dominates policy circles: “new public management”. According to this view, the best way to ensure high standards and accountability in public services is to force them to mimic the market. Old centralised systems were inflexible and captured by selfish “producer interests” – teachers and academics; schools and universities therefore have to be made more “competitive”, by taking power from professionals and giving it to “entrepreneurial” managers who will be more responsive to “consumers’ demands, be they parents, students, or taxpayers”.

The problem, of course, is that education and research are not straightforward consumer services. Unlike a haircut, their quality is not simply an issue of personal taste, and the consequences for the individual and broader society will not grow out in six weeks. The new public managers accept this up to a point, and their solution is to insist on rule by league table. Children’s tests, student satisfaction surveys and a five- to six-yearly exam of the nation’s academics (the “research excellence framework” – REF) seek to capture the quality of education or research, and turn it into numbers. These are then published and managers strive to move up the tables, theoretically by improving quality.

Researchers have been criticising new public management for many years. For rather than improving standards, league tables distort what they are supposed to be measuring, and inevitably lead to the gaming of the system. Teachers and academics are, of course, blamed for this, but they are simply responding rationally to government-imposed incentives. The ministerial response is to give managers even more power (for instance through performance-related pay), and to impose new, more restrictive targets, which produce another round of distortions…

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