The Labour party’s radical proposals to shake up England’s schooling system has thrust educational debate into the spotlight, shattering the post-millennial political consensus of what’s best for our children. A Labour government would dismantle the very foundations of the current education landscape – abandoning tests at the end of primary school, replacing the schools inspectorate, and abolishing private schools altogether. Labour claims it’s the party fighting for social justice rather than social mobility. It is certainly offering a different vision to that of the Conservatives, who want to create more places at selective grammar schools.
But how do these policies stack up against the hard evidence? What’s undeniable is that we need to rethink the current approach to education. Amid stagnating social mobility, schools remain the great hope of levelling a grotesquely uneven playing field. But the achievement gap between poorer children and their better-off peers continues to be stark. Reviews of progress on narrowing the gap have adopted an increasingly futile tone.
It’s an impossible task for teachers. Classroom divides are driven by inequalities outside the school gates. It’s an arms race that the wealthy are destined to win – just look at the boom in private tutoring. Education acts as a positional good – it’s not what qualifications you have that matters, but how much better they are than those of other pupils. Schools have worked wonders to get more children on free school meals passing national school benchmarks at age 16, but children from privileged homes have leaped further ahead in the academic stakes.
Nationalising private schools wouldn’t demolish the divide between education’s haves and have-nots – even if you were able to overcome the legal and financial obstacles required for such a dramatic move. Middle-class parents would still manage to gain advantage in the state system, monopolising the best state schools.
A guaranteed way to reduce middle-class advantage would be to roll out lotteries for state school admissions, and pick pupils randomly. It is undeniably the most equitable means of allocating places to equally deserving candidates. But that’s unlikely to win many votes in a general election. Promoting social mobility is not always politically palatable.
In our new book, What Works? Research and Evidence for Successful Teaching, we assess the evidence from more than 200 reviews of 8,000 studies to provide teachers with the best strategies for improving learning. The most effective approaches relate to what happens in classrooms between teachers and pupils – not new types of schools or shiny new national reforms.
The best school systems balance the trust and support needed to retain and develop teachers with the external challenge required to hold the system to account for our children’s learning. In this country, teachers will tell you, there’s none of the former and all of the latter. Nowhere else has embraced league tables and school inspections quite like us. And there is no evidence that Ofsted inspections improve school outcomes.
Schools are the victims of Campbell’s law. This states that anything that is measured with simple statistics will be distorted as people game the system to improve their performance. Extra time devoted to preparing for English, mathematics and traditional academic subjects in league tables has squeezed out subjects such as music, art, languages and physical education. Teachers “teach to the test”, drilling pupils with the best answers to questions likely to come up in exams.
Rising exam scores are heralded as evidence of improved standards, but the quality and breadth of education children receive is likely to have declined. How do we rid the system of these unintended consequences? It’s not by doing away with tests, but by rebalancing the assessment regime. We need a mix of tests: some instigated by teachers to diagnose the particular needs of the pupils in their classes; some used by schools to track their own progress; some deployed by researchers to look at the effectiveness of different educational approaches; and others used by external bodies to sample and monitor education standards.
The rising levels of distrust among teachers, amid the booming industry of consultants advising on how to pass inspections, suggests more fundamental change, as Labour has mooted, is now required. We need to consider the kind of society we aspire to foster for the next generation. Do we want a narrow but efficient range of subjects for all, or do we want to support a breadth of expertise and success across a wealth of subjects, which includes music, fine arts and drama? Do we want a system that offers a basic education for all, and options to pursue creative and vocational routes as well as academic ones?
The answers are unlikely to come from populist policies bubbling up from the cauldron of modern politics. One thing that all major political parties agree on is that education should be evidence-informed. The most logical step, if we were to adhere strictly to this principle, would be to remove education policymaking from political interference altogether, creating an arm’s-length government body with a strategic remit to oversee schools. But that is unlikely to feature in an election manifesto any time soon.
• Lee Elliot Major is professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter. Steve Higgins is professor of education at Durham University. They are the authors of What Works?