UK Update #5 – What to do with failing schools

classroom_filteredEducation has featured large in the news since I arrived in England – mostly around concerns about the quality of what is being provided in some areas.

The tertiary (higher ed) sector has been under fire for lack of performance, and there is currently much controversy over a paper by Lord Peter Mandelson titled Higher Ambitions – the Future of Universities in a Knowledge Economy which recommends a “consumer revolution” in higher education, with students being given far more information on the actual value of their course.

Today Ed Balls , schools secretary, announced a new strategy in which under-performing schools will face a raft of new “interventionist” measures to bring them up to scratch. Balls points to more than 50 schools where achievement levels -such as exam results – have remained “unacceptably” low. An Education Bill in this week’s Queen’s Speech – which outlines the Government’s legislative programme – will give stronger powers to the Schools Secretary to intervene in future cases where schools badly underperform.

According to the releases I’ve read, the plan will make it easier for offending institutions to be taken into partnership with successful schools, run by outside education providers or even, in extreme cases, closed down by order of ministers. It includes plans for a  system of independently run, state-funded schools which would allow parents, charities and other bodies to open up new institutions free from local authority control.

The new Education Bill is expected to promote the idea of “21st century schools” – with an emphasis on partnerships between institutions and greater flexibility on how individual budgets are spent.

What fascinates me is that the focus of attention – low acheivement of students – is the same as we’re experiencing in New Zealand. There, the solution being promoted is the introduction of standards (although not without some reservations – and here), a strategy that has been tried and since dropped in England.

There are some things in the English proposal that have some appeal to me, like the idea of low-performing schools forming a formal partnership with a high-performing local school (a new form of school clustering – something that has strengths based on some of the NZ EHSAS cluster experiences I’ve observed – oh dear, we’ve cut those too) – and others that don’t, such as the proposal to introduce new “school report card” which will grade every school in the country.

The new approach being promoted in England is attributed to a “Swedish-style” system which sounds a lot like what we’ve been doing in NZ since the introduction of the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms in 1989, which shifted substantial financial and administrative responsibilities for managing schools to elected boards of trustees.

Funny how the political wheels keep turning 🙂

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