Another MP backs selection and creaming-off bright pupils from the state sector. Any hope that MPs will look at evidence before spouting their prejudices?

Janet Downs's picture
“The truth is that we have not valued education highly enough and standards in far too many schools are not good enough.”

Ian Austin, MP (Dudley North, Lab), Daily Telegraph, 1 November 2013

It’s true that many in this country do not value education highly unless, as Austin implies here, it raises test results.

But there’s a danger when standards are measured entirely by exam results - what is being measured doesn’t actually reflect the quality of education. The OECD warned an excessive emphasis on test results in England could have negative consequences. The recent poor showing of English and Northern Irish 16-24 year-olds in the Adult Skills Survey suggests what they learnt in school may be lost once they leave – shallow learning got them through exams but is not deep enough to last. And university academics blamed “spoon feeding” for undergraduates’ lack of critical thinking skills.

Austin praises the London Challenge for raising performance in the capital. Its success rested on cooperation and support - Austin would like to see something similar rolled out nationwide. This would particularly benefit the Black Country where, he says, “standards lag stubbornly behind the rest of the country”. Leave aside the argument that raised results might not necessarily be a true measure of educational quality, the Black Country as a whole hasn’t “stubbornly” lagged behind. Results in Dudley have twice been below the GCSE national average* and twice above in the last four years. In Sandwell and Walsall results have been below the national average but they’ve consistently risen year-on-year and the gap is closing**. What a pity a local MP couldn’t praise this improvement.

But Austin wants to go further: he suggests more selection and creaming-off bright pupils into the independent sector. This will increase social mobility and the Gross Domestic Product, he claims. But he should remember:

1 Education is not the only way to raise social mobility. Raising people out of poverty; high employment, good wages and a steady income are more effective.

2 The best-performing school systems tend to be those that combine equity and quality – they don’t segregate pupils according to ability or by virtue of where they live.

3 UK state schools outperform private schools when socio-economic factors are accounted for.

4 There is mounting evidence that state school pupils outperform their equally qualified peers from private schools at university.

Austin praises University Technical Colleges but there are signs the Department for Education (DfE) is losing enthusiasm for UTCs. He wants to reintroduce the Open Access scheme whereby children are chosen “on merit” to attend leading academic independent day schools but, as stated above, the private school “advantage” disappears when social background is considered. In other words, a school's academic success depends on its intake.

The Open Access scheme is similar to the Assisted Places scheme abolished in the late 90s. A recent report found that while individuals may have been benefitted critics claimed this was at the expense of the school system as a whole.

Politicians and others who propose a reintroduction of such schemes should remember this - the education system should work for the benefit of ALL children not just a few.

*The benchmark is 5+ GCSEs A*-C (or equivalent) including Maths and English. In 2012 the national average was 58.8% according to School Performance Tables.


**I could be mischievous here and cite rate of improvement to show that schools in Sandwell and Walsall are “outperforming” schools nationally. The Government uses the rate of improvement measure to show sponsored academies “outperform” all other schools. But this rate of improvement is calculated from a lower base. I could do the same here but it would be misleading to say schools in Sandwell and Walsall were “outperforming” others. Nevertheless, the data shows consistent improvement. In Sandwell, the proportion reaching the benchmark in 2009 was 37.5% (national average 50.7%). This rose to 53.8% in 2012 (national average 58.8%). In Walsall the proportion reaching the benchmark rose from 44% in 2009 to 55.9% in 2012.

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Tubby Isaacs's picture
Tue, 05/11/2013 - 05:38

He's a fool.

Today, he told Owen Jones that renationalise rail would require some "that money tree where we get free ten pound notes".

He moved swiftly on when Jones pointed out renationalisation could involve just taking over franchises when they finished.

Barry Wise's picture
Tue, 05/11/2013 - 15:53

His Dad was headteacher of a secondary school in Dudley. Not sure if that's relevant or significant but may be useful if you're at an SEA pub quiz.

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