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School Standards: time for debate?

Updated Tuesday, 11th May 2004

There's much talk of educational "standards" - but what, exactly, are we measuring? Peter Grimes and Geoffrey Court explore the changes in the education system in recent times, and look at education in Finland

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League tables - but what do they tell us? 'The goals of our education... are clear enough. They are to equip children to the best of their ability for a lively, constructive place in society, and also to fit them to do a job of work. Not one or the other but both... There is no virtue in producing socially well-adjusted members of society who are unemployed because they do not have the skills. Nor at the other extreme must they be technically efficient robots.'

These words come from a speech made in the autumn of 1976 by James Callaghan, then Prime Minister. The occasion was a stone-laying ceremony at Ruskin College, Oxford, but the foundations were being laid of much more than a building. The event is widely seen as marking the threshold of a new era in British education: an era whose defining characteristic is accountability. The school curriculum was no longer to be a 'secret garden', hidden behind high walls and tended solely by educational professionals. Callaghan wanted to draw the whole nation into a 'Great Debate' about the very nature and purpose of education.

Whether that debate has ever really taken place is itself a matter of argument; but what is beyond dispute is that from the mid-70s on, scrutiny of the education system, and political intervention in its management, increased to unprecedented levels. As a result, the landscape of the "secret garden" was to be bulldozed beyond recognition, as the old haphazard arrangements were replaced by far more formal structures. The most prominent of these was the establishment under the 1988 Education Reform Act of a National Curriculum, divided into four 'Key Stages' with testing at the end of each. The Education (Schools) Act of 1992 introduced a rigorous national school inspection regime, managed by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted). Later in the same year the first national performance tables, designed to increase parental choice, were published for secondary schools, to be followed in 1996 by 'league tables' for primary schools as well.

All these measures had been put in place by Conservative administrations, but as the 1997 general election approached, the Opposition too were promising that 'education, education, education' would be at the top of their agenda in government. New Labour brought fresh vigour to the centralisation process, and the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies, placing emphasis on performance targets and prescribing the detail of what was to happen at certain points of the primary school day, were introduced in England in 1998-9. (Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own, different systems.) The time for debate was over: schools must direct all their efforts towards the raising of educational standards, and those standards were to be defined by central government.

Bhojwani girl student taking exam

That same government, though, was also promoting 'social inclusion' - the principle that all groups in society are entitled to equal access to services. Education was no exception, and the Department for Education and Skills described inclusion as the keystone of education policy. In its current strategy for Special Educational Needs, entitled 'Removing Barriers to Achievement', it points out that "Inclusion is about much more than the type of school that children attend: it is about the quality of their experience; how they are helped to learn, achieve and participate fully in the life of the school."

An inclusive approach to schooling demands breadth, openness, flexibility and diversity of practice, but this sits incongruously with an emphasis on competition between schools and the use of examination results to place schools in league tables. In their 'Index to inclusion ', a guide to inclusive school development, Professors Mel Ainscow and Tony Booth claim that "Many teachers argue that they have to work hard to minimise the excluding pressures from policies, which in encouraging competition between schools can lead to a narrow view of the achievement of students." The introduction of the literacy and numeracy strategies, whilst supposed to raise standards, have in fact led to an even greater focus on 'the basics'. It is not uncommon to visit schools where students in Year 2 and 6, preparing for their National Curriculum tests, spend little time on other areas of the curriculum. Some schools have appeared unwilling to offer places to students with learning impairments for fear that they will lower test results, which can often trigger an Ofsted inspection as well as a drop in the league table. Although Ofsted are now expected to grade a school's 'inclusivity', and from 2005, this grade will be taken into account in the league tables, the inspection and assessment of schools continue to be based on narrow definitions of what is meant by achievement and the ways it can be measured.

The tension between inclusive schooling and standards (as currently defined) provokes the kinds of fundamental questions raised by UNESCO: "... education is more than 'reading, writing and arithmetic', and there is a growing demand for education systems to address current conditions and problems in society, notably sustainable human development, peace and security, human rights, gender equality and the overall quality of life at individual, family, societal and global levels. This leads to the question of what, today, constitutes a quality education? How should it be defined and what should it include?"

Elsewhere in the world, educational success, including success in 'the basics', has been achieved without recourse to the narrow view we experience in UK schools. A survey of student achievement among 15-year-olds in forty-three countries published jointly by the OECD and UNESCO found that Finnish students were outstandingly successful in reading, mathematical and scientific literacy. In Finland, children start pre-school at the age of six and don't begin any formal education until they are seven. They will remain in the same school until they are 16. All students are taught in mixed ability classes and there is a very high level of student choice in the curriculum. There are no formal tests or exams until after the students are 16. The National Board of Education in Finland states: "We provide guidance and not criticism. We do not publish our research and nor do we create league tables of good or bad schools." Although there is a core curriculum, teachers are encouraged to be creative and to teach according to their own judgement about what will be most effective. This means that they are free to make professional judgements without being criticised for failing to reach set targets, and can use the curriculum as a tool with which to respond to student interest and stimulate ideas and creativity. A senior advisor at the Education Ministry in Helsinki commented, in September 2003, that they had had visiting governments from all over the world wanting to find out why they were so successful - but not from the UK.

The National Curriculum has been revised several times over the last 16 years and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is currently consulting on another revision. Interestingly, the introduction of a 'Foundation Stage', with its emphasis on real experiences and play, has led to some questioning over whether the curriculum in Key Stage 1 should be more reflective of the fact that play is a vital area of learning, and that real opportunities for play, with stimulating, well-made resources and toys and with other children their own age, supports pupils' achievement in all areas of the curriculum. Perhaps this will be the beginning of a wider and deeper critique of the current narrow and tightly-controlled educational scene. It might even be the beginning of a Great Debate.


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