Friday, 26 March 2010

Analysis of Conservative education policies

Education is an area that is particularly close to my heart: I have always enjoyed school, and I believe it serves two great purposes of equipping our young for the world of work, but more importantly, to set us on a journey of self-discovery and creating a passion for certain subjects, leaving us wanting to know more about our favourite areas. I've been taught by incredibly passionate and skilled teachers, who are not only dedicated to their subject, but also to pupils, ensuring we  can  succeed and enjoy learning. So, when I read the education section of the Conservative party's draft manifesto, I was filled with a mixture of concern and hope.

Firstly, Cameron wishes to allow headteachers to pay 'good' teachers more. 'Good' is in the eye of the beholder. Would 'good' teachers be those whose pupils achieve the highest grades? If that is the case, then the fantastic contribution of teachers who help the less able students to achieve passing grades in exams would be ignored, and could result in encouraging teachers to ignore their less able classes and deliver lessons in a less enticing way that simply crams pupils full of information they will need to get a top grade in SATs or GCSEs. I have always found maths difficult, so being able to get a B grade in my GCSE exam for this subject was a massive achievement for me, but, from the perspective of picking out 'good' teachers, it would likely be seen as relatively average. A class of pupils primarily achieving B and C grades would be unlikely to stand out and would therefore probably not take into account the incredibly hard work that my maths teacher put in to helping my class achieve its potential. By implementing this policy, the Tories also run the risk of causing competition between teachers, with staff competing for their class to have the highest grades. Whilst, on the surface, this would seem to be a positive effect, we could end up with some teachers caring little for how their pupils learn and the enjoyment they gain from it, but simply doing multitudes of practise papers and mock exams in an attempt to ensure their pupils outdo the other classes so they do not lose their 'good' status and bonus wages that it brings. Whilst I think this is quite unlikely, as most teachers who go into the profession are selfless and hard-working, there's always the risk of staff being sucked into a competitive environment to ensure they gain and maintain their bonus pay.

Secondly, the party wishes to attract "top maths and science graduates" by paying their student loans for as long as they remain teachers. The little matter of paying for this is apparently solved by redirecting the budget from teacher training to this scheme, and in addition to using it to pay the loans, they also wish to set up two new training alternatives: 'Teach Now' and 'Troops to Teachers'. Once again, no detail of these proposed schemes is given, so it's difficult to work out what they are. I gether that 'Teach Now' puts student teachers in classrooms to learn through hands-on experience, and 'Troops to Teachers' involves training former soldiers to teach. Would the latter be an indication of an iron-fist approach to discipline? The Conservatives, on the one hand, seem to think that the sign of someone who will make a good teacher in one with a top university degree, but on the other hand, they wish to attract soldiers to teach - they surely cannot have it both ways? One group has exceptional academic ability, whilst the other is experienced and selfless, but perhaps lacking in the traditional academic qualifications that the Tories view with such importance.

Chris Grayling's (then Conservative party spokesman for education, now Shadow Home Secretary) statement about the Education Maintenance Allowance springs to mind: "Bribing young people to sign up for courses they may not complete..." Naturally, I disagree with his belief that the EMA is bribery, but if that is the view of the party, then it seems grossly hypocritical to encourage undergraduates into teaching through indirect monetary incentives. Clearly, there is a gulf between A-Level and college students' £10, £20, or £30 per week EMA payments, and having thousands of pounds of debt paid off, so we may run the risk of having graduates who have little interest in teaching taking up the job so they can have their loans paid off. I believe  we need teachers who are passionate about their subject and have a desire to spread their knowledge and expertise, not those seeking to lower their student debt. However, I can see the point behind this - there's a lack of maths and science teachers, so we need to recruit more somehow, I'm just not convinced this is the best way of doing it.

Another proposal is making it easier for independent groups to set up academies. The Labour government has done this to some extent with Foundation schools, but Cameron's proposals go further, encouraging groups of parents and teachers to set up their own school, and being given state support to do so. A particular issue with this is that schools could be set up in inadequate facilities that do not lend themselves well to teaching pupils. A recent report on the BBC's Politics Show revealed that an office block could be turned into a school, and the council and residents would be powerless to stop this, as the government would gain the power to overrule the council and give permission for the conversion. This seems to go pretty strongly against the Conservative message of handing back power to people and moving it to a local level. In addition, Johann Hari of the Independent raises an important issue about the prospect for minorities in the type of schools the Conservatives which to allow:
"The keystone of his education policy is to allow any group of parents who want to set up a school, and can attract pupils, to receive state funding. But the National Secular Society warns that wherever this has been tried, there is a huge rise in religious fundamentalist schools. We know they are far worse for gay kids: the Stonewall study, for example, found that anti-gay bullying is 10 per cent worse in faith schools."

Johann Hari - 'Let's talk about sex: Johan Hari grils David Cameron on gay rights' - the Independent, 4th February 2010.

However, I feel that this policy area is perhaps one of the strongest within their education policies. It puts faith, to a degree, in the power of the free market, by encouraging different schools to compete against each to provide a better quality service, schools which can't compete with the growing standards will likely lose pupils to better ones. The fiasco of ranking schools only seems to get worse every year, with shocking stories on then news of people receiving their fifth choice school and not being able to do anything about it unless they can afford to go private. If the Tories' policy results in more schools being set up - which it most likely will - then that can only be a good thing, and if standards improve, that can also only be a positive thing. However, I do have concerns that the practice of judging schools solely on their exam performance could be increased by this move, with parents only looking to compare the GCSE or A-Level results of schools, without taking into account the quality of teaching and other factors. Under this policy, we could see schools becoming ever more machine-like, with classes being taught always with a view directly to passing exams, which could end up being dull for students and not reflect the quality of teaching and learning to parents.

Groups seeking to make profit, however, will not be able to set up their own school with government funding. This could be viewed as positive, since the old argument goes that companies seeking to make profit will invariably put money before providing high-quality services. On the other hand, the counter-argument could be made that if a company sets up a naff school and cuts corners, people will simply remove their children or choose not to send them there in the first place. At any rate, I think we'd see a great deal more schools setting up if groups seeking a profit were allowed to be involved in this, but there's something a bit unnerving about a school being used as a business that doesn't sit right with me. It sounds too similar 'public' schools, which I despise. I'll put my red socialist hat on another time and moan about those establishments full of rich children being privileged because Daddy has money.

Anyway, a  policy that I quite like is perhaps a relatively unimportant one. The party plans to "Establish a free online database of exam papers and marking schemes." Whilst it seems they intend to do this to show how downhill they think exams have gone recently, it could prove to be very useful for students and teachers to be able to download past exams and model answers from the past few years. Currently, I have tramp off to different exam board websites depending upon the subject I'm looking for, navigate the exam board's shambolic website, and then try to download the paper and mark scheme, only to find out the board decides not to make the one I want available or to charge for it. Making these available for free on one single government-run website would be a welcome improvement over the current system.

Finally, I will conclude with what I see to be the most concerning of all the proposals of the draft manifesto. One of policies outline is to only allow graduates with a 1st or 2nd university degree to qualify for state-funding teacher training. This effectively bars any potential teachers that have not achieved the requirement of 2:2 from being able to teach in state schools. Whilst I understand the reasoning behind this policy - it's intended to only have the best and brightest becoming teachers -  it seems to me that teachers ought to be able to relate to what it is like to struggle and have to work hard at a subject to succeed. Those who were blessed with a natural affinity in their field and were able to achieve above a 2:2 may be less able to relate to struggling students. In addition, I do not see why a 2:2 or above would be necessary - if someone knows their subject well, wishes to teach, and prove themselves to be capable in teacher training, why should they be excluded from spreading their knowledge and skill to our younger generation? To exclude teachers below this boundary would be to belittle them and undermine the excellent contribution that teachers of all varieties bring to our education system. I do not see teaching as being all about being at the top of your game in your chosen field. Of course, they must have a good knowledge of their subject, but being passionate about it is important, and perhaps most important, being able to inspire pupils and encourage them to engage with the content - being the top of your university group doesn't mean you'll be able to present information in an approachable way, and there is no reason why anyone with below a 2:2 degree is incapable of doing this. It smacks elitism for the sake of elitism.

There are other areas that I could babble about, but I'll leave it there for now, since almost 2,000 words is quite enough. If you want to read the policies, you can find the PDF file at this link to the Conservatives' draft manifesto.

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