Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The Education Debate: What Did We Learn?

Not much is the short answer to that question. Unsurprisingly yesterday’s education debate was one of the most heated of the series so far. As a result, the viewers were treated to a substantial amount of bickering which was in some cases reminiscent of scenes in the rowdy classrooms that all three spokesmen claim to understand. The immediate reaction among viewers seemed to be disappointment that there was not more in the way of constructive debate. Nevertheless, some, thought not many, clear policy statements did emerge. Less than 24 hours till the polls open, PEN offers a brief run down of what was said and by who:

Opening Statements:

Sticking to the mantra of ‘change’ Michael Gove used his opening remarks to warn of the dangers of 5 more years of Gordon Brown and promise tougher discipline and increased choice for parents and a pledge to eliminate illiteracy.

Ed Balls took the opportunity to restate the undoubted achievements of labour: 4000 schools built or refurbished, more investment and teachers than ever before and increasing standards. While he acknowledged that more was to be done, he was clear that the pledges made by his governments: such as one to one tuition for failing students and a place in college or training for all 16/17 year old's cannot be matched by the Conservative party. A key pledge was that per pupil funding would rise ahead of inflation.

David Laws agreed with Balls that there was much to be proud of in the schools system in the last 13 years. However, he criticised both the Labour and Conservatives failure to tackle inequality, and rammed home two highly progressive Lib Dem education policies: an extra 2.5 bn for schools to lower class sizes and a new body to take education outside of political meddling forever.

Topic: Have standards improved in our schools?

Michael Gove paints a picture of a system “which overall has profound problems” To support his argument he cites the claims by some employers that new recruits do not have basic literacy and numeracy skills.

“It is certainly higher” is the concise response from Ed Balls who cattacks Gove for running down the work of our teachers.

“They have gone up but not by enough”, say David Laws, who comes out on top in this first question by distancing himself from the early bickering.He suggests that what is needed is an independent body to monitor and depoliticise the debate around exam and education standards. “What we need to do is set up a truly independent education standards authority”

Topic: How would you deal with this explosive issue of the Sats Boycott?

Laws is very vague in answer to this issue saying he “would not bow to the boycott, but would appeal to teachers to respect the situation as it now is.” He goes on to outline the wider policy of internal assessment with external checks. This position was popular at the NAHT conference delegates at the weekend

Ed Balls is clear on this issue, he believes in the assessment and believes a boycott would be “really unfair to children who have worked hard this year.”

Gove’s position is that “we need external tests” and even though assessment is improving all the time, “we are not absolutely sure, at the moment that teacher assessment is sufficiently good”

This draws a tangible line for voters on policy, with Gove and balls on ‘the side of rigour’ against the Lib Dem's who, according to a TES interview with Nick Clegg, would scrap the tests.

Laws counters by saying, pointing out accurately that the internal government research suggests that teacher assessments in fact stricter than external testing.

It is worth noting that none of the spokesmen give any meaningful answers to the question they were actually asked, which is how they will tackle the imminent reality of this boycott.

Topic: Are 60% of schools just ‘satisfactory’?

As the incumbent, Balls is legitimately challenged to explain this issue. He argues that this is not the case. His position relies on statistics which are much harder to convey with any passion but his numbers are strong: “while in 1997 half of schools were unsatisfactory, now the number is down to one in 12.” His argument that the Ofsted inspection regime has recently became more rigorous and risk based in its assessment is accurate but fails to address the real concerns teachers have about this issue and the effect it can have on morale.

Michael Gove quotes the OECD paper which he claims indicates that education system is getting worse relative to other EU countries. “The gap between our private and our state schools, between the rich and the poor is wider in this country than in any other wealthy country” ED Balls, critics this, claiming that C4 fact checker has concluded that this statistic is misleading. He’s right, they analyse it here.

Laws once again hits his key argument that Lib Dem spending will be directed at the schools which require the most assistance. “Additional money going into the schools that need it most is crucially important”

Topic: Is there a problem with discipline in our schools?

Ed Balls believes that school discipline has got better. He argues against Conservative plans to give teachers more powers. “Michael says give the teachers more powers, when I speak to teachers they say we have all the powers we need”

Another real dividing line in policy here: Michael Gove believes that “teachers don’t have the powers they need”. Gove claims the support of teachers on this issue, quoting the ACSL as saying “new power is no power”

Once again the answer for the Lib Dem spokesman is again less not more legislation “The idea that the answer to the problems I our school is more government legislation is bizarre and very odd from a Conservative”

As part of their plan attempt to increase discipline The Conservatives propose to do away with the right for appeal against expulsion. Gove is challenged on this by moderator Mike Baker on the legal issues this raises. “I’m happy to fight in the courts for common sense.”

Topic: Freedom for schools

On the hot issue of the campaign so far. Michael Gove is first to pitch the benefits of his model “we have proposal to give more state schools the academy freedoms that Ed has curtailed and David would deny them.”

Mike Baker, who clearly has his own view on this issue, takes him to task on his statistics, arguing that the most comprehensive reports from Sweden shows no real improvement in the majority of schools.

Sadly, considering that election debate has focused on the legitimacy of this idea, the debate moves onto funding far too quickly.

Interestingly a key area of debate is an article that Pen commented on earlier in the day, in which the Swedish opposition leader criticises the Conservative interpretation of their model.

Ed Balls and David Laws were both critical of the conservatives spending plans calling them “dishonest” and “difficult” respectively.

“Michael is saying one group of parents saying we will build a new school has not being honest that he will take away the funding and teachers from other schools in the area."

“If the Conservatives are shrinking the education budget it’s very difficult to pay for that new capacity with out penalising existing schools I think the other problem is that it want sot give freedom to only a small minority of these schools. While giving n even more prescriptive curriculum for others”

The most compelling sound bite in relation to this whole debate comes from Laws when he says “If the power to innovate makes sense it must go to every school in the country”

Challenged on weather his policy of school freedom is essentially the “freedom to do what you want them to do” Gove argues that “I’m saying that’s what parents want and that is the way to give it to them.”

However he comes under criticism from all sides for his comment that the only place you can find these values today is in “private fee paying schools and independent state schools.”

David Laws counters that the “best school in the state system is an ordinary state school which isn’t in the categories you’ve just sighted, which is insulting to many of the schools in this country.”

The debate has been really heated during this question, Prompting moderator Andrew Neil to score the best line so far “now I know what its like to be a teacher, speak when you are spoken to!”

Topic: Funding

Funding is a crucial issue in the next parliament. PEN wrote a press release to plead for clarity from the speakers.

Refusing to be drawn on whether head teachers will lose jobs under the ‘mergers’ element of his cost cutting, he restates his three year commitment to protect schools funding, “we will guarantee this year, next year and the year after, per pupil money will go up by more than inflation, by more than 2% a year.”

Gove’s response is that his pupil premium will be additional money into the system, not re-branded existing money as the IFS has suggested may be the case under the other parties.

Laws holds up well as his parties education spending planks come under real scrutiny, when asked if education spending will be ‘ring fenced’ he makes the solid pledge “Better that ring fencing, its additional money.”

Closing Remarks.

“Only the Lib Dem's are promising, even in these tough times, to put more money into education and to put the politics out.”

"If a conservative government is elected, then an emergency budget in June will cut schools budget and teacher numbers as well – only party which says every child matters is Labour."

"A new spirit in our education system, one where we trust professionals and parents and we have a new generation of smaller schools with smaller class sizes, better discipline higher standards and heads who know every child’s name."

You can listen to the closing remarks in their entirety here.

Progressive Education Network was pleased that voters were given the opportunity to scrutinise in detail the three men who want to lead our education system over the next few years. However, as anticipated, the debate was heavy on bickering and light on policy detail. We are disappointed and concerned that as we move towards what could be a pivotal change in our education system, the parties are not willing to clearly identify the decisions that must be made.

PEN believes that it is vital that the we build on the progress of the last 13 years and protect front line services. At the end of a period of unprecedented education investment and improvement, the potential damage that could be caused to the system by dangerous budget cuts is a real concern.

We are already part of an exciting educational landscape that is evolving into a powerful coalition of educators, families and government. We have a generation of front line leaders and teachers with much to offer the education system as well as their own individual schools; a group of professionals who cooperate as a matter of course and who are motivated by a vision beyond their immediate school boundary.

The potential of locally driven collaborative trusts, groups of schools, executive headships that span several institutions and efficient business models for groups of schools, answerable locally and nationally, are only just beginning to be appreciated; these hugely promising approaches coupled with serious investment in early year’s provision must be developed further and not sidelined for yet another structural overhaul.

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