Saturday, 22 January 2011

How the search for 'fairness' must end - for the sake of the children!


If we believe it to be "unfair" that the privately educated dominate the best universities, secure the best jobs and influence the wider social and cultural agenda then we need to do something about it. However, the very way to address the problem is itself castigated by the same critics as ‘unfair’. Obviously this is something of a dilemma for these caring, sharing folk – but only because they pursue the crock of gold at the end of the fairness rainbow.

Britain’s state schools are not – in the round – very good. For sure there are some good schools, indeed some exceptional schools and incredible teachers. But the truth is painful – nearly half our young people leave school after eleven years or more of education (that’s around 10,000 hours of teaching) without the sort of literacy and numeracy skills needed to get anywhere in today’s world or work.

And this failure covers up how we fail brighter children – the ones who could get top grades and places at leading universities but don’t because the system lets them down. Or the middling sort – the children who are ‘OK’, will get 5 or 6 GCSEs and satisfy the school’s need to a tick in the achievement box but could do so much better.

So why aren’t we crying out more loudly for change? Why has it become such a political ‘no-no’ to say that, just maybe, some academic selection might be a good thing? Why can’t we point to success elsewhere – from African elementary education, through the intense systems of Korea and Taiwan to the Charter Schools springing up in poor parts of the USA? And why do teachers, unions, local authorities and educationalists not hang their head in shame at the way they have failed – and continue to fail – so many young people?

The answer lies in those dreadful words – “it’s not fair”. We can’t have selection because it’s not ‘fair’ on the children who don’t get selected. We have to maintain the bureaucratic distribution of money and the centralised allocation of places in order that the system is “fair”. And we have to make it incredibly hard to deal with bad school management and poor teaching because otherwise it wouldn’t be ‘fair’ on those wonderful public servants in our “education system”.

So it’s ‘not fair” to have schools freed from the local council’s oversight – those free schools would take pupils from other schools (presumably ones less popular with parents) and that’s not fair now is it! And this reallocation won’t be fair because mythic “pushy middle class parents” will get all the advantages. Opposition to changing the system is wholly couched in the language of fairness, in the identification of putative ‘losers’ rather than in recognising that a changed system might just provide more winners.

No system is fair – however clever its designers are and regardless of the extent of their commitment to achieving “equality” and “fairness”. And because any system will produce unfairness and inequality, it makes no sense at all to choose the approach that has the greatest “fairness” if that comes with the huge “unfairness” of dumping most poor kids into the work of work without the basic skills they need to succeed.

It does make sense to choose the most effective system – the one that produces the most winners and the highest standards. And such a system will be selective, it will be self-managed (by which I mean not bureaucratically directed) and it will contain a very wide choice of schools, curricula and management styles. Not every child will succeed, not every school will be a good one and there will be constant cries that it’s all unfair. But we’ll see most young people better equipped for work, more children from modest backgrounds getting into top universities and the social mobility once again a reality rather than something in the past.

Much is said and done ‘for the children’ – it is the cry of nannying fussbuckets everywhere. Well just maybe these folks can direct their campaigning effort to our schools. For there is no doubt that breaking up local education authorities, promoting school independence and free schools, and removing the malign influence of teacher unions is the right thing to do “for the children”.


1 comment:

manwiddicombe said...

I've said many times that one of the biggest problems the brightest students in the state education system face is the desire that pervades the academic establishment to reach targets and compete for league table placings. Teachers throw more time and effort at 'average' students because they know the bright ones will achieve the necessary standards with little intervention.

Selection, streaming, call it whatever you will but separating out the brightest minds and clumping them together is, in my opinion, a bloody good idea. Sort of like university used to be before the 50% target was introduced.