Standards and structures: improving the quality of teaching in English schools

The current school system is failing a large number of children in England. The inequity of the grammar school system has been replaced by a school system that still fails to give a good education to the majority of children. The grammar school/secondary modern divide has been replaced by a divide between independent schools, grammar schools and a few high achieving comprehensives and the rest of the maintained school system.

The attempts to move away from the problems with the comprehensive school model have led to a plethora of new schools, of which this reports identifies 19. The multiplicity of school-types and the varying philosophies driving them are confusing, wasteful of resources and so scatter-gun in their approach as to reduce seriously their impact on our society. The system is disunited, lacking any coherent central philosophy, and devoid of any genuinely radical or new initiatives.

The debate over selection is immaterial: selection already exists. We have de facto selection in our maintained schools. Students aspiring to a place to read A-level in a 6th form college are usually required to have achieved at least C grade in the subject they wish to study at GCSE, and sometimes more. This immediately places them in the top half of the ability band. A number will drop out after AS-level, a further example of selection.

The places at top universities are still monopolised by students from a minority of schools. At both Oxford and Cambridge nearly 50 per cent of students still come from the independent sector. A close examination of one Oxbridge college found that out of the entire science entry only one student came from a true comprehensive school, with the mass of the maintained school entry coming either from grammar schools or 6th form colleges.

The centralisation and privatisation of the examination industry, has had detrimental effects on exam standards. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Government. In effect this means that a branch of government decides the qualifications and the curriculum available to the very great majority of young people in England. The second problem relates to competition between the exam boards, of which England has six in comparison to two in the United States. They are competing for business, introducing an undesirable commercial element into the examinations industry. No one examination board can afford for their examination in any given subject to be seen to be significantly harder than that of another board, leading to an overall decline in standards.

We have an exam system that neither challenges the most academically able, nor meets the needs of those who wish to take a route more focused on vocational learning. Exam results have improved over time with 24 per cent of exams at A level obtaining an A grade compared to 16 per cent in 1996. However, there is considerable evidence that standards have declined. A system that is now designed to get 50 per cent of students into university opposed to 10 per cent has had to change to remain fit for purpose. Dissatisfaction with this system has led to increasing numbers of schools opting for alternatives, such as the International Baccalaureate. The bewildering range of qualifications in the vocational stream considerably weakens this area.

Teacher supply is one of the most crucial factors in improving the quality of teaching. The growth of generalism in teaching is another worrying trend. The figures for those teaching who have an actual degree in their chosen subject are worrying. In 2002 only 41 per cent of mathematics teachers to Years 7-13 had a degree in the subject. A second blow to the all-graduate concept was delivered by the creation of the B.Ed (Bachelor of Education) degree, whose first students graduated in 1968. Partly though not only because of this, the concept of someone being a teacher of English, mathematics or whatever has increasingly been replaced by someone being simply a teacher.

There are also a number of other barriers to entry into the teaching profession. Rising costs of becoming a teacher, including student debt and the cost of housing, may dissuade many from entering the profession. One of the greatest disincentives to entering the teaching profession is bad, abusive or violent behaviour towards teachers from pupils and, increasingly, from their parents.

The implementation of the following recommendations, could deliver a better education system capable of meeting the needs of all children.

  • The first priority for raising the standard of teaching in UK schools is for the country to arrive at a genuine, nationally-observed pattern for secondary education. The Australian system, with its ability to offer some regional independence, overall coherence and capacity to run the public and private sectors alongside each other productively – through what amounts to a voucher system – should be a starting point.
  • A solution to the debate over selection is to create the choice of an academic or vocational pathway at the age of 14, and allow unrestricted entry in to either pathway for the first year of study, together with the ability to re-sit years where minimum standards have not been reached by the end of the year.
  • A School Leaving Certificate (SLC), taken by all pupils at the age of 14, or the end of Year 9, should be reintroduced. This certificate would test pupils to basic standards in literacy, numeracy, science and ICT skills at its core, with optional papers to be available in modern languages and all other subject areas. Meeting a basic standard in the SLC would be a condition for a pupil to be able to move on to post-14 education.
  • Following the SLC, pupils should follow the proposals of the Tomlinson Committee, including the creation of a single overarching diploma framework, with four levels of qualification. The bewildering array of vocational qualifications should be reduced to a single, coherent set of qualifications whose content and function are clearly visible to student and to employer. A suitably designed Tomlinson Diploma should be able to have tiered levels of achievement that will distinguish the most academically able candidates.
  • The QCA should not be sponsored by government, but instead be an independent organisation along the lines of the Bank of England. There is also a strong argument for one examination board to replace the present six. In exchange for a reduction in choice would come a great control of standards, and an examination system that was far more efficient as a result of there being far less duplication of effort.

Practical steps to improve the quality of teaching include:

  • Allow selected independent schools to become centres of excellence on basis of inspected ability to teach shortage subjects, such as mathematics, science and modern languages at 16+. Pupils would attend such schools with the government paying the equivalent amount to the cost of pupils in maintained sector and independent schools would make up the difference. The independent school contribution would come from charitable funds and money raised for bursaries.
  • Fund independent schools to hold masterclasses in mathematics, science and modern languages for previously identified gifted and talented in disadvantaged or low-achieving schools.
  • Second maintained school teachers for one term to high-achieving independent or maintained schools to acquire teaching skills for gifted and talented pupils.
  • Create a specialist academic teacher role in all schools in the UK. In so doing recognise that the most able are as much a special needs category as the least able.
  • Encourage more mature teachers. A neglected area is the graduate entering in to the last ten or fifteen years of their professional life, aged 50 or above.
  • Provide more support for new teachers entering the profession in the areas of housing and student debt relief.
  • We should consider a permanent, standing Commission, representing the end-users of the education system and designated with the task of recommending a lasting pattern for secondary education in the UK. The body would be an evolution of the new National Council for Educational Excellence and would make recommendations on the way forward for education policy, without the restrictions of political affiliations.