Reform’s latest report, Core Business, does an excellent job of pinpointing some of the main problems with education in the UK, but, to my mind, does not go quite far enough on the solutions.
As the report makes clear, low expectations, a lack of intellectual rigor and grade inflation are serious problems in our schools, while the fact that the most disadvantaged children are pushed to follow non-academic qualifications to boost school league table results is nothing less than a disgrace. A powerful and convincing case is also made that government policies of emphasizing differences in educational potential of children is in fact a symptom of the failure of state education.
On the policy side, there are two recommendations. Firstly, it is suggested that, “all students should be required to study a minimum of five academic GCSEs", while vocational qualifications would be done in addition to, not instead of GCSEs. Yet on its own, this change would offer little for the thousands of children let down by state education. The problem isn’t vocational qualifications per se – just consider the Indian examples of NIIT and GNIIT – but rather the fact that the state holds a debilitating monopoly on education funding and delivery. It might well make the skewed league tables more accurate to ignore vocational qualifications, but as competition between schools is nonexistent, this will not return power to parents in any genuine sense. What we need is for parents to become consumers of education – something which Reform, to their credit, have pointed out in numerous other reports.
Secondly, the report recommends ending Ofqual’s and the QCDA’s control of the curriculum. This makes sense, but replacing them with another Quango run by academics is a Band-Aid solution to a much wider problem. It may prevent grade inflation, but will do little for improving the quality of teaching. Once again, I feel the focus should be on more competition, not just ‘better regulation’.
If the Conservative Party does come to power, they will have a mandate for radical reform of the education system. The failure of state education as things stand is beyond doubt. With a voucher system that allows schools to profit, competing curriculums to better meet the demands of parents and a bonfire of the multifarious regulations, Michael Gove MP could succeed where so many before him have failed. A proper market place with competing brands of schools, teaching methods, exam boards and curriculums is the only way to extract ourselves from the hole we have been digging since 1870.