Report reveals inertia on schools reform

Thanks to Pete for drawing attention to the report on area based planning for secondary education which in a rational world should form the manual for taking us into a new era from 2013. This is a very pale version indeed of what’s really needed. At this rate, transformation due in less than four years won’t even have begun. The lack of a workable policy even among its potential supporters (apart from an undisclosed number of exceptions) is exposed. Aside from the unpublished evidence in the questionnaires, the recommendations could have been written any time in the past 10 years. Bending over backwards to be fair and amid the bland and hortatory prose, Adeline Dinsmore, chairperson of the exercise delivers some deadly messages : Few areas and schools have done anything at all lining up with Costello’s Entitlement Framework of a maximum of 28 available subjects.

Few schools have done much to create parity of esteem between general ( i.e. academic) and vocational subjects. Some of the subjects taught aren’t even in the curriculum while others don’t line up with what’s on offer in FE colleges. ( Oh well done, area boards – what a great legacy..)

In answering the questionnaires some schools simply refused to report their defects and tried to divert by talking up their aspirations. (Why should they bother after a decade of inertia)?In an end note, Adleine quotes Thomas Hobbes, the creator of the Leviathian necessary, he believed, for good government:

“For in a way beset with those that contend, on the one side for too great Liberty,
and on the other side for too much Authority, ‘tis hard to passe between the points
of both unwounded.

You’re safe enough there Adeline; You ducked. No doubt you would say you fulfilled your brief. If you do, put the cap on where it belongs.

On the report’s omissions:

The starting point of the exercise is age 14, thereby avoiding the toxic 11 plus issue.

Nothing is said about how the entire system would have to be organised for “election at 14” rather than selection at 11.

Nothing is quantified, no one school is named and shamed, no one is blamed, offence is not caused.

Beyond exhortation, no measures for compliance are suggested.

If a broader, better curriculum is supposed to be the selling point for defusing the 11 plus row, they’ll have to be specific, area by area, school by school. Only then might aspirant parents be mollified and the cross-community grammar schools rebellion called off.

And the way ahead? Parents etc should be involved, but how?

The report is full of the usual managementspeak like “ accountability”. (God save us from bullet points, incidentally. It allows report writers to make lists and avoid the proper analysis which you are impelled to do when you join sentences up). I have banged on about launching a big programme of local consultations for which options for each area and each school are drawn up. Only when people can see how local schools might be organised to offer a better service will “reform” mean anything at all. Call it “transparency”. Anything less is useless. It stays in the hands of bureaucrats and nothing gets done because it’s “ up to the politicians” And we know what state they’re in. They and the bureaucrats fear that control would fall from their palsied hands. The Bel Tel’s vox pop of notables is short of fresh ideas and long on hand wringing. One note of consolation perhaps is that moves may be afoot to plump for election at 14. It won’t solve the 11 plus deadlock at a stroke but it should get the debate going. If anyone actually cares.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London