22 February 2021

After Covid, we must seize the chance for radical school reform

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School closures over the past year have been damaging to the mental health of some of our children and the educational progress of almost all of them. It has also damaged the wellbeing and sometimes the finances of those of us forced to become home-schoolers. Too often, support for locked-down children has been inadequate.

Some of this damage may be reparable. In the short term, the Government should both offer extra help for children and young people, while ensuring a Plan B is ready in case of yet another lockdown, which cannot yet be ruled out.

But, as with the NHS, the Covid crisis has exposed longstanding problems in our education system. Policy shouldn’t just focus on short-term recovery and temporary add-ons.

England’s performance in international tests of student achievement has long been poor, with unacceptable differences in performance between pupils and 15-20% leaving the education system with no significant qualifications and what amounts to functional illiteracy.

As I argue in a new IEA briefing paper, we need long-term changes, not sticking plasters. Policies such as changing the length of the school day and the structure of the school year, advocated for years, should now be brought forward – but not just as a temporary fix.

A longer school day has been shown to particularly improve the performance of disadvantaged children, while also creating greater scope for extra-curricular activities. It makes possible supervised private work on school premises without the need for excessive homework, a known vector for inequality, as middle-class children tend to have better home facilities and parental support. A longer period in school will also be a boon to working parents.

A shorter summer break would also improve learning retention, particularly for poorer students whose parents can’t afford summer school activities, travel or cultural visits.

We should ignore the predictable objections of the teaching unions, who have hardly covered themselves with glory during the pandemic, and renegotiate the national contract, which holds back innovation and rewards the less committed.

Raising the age at which children enter formal schooling should also be a priority. After all, most countries start at six or even seven. To suit schools’ convenience English children have to start school in the September of the school year in which they turn five. That means some pupils start Reception with ten or eleven months’ difference in age to their peers, locking in disadvantage for younger children throughout their school career.

Along with restructuring the timetable, teaching practices need reviewing in light of new technologies. For all the difficulties of lockdown, some good things have come out of remote learning, such as the ability to talk via Zoom with outside experts at a distance, to record lessons for those who miss them, and to speak one-to-one with those at home – something worth doing regularly when students are ill, for example.

We should also make easier for a wider range of people to become  teachers. The requirement for Qualified Teacher status should be dropped in maintained schools, as it already has been in academies and free schools. With so many skilled and experienced graduates likely to be displaced from their previous jobs as a result of Covid-induced recession, schools must be able to draw more easily on this pool of talent – and also redress the gender balance in schools, where 75% of staff are female (almost 90% in primary schools). 

Qualifications are another are that needs attention. In the short run, that means some form of examination, delayed if necessary, for A-level and other terminal qualifications, rather than total reliance on teacher predictions. In future, university offers should be made after results are received, so that unexpectedly good performers have wider choice of institutions.

The National Curriculum should be decluttered and we should have only a limited number of core examinations at 16. A levels might usefully revert to a modular structure rather than relying completely on final exams.

But more fundamental change should put greater power in the hands of parents, particularly poorer parents, who have too long been helpless to make their wishes felt.

Reactions to the pandemic have highlighted the differences between the state and independent sectors. Although there have been some excellent initiatives in the state sector (particularly in academies and free schools), private schools have typically been  faster to innovate and provide acceptable forms of online teaching and support for home-based learning.

They have had to do this; parents pay and expect a service, not a shrug of the shoulders. In state schools, parents just have to take what they are given – or not given, as has been the case too often.

Rather than schools being given shedloads of extra taxpayer money to spend as they see fit, parents should have a real say through spending power of their own. The money behind the National Tutoring Programme and the Pupil Premium could be given to poorer parents to spend directly on private tutorial support (as middle-class families do) or other relevant educational provision.

When all this is over, let’s go back to first principles in thinking about schools. Why do we involve government at all in education? It began in the 19th century with the unassailable principle of protecting minors. If some parents were unwilling or unable to provide or pay for education themselves, it was argued, the state needed to step in.

Our Victorian ancestors did not, however, think that education should be free for everybody. Subsidies should only go to the poorest. Even in those days, most parents, as scholars such as E. G. West have pointed out, could afford at least some contribution to schooling costs. Their spending power helped ensure that schools were responsive to parental wishes. We should think about today’s parents and children as potentially active consumers too.

The painless way to give all parents greater clout would be to revive the concept of the educational voucher. We could give all parents a voucher equivalent to existing average yearly expenditure per school pupil (currently around £6000, although it varies by age) and encourage state schools to compete to attract or retain parental custom.

A bolder move still would be to allow vouchers to be used in the private sector as well as in the state sector, and to be topped up by parents’ own contributions, thus giving many more families access to private education. Poorer families could be given vouchers with a bigger cash value.

Private education need not, as is too often assumed, be highly expensive. As James Tooley  has shown, it is possible to devise ‘no frills’ private education which would be cheaper than state schools, yet teach to a high standard. The distinction between bog-standard state and elite private education – for so long something which has maintained pernicious class barriers in Britain – could gradually disappear if we were sufficiently bold in our thinking.

There’s no doubt that the last year has been one of acute crisis for our schools. Out of those many difficulties, however, comes an opportunity for radical reform – we must not squander it.

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Professor Len Shackleton is an Editorial and Research Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.