“Education, education, education” was the rallying cry of Tony Blair’s Labour government at the turn of the millennium. It promised a sharp injection of funding into the sector but more importantly, for education to have a superior position in the government’s agenda. Twenty years on, now with the opposing party in government, the education story that dominates headlines is the dire reality of cuts and teacher shortages. The prosperity envisioned in the late-90’s for the education sector does not appear to have come to fruition, and critics of Blair’s government contend that it was never even present.
Governments since Blair have pushed education prominently in their policy. The most recent shake-up has been Theresa May’s drive to reintroduce grammar schools. Her proposal was met with vehement opposition from educational charities and specialists who upheld the argument that grammar schools are severely harmful for both the pupils who do not pass the 11+ and those who do. This is because selective schooling encourages the marketisation of education that obliges schools to compete with each other, ultimately obscuring what should be the prime focus: their pupils.
The unpalatable consequences of selective schooling have just been revealed by a report published in response to the conduct of St Olave’s, a grammar school in South East London. The school hit headlines late last year after the Guardian exposed its unlawful practice of denying pupils entry to Year 13 if they did not meet the school’s imposed grade threshold of three grade B’s. The report outlines how the school had put the “institution above its pupils” and that its policy had “crossed into negative territory”, affirming that in a school, the institution is always the pupils and that their welfare should be the utmost priority. These findings are by no means exclusive to St Olave’s, or indeed grammar schools. Striving for high attainment no matter what the cost is becoming the harsh reality of the British education system. UK government agenda is becoming increasingly destructive to education, which is clearly highlighted by the case of St Olave’s, where parents of the students described their children as being treated as “collateral damage” in the pursuit of the top grades.
In a similar vein, the recent revelation that top fee-paying schools are evading the new ‘tougher’ GCSEs which have a 1-9 scoring system by having their students take comparatively easier iGCSEs is illustrative of the same grade-obsessed approach to education. Schools that employ such policies are doing so to prevent their students from being the ‘guinea pigs’, an opportunity that is not available to all schools as the iGCSEs have been removed from the government’s approved list of qualifications for state schools. The education system has become a game in which the elite have the upper hand; our education system should not be susceptible to being played, or in fact need to be played in the first place.
But this is by no means a recent phenomenon. The recent report on St Olave’s and news of top private schools evading mainstream GCSEs are just recent events in the worrying trend that education is taking. It reveals a system in which the goal of academic attainment has become the blinding rationale and so fails to sufficiently provide for students. Both examples are symptoms of the nationwide worry that British students are falling behind their European and global counterparts. Such concern stems from the fact that levels of educational achievement are directly linked to national economic prosperity. The government are acutely aware of this and so have placed undue emphasis on league tables in an attempt to boost attainment, the basis upon which headteachers are made to resort to drastic and illogical measures.
By no means is the system of education necessarily broken, but it is taking an unsavoury direction. It would be flippant to suggest that league tables should be ignored entirely, but their current unrelenting influence must be controlled. Accountability of schools needs to be derived from factors alongside high academic performance, for instance student welfare, moral practice or even reason. The two cases I have outlined demonstrate how schools and headteachers are currently being pressurised into scheming behaviour which primarily harms the pupils, who ought to be their first priority. Our education system now must reaffirm what values it holds central so that schools are able to deliver an education fit for purpose.