The 2011 Schools Performance Tables are published today while the media also report plans for a free school staffed by ex-forces personnel.
What do we want from our schools?
On the one hand, the Government wants schools' 'success' to be measured through a test-based accountability regime, conforming to a vision based on a national curriculum and exam results and a 'Baccalaureate' of certain subjects, while on the other hand it desires a diverse system of academies and 'free' schools that, in theory, have more freedom and do not have to conform to a national curriculum. Although how free free schools actually are is another matter.
Some in education and politics believe that the regimentation of China or Singapore is the route to success, with regular drills from ex-soldiers to instil discipline for good measure, while others maintain that the Finnish model, free from league tables and inspections and with high levels of teacher autonomy, is the answer.
The Education Secretary and Prime Minister want the independent sector to partner state schools to set up academies, yet they do not necessarily share the Government's exam results-based vision.
Dr Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, argues that "Schools should develop children's character, not just their ability to pass exams":
" .. schools of all kinds have become too much like exam factories, concentrating their energies on securing passes at A to C at GCSE level, and have given too little attention to the overall development of the child and their character (the scramble for results has also been at the cost of genuine learning and creative teaching). The government should embrace character-building and all-round education not as an alternative to academic attainment but as an essential adjunct of it. The opportunities open to those of independent education for wider enrichment should be available to all, regardless of school."
The man who introduced lessons in happiness to Wellington has said of A levels and GCSES that:
"Instruction is taking the place of education, instruction is squeezing out good teaching so we can’t discriminate the intellectually gifted from the very well drilled. Imagination is being lost. Confidence is leaching out of the system."
At the other end of the independent spectrum, Ofsted has concluded that teaching in many small independent schools is rarely better than "competent". In its annual report published in November, it said that lessons were not good enough in a third of fee-paying schools it inspected and only seven per cent of teaching was regularly outstanding.
The military model isn't necessarily the right one either. While military service has much to offer many young people, and offers much to this country, it is not the only form of service to the nation. What about alternative programmes that could teach young people about team work, dedication and service, such as conservation? The tabloid headlines, encouraged by politicians, about "boot camps" and chauvinistic language that inevitably seem to accompany any association between the military and education fail to recognise the contribution that people from a wide variety of backgrounds not just military can and do bring to education.
Today the DfE criticises some schools for their GCSE results, which are the standard by which schools are judged, yet only before Christmas the Education Secretary declared that:
"Our exams system needs fundamental reform . the current system is discredited."
Voice has long maintained that school league tables have always been a crude indicator of a school's performance. Statistics don't tell us about the circumstances affecting individual schools, such as pupil intake, social and community issues, the age of the buildings and their impact on running costs, staff recruitment issues and so forth.
The Welsh have tried an alternative model banding but this attempt at a system that was intentionally "not about labelling, naming or shaming schools, or creating a league table", according to Minister Leighton Andrews, has been seriously undermined by the league-table obsessed BBC Wales and its 'revelation' of schools' actual "scores" and which had the "best" and "worst".
How do we go forward from here?
As we've pointed out before, do you lower standards, devaluing the qualification, or perform some miraculous transformation in pupil performance?
The assessment system does need to be reformed, with fewer exams and tests and greater use of ongoing teacher assessment, a greater range and type of subjects on offer to inspire pupils, parity between vocational and academic and an end to the constraints of the narrow and pointless EBacc.
The current system of exam-based 'accountability' encourages teaching to the test rather than the teaching of a broad and balanced education. It is for the benefit of the government, rather than for providing information for parents and taxpayers, and teachers' professional judgment would provide a better and more cost-effective measure of pupils' progress.
We need to ask ourselves how do we allow teachers to be creative and inspirational in a politically-enforced regime that encourages teaching to the test and ticking targets?
A survey, commissioned by the British Council and Think Global charity found that 74% of these business representatives warned that in the UK young people's "horizons are not broad enough" for a globalised economy:
"Business leaders suggested that this could be because schools were too worried about exam results and league tables to encourage pupils to learn 'about the wider world beyond the school gates and beyond our shores'."
Pete Henshaw, Editor of SecEd, is right to describe the publication of school league tables in England as "the annual circus":
"Schools minister Nick Gibb quite rightly admitted that league tables have in the past 'encouraged' schools to 'teach to the test'
"However, Mr Gibb could and should have gone further in acknowledging that it is not the fault of schools, rather it is the fault of a punitive system of school accountability that carries such severe measures if schools do not reach certain targets.
"Many other countries have recognised the divisive nature of league tables and the damage they can do in the bid to create a rounded and complete education for every child. These countries did not, however, look to reform league tables they just scrapped them. I make no apologies for banging this drum again there is absolutely no purpose in comparing a school in Exeter with a school in Carlisle .
"All that league tables achieve is to feed the national media obsession with cheap headlines, usually attacking schools. This year, the EBacc will perhaps receive less coverage because of the new measures, but you can be assured that whatever the headlines are, they will be based on only a cursory analysis of the data .
"As long as we have a system of accountability which automatically brands a C grade as good and a D grade as bad then we are forcing the hands of our educators. The new league table measures today don't change anything. The tables are still mainly focused on C grades, still focused on certain pupils, prioritising them above others, and they still threaten schools with excessively punitive measures for not meeting arbitrary targets."
What do we want from our schools? Should there be a single vision or should politicians allow schools and teachers to be truly 'free' in different and diverse ways as they do in Finland? Should they go even further and allow them all to set their own curricula?
Do let us know your thoughts