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- Author or Editor: Ruth Lupton x
In Chapters 3, 4 and 5 of this book, we identified three major things that are wrong with our education systems in England and Australia: the dominance of tests; the ways in which the least advantaged children and young people are often least well served by education; and the ways in which the work of teachers and school leaders is changing so that we are making less good use of this valuable resource.
In Chapters 6 to 10, we described five major policy mistakes that have come together to create these problems: a reliance on markets; letting test scores drive policy; over-prescribing teachers’ work; misunderstanding educational inequalities; and failing to draw enough on knowledge of education in education policy making. We explained how these big ‘wrong turns’ have contributed, in combination, to the problems identified earlier.
In this chapter, we sharpen this analysis to show how the mistakes have combined to produce a particular policy, one that currently attracts dispute and controversy in both England and Australia – the practice of synthetic phonics (SP) and the Year 1 phonics check. Unpacking this example in detail helps illuminate what is going wrong and how it might change.
In England and Australia, there have been long-standing concerns that literacy levels are too low, failing to meet the needs of employers. Low literacy achievement is also strongly associated with disadvantage, both in the sense that children from low-income homes are more likely than their more affluent peers to struggle with reading and writing, and in the sense that poor literacy skills hold people back in adult life, perpetuating intergenerational disadvantage.
The educational policies discussed in this book are often described as constituting a distinctive era in which the principles of market liberalism have framed and structured education systems and practices around the world, often in tandem with social and cultural conservatism. A broad political consensus, within and between countries, has supported the development of market-driven systems characterised by standards-based education reforms, test-based accountability, reduced teacher autonomy, and back-to-basics curriculum projects.
This era is coming to a close. In the decade following the 2008 global financial crisis, as the fragility and failure of the neoliberal economic model came into sharp relief, cracks in the educational consensus began to show. Referenced throughout the book, multiple inquiries and reports, including those from parliamentary committees and government-appointed bodies, began to point out that in various ways the twin goals of excellence and equity were not being achieved. England and Australia were not improving in international league tables either of education or economic performance. Places and people were being left behind as governments struggled to manage rapid transitions and shocks fairly, leading to increasing political and social divisions. Social mobility was barely increasing and inequalities in educational experiences and outcomes barely reducing. Social stratification seemed built into systems. Markets and tests were producing more negative than positive effects overall. Schools were becoming less positive and productive places for many young people. Ideas of what might entail a ‘fair and equal education’ that privileges the interests of all young people in diverse contemporary nations seemed to have been lost (Hattam et al, 2018).
This chapter is the first of three in which we set out the problems manifest in our current schooling systems. We put the biggest problem first – schools are becoming dominated by tests, in ways that are detrimental to children and young people and limit education rather than improving it.
In England, children do external tests from their first year of schooling. They take a phonics check in Year 1, Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) for English and maths at the end of Year 2 and again in Year 6, the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) or equivalent examinations at the end of Year 11, and Advanced (‘A’) Levels or equivalent at the end of Year 13. There are also standard teacher assessments at the end of the Foundation Stage (age about five).
In Australia, assessment regimes vary across state jurisdictions. However, in the earlier grades (3, 5, 7, and 9) ACARA conducts national assessments in literacy and numeracy through NAPLAN. The Year 12 end-of-school record of achievement is determined by each jurisdiction and may include a range of academic and vocational subjects assessed through a variety of means including examinations, performance tasks and portfolios. On completion of schooling, eligible students may also receive an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR), which ranks them relative to others in their state or territory for university admission purposes.
The ways in which these assessment regimes shape the practice of teachers’ and children’s experiences of school has been the subject of numerous academic studies, enquiries and reviews by parliamentary committees, independent review bodies, teacher unions and others.
One thing about which there seems to be near universal consensus among education olicy makers is that education systems should rovide equally for all children and provide the opportunity of success for all.
This holds whether you start from the position of the United Nations (UN) goal to ‘Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’ (United Nations, 2015) or from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 29, which states that ‘Education must develop every child’s personality, talents and abilities to the full’ (UNICEF, 1992). It holds if you start from goals to reduce inequalities, enhance social mobility and foster social justice, or if you start from economic aspirations to increase human capital, maximise productivity and spend less on welfare. Inclusive and equitable education is, in theory, a ‘no-brainer’.
But it isn’t happening. In fact, in far too many cases, children and young people who need the education system most are actually getting less from it than their more advantaged peers. That uncomfortable fact has long been recognised, at least by sociologists of education if not always by politicians. But there is also evidence that the system is increasingly marginalising children who in different ways rely on it most. Instead of compensating for other injustices, the education system may increasingly be making them worse.
One major factor in the production of educational divisions is the structure of school systems, including differences between and within sectors that make up these systems. This may seem too obvious even to state.
Many teachers say they joined the profession to make a difference, perhaps because they themselves experienced the transformative influence of a good teacher or tried their hand at a less fulfilling occupation. Whatever the reason, making a difference in the lives of young people is widely valued as a reason for joining and staying in a challenging profession. Take, for example, Belinda Lyons-Lee (2019), who took a year off teaching and became a published author. Despite the fewer demands and less pressure of her writing career, she returned to teaching because ‘I needed to reconnect with my passion of introducing these teenagers to the power of a narrative to change a life and then introduce them to the skills so they could write their own powerful narrative that would change lives’ (Lyons-Lee, 2019).
One of the most important functions of schooling is to help each young person to develop the narrative of their life, even when there are interruptions and when they face barriers beyond their control. Teachers’ work fundamentally affects young people’s experiences of schooling, but more than this it affects the likelihood that they will enjoy and succeed not only at school, but also in life.
In this chapter, we argue that in England and Australia, teachers are making less of a difference than they could, because of the ways in which their work is changing. Instead of concentrating their efforts on teaching, and on reviewing and developing their pedagogical practice, they are burdened by administrative demands associated with monitoring and activities are described by a teacher in Comber and Nixon’s (2009) study as ‘meaningless bullshit destined for a cupboard in someone’s office’ (p 339).
The first policy move we describe as a mistake is the decision to rely increasingly on a market model of school provision. By this we mean a suite of changes including expanding the range of non-state providers, making schools self-managing, requiring them to compete for students and funding, and encouraging and enabling parents to choose schools.
Many countries have moved in this direction to a greater or lesser extent in recent decades. The results are rarely free markets. High levels of state management, subsidy and regulation limit market activity. So economists tend to call markets for schooling ‘quasi-markets’. But they still differ substantially from fully state-run models, where governments provide schools, employ teachers and allocate places.
In this chapter, we briefly describe the different paths towards marketisation that governments in England and Australia have taken, and the rationales for these changes. We also review evidence of policy effects, concentrating on markets themselves rather than on the mechanisms that have sprung up to govern them (such as performance measures), which we cover in Chapter 7.
Marketising policies in England and Australia started from different points but have evolved in similar ways.
In Australia, the ascendency of choice as the driver of education markets is somewhat ironically linked to a social-democratic moment in policy making. The Whitlam government (1972–75) overcame an ideological objection to providing state aid to non-government schools in order to support severely under-resourced schools, mainly Catholic parish schools. Whitlam established the Schools Commission that set about classifying schools according to need. The commission did not recommend funding already adequately resourced schools but the compromises that allowed the bill to pass through parliament enabled all schools, even elite private schools, to receive some government funding.
The second policy move that we describe as a mistake is the over-focus in the education system on producing ever higher test scores.
Test scores should have a place in education policy. They can tell us about what is being achieved and how it matches up to what our societies and economies need from schooling. They can highlight groups of students who are doing less well out of the system and indicate where extra investment is needed. They can inform decisions about the effectiveness of different educational practices and help teachers to work effectively. Most people also acknowledge that students’ scores can also serve useful purposes in holding schools to account, representing the interests of children, young people, parents and communities and ensuring that public money is being spent well and wisely. However, over recent decades, test scores have come to dominate education policy decisions. They have become the reasoning arguments or ‘logos’ of educational policy making, in a shift described by policy sociologist Professor Bob Lingard as ‘policy as numbers’ (Lingard, 2011, p 356). In this chapter, we trace this shift in England and Australia. We explain why it has come about and why the evidence demonstrates that it is a mistake.
In his key book on education policy, The Education Debate (Ball, 2017), Professor Stephen Ball identifies the start of the ‘policy as numbers’ phenomenon in England in the creation of the government’s Assessment of Performance Unit (APU) in 1975. APU was tasked with developing methods of assessing and monitoring achievement and identifying the incidence of underachievement – a controversial move at the time as it was seen to erode teachers’ responsibility for curriculum development and assessment.
Our third mistake is the over-prescription of teachers’ work.
There is no doubt that teaching is the central activity of schooling – the ‘flipside’ of learning. It is rightly a major focus of education policy, not just because teachers’ salaries are by far the biggest budget item in school spending. The value of good teachers to children’s learning is almost universally acknowledged and they are critical to the functioning of society. This was patently demonstrated during the global COVID-19 pandemic when teachers rapidly pivoted to support children learning from home, while also keeping schools open for the children of essential workers.
In the past three decades in England, and for a shorter time in Australia, the overall direction of policies to improve the quality of teaching has been to standardise both what is taught and how it is taught. These moves have had some beneficial effects, including the explicit naming of valued learning outcomes and knowledge, and the potential for the breadth and complexity of teachers’ work to be identified and recognised. However, combined with the effects of market pressures and ‘datafication’ (Chapters 6 and 7), they have limited the professional judgement of teachers and narrowed their pedagogical repertoires so that teachers can make less difference, not more. In this chapter we explain what has happened and how the balance came to tip too far.
Education in England has long been characterised by a contest for control between government, teachers and, to a certain extent, universities and their examination boards (McCulloch, 1993). The period from 1988 to 2010 saw substantial shifts in favour of government.
The fourth mistake that we identify is a failure to understand the causes of educational inequalities.
As described in Chapter 2, the period covered by this book has been one in which, although living standards overall have risen, inequalities have widened, labour market insecurity has increased, economic opportunities have narrowed in certain ‘left-behind’ places, and global conflicts and disasters have brought new disadvantaged populations to under-resourced urban neighbourhoods. In these circumstances, educational inequalities would be expected to widen.
Policies to create more equitable systems have featured prominently at some points in English and Australian policy history. But the approaches taken have been inconsistent and sometimes contradictory. Mostly what has been done has been insufficient, sometimes misdirected or counterproductive. In this chapter, we describe what has been done and why, and explain why overall it has failed to achieve the desired result.
In England, policies to address inequalities have a long history but have taken very different forms. One distinctive strand, favoured by Labour governments, has been top-up programmes and funds directed at disadvantaged places and/or groups. These started in the 1960s with Educational Priority Areas (EPAs) and additional funding to support education for EAL pupils. They were substantially increased during the Labour government’s 13 years in power from 1997, with Education Action Zones (EAZs), Excellence in Cities (EiC) and City Challenges, as well as additional grants for interventions such as learning mentors and reading catch-up. In 2002, Teach First was established to attract high-achieving graduates into teaching in disadvantaged schools (see Lupton and Obolenskaya  for a fuller review).
This chapter is about New Labour’s efforts to reverse the long-running negative impact on urban conditions of concentrated poverty within deprived areas and to break the connection between poor social and physical conditions. It comprises three parts:
the situation New Labour inherited and the development of the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal;
the measurable results of the strategy; and
the relationship between wider urban, regional and housing policies and the more focused neighbourhood renewal agenda.
We conclude by assessing the likelihood of future progress.
The multiple problems of poor neighbourhoods are nothing new and have been the focus of urban policy interventions in the UK since the turn of the 20th century (Atkinson and Moon, 1994; Hill, 2000). However, by 1997, there was evidence that some of these problems were getting worse. Divisions between declining cities and industrial areas and small towns and cities and rural areas had been widening for several decades, while the 1980s saw a particular increase in intra-urban polarisation, with growing contrasts between poorer and more affluent electoral wards within cities (Hills, 1995). There was increasing concern about so-called ‘worst neighbourhoods’, with concentrations of poverty and worklessness and the associated problems of high crime and disorder, diminishing and dysfunctional services, empty housing and environmental decay.
New Labour responded in 1997, asking its newly formed Social Exclusion Unit (SEU) to produce a report on neighbourhood problems. The report, Bringing Britain together (SEU, 1998c), identified approximately 3,000 neighbourhoods with common problems of poverty, unemployment, poor health and crime. Public services in these neighbourhoods tended to be less good, with a higher proportion of schools failing their OFSTED inspection and fewer general practitioners (GPs), many of them in substandard premises.