We want our freedom!

People reading this outside the UK would think that there is no reason for a crisis in the UK education system. We are seen as a non-volatile country that has enjoyed industrial and economic success for many years. Admittedly the state of play in our nationalised industries in the 1970s may have given the UK the name of "Sick man of Europe" but we are now seen as a balanced country - albeit with a slightly dysfunctional political situation - that enjoys a good standard of living. Of course there are areas of financial imbalance where poverty lives cheek-by-jowl with wealth, but that doesn't disprove the point that we are a country of wealth and opportunity. It just shows that some people haven't taken all that is available to them whilst others have been able to take more. It is a result of a non-interventionist state.

The UK education system is in a similar position. There is a wide variance in the type of school available for UK citizens to attend. Our education system stretches back 1400 years (Gillard D (2011) Education in England: a brief history). It has always responded to the needs of the state; either as a vehicle for the church, as a means of social restructuring or as a way to ensure that industry receives competent workers. It does not have a reputation of educating an intellectual class as we are not a cerebral people. The philosophising tradition seen in some European countries is deemed unsuitable for the UK. We even have the phrase "...but that is only an academic argument", meaning that it is okay in theory but the practicalities will not allow it to exist.

We currently possess a system of primary, secondary and tertiary education with a mixture of independent and state provision at all three levels. People have a large amount of choice regarding which school to send their children.

You can select state or independent education. Money is normally the factor that allows access to independent education, but bursaries and grants make access available to those that can't quite afford it outright. Within the independent sector you can have day or boarding opportunities. This again is restricted by finance. The state sector has options within it. The price of houses is influenced by the proximity of a "successful" school. As a result, money again helps people to access different schooling options. If someone lives near to a school that is, in the eyes of the parents, not suitable for their child(ren), they can either relocate or select the better school in their locality. As such, over-subscribed schools continue to be over-subscribed. Again, this is as a result of a non-interventionist state. The individual has power to select the schooling option for their own children.

This then begs the question: Is education in the UK successful, and why?

First, and most importantly, we have to look at the success criteria of education. We also have to define the area that we are looking at. If we look globally we need a standardised system of measurement. The international study undertaken every three years by the OECD (PISA) aims to do this through taking a snap-shot of the performance of 15 year olds in participating countries. Whilst there are criticisms of PISA (normally from those countries that have suffered a deterioration in the standing in the league tables) there are  interesting conclusions drawn:

From The Economist:
"The best systems differ widely in their approach. Finland spends a modest share of its GDP on schools, pays teachers unspectacular salaries and has small classes. South Korea spends lavishly, and rewards teachers richly to teach big ones. But Andreas Schleicher, who runs the PISA studies, says both have a “high level of ambition for students and a strong sense of accountability”. That can come from an unyielding focus on exams or from tight social cohesion. Successful countries tend to hire excellent teachers and keep them motivated, monitoring their work and intervening when they falter.
A big message is that national culture matters more than the structure of an education system. So the main lesson for policymakers may be to put education at the forefront of the story a nation tells about itself. Countries which do that with conviction and consistency can leapfrog the complacent. Outcomes can change rapidly: many students in the Asian “super league” countries have grandparents who are barely literate. Israel has also leapt up in maths and reading. Rankings and data do not tell the whole story. But they provide a useful spur."
If we look at another measure of education in the UK (CBI Education and Skills Survey 2012) we find the following:

If a country looks within itself, it can only judge the success of the education system based on a league table (using whatever measurable outcome it can find: exam success, employability, mortality, prison population, wealth, etc) If a country looks to compare itself internationally then due to cultural differences a standardised measure is required. As such I am not aware of anything better than the use of league tables as a means of showing a country's achievements in education.

If we look at changes that have occured in legislation for education in the UK it can be seen that the amount of state intervention in schools has increased since the 1960s. It is not a new phenomena that teachers of 2013 are being exposed to. The following demonstrates the education acts, white papers, reports and other key events introduced in each decade:

2010-2013 - 40 articles
2000-2009 - 81 articles
1990-1999 - 60 articles
1980-1989 - 76 articles
State "interventions" in education 1800-2019 (2010-2013 = 40, so 100 projected)          
1970-1979 - 68 articles
1960-1969 - 38 articles
1950-1959 - 19 articles
1940-1949  - 28 articles
1930-1939 - 11 articles
1920-1929 - 17 articles
1910-1919 - 17 articles
1900-1909 - 15 articles
1890-1899 - 15 articles
1880-1889 - 10 articles
1870-1879 - 14 articles
1860-1869 - 15 articles
1850-1859 - 11 articles
1840-1849 - 15 articles
1830-1839 - 7 articles
1820-1829 - 4 articles
1810-1819 - 3 articles
1800-1809 - 3 articles

This then begs the question. To what extent have state interventions in education caused a quantifiable improvement in the outcomes of pupils?

Parents have the right to ask for their child to attend most schools in the country. This freedom of choice has caused the education system to be stretched in a way that is very difficult for schools to address. As such the state has to intervene to ensure that opportunity is provided for all pupils in the UK to receive an education. Not all families have the means to select the best school for their children. It is easy to see why the state has had to intervene to ensure that a basic standard is achieved by all schools. As as result of the marketisation of education in the 1970s we have seen ever increasing legislation from the Government as one political party aims to move education from one ideology to another. This has caused nearly two generations of flux. It is very possible that this is why the independent sector has been able to continue to produce academic results that are envied by their state sector colleagues. Whilst the state sector has been tossed about on the high seas of educational reform, the independent sector have been anchored safely in the harbour. This suggests that further change in education isn't required. It is the pursuit of what works best. Again the debate regarding the purpose of education could occupy the rest of my life. But one thing is for certain: we need to find what works best in education and ensure that we, in schools, spend our time doing this.

The work of John Hattie (Visible Learning) is available for all in education to see what works best (looking at student achievement only). If we are going to see a period of freedom for schools through the academies programme, etc, then it is surely right for schools to consider how they will help pupils to achieve the success that parents, employers and teachers want for them.

The TES call it the holy grail of teaching.

I am one of 6 people trained in the UK to deliver Visible Learning into schools. As such I hope that I can help many colleagues, through OSIRIS Educational, to achieve what we all want for our pupils.