Five challenges face English schools

Janet Downs's picture

Five challenges face English schools, Robert Halfon, Conservative chair of the Education Select Committee, said yesterday.

He was speaking in an Opposition debate on school funding.  And the first challenge schools faced was just that – funding:   

Despite steady investment in the English education system over the last 20 years and record overall levels of public money going into schools—it is important to get that on the record—there are rising cost pressures, which lead to serious challenges to the delivery of high-quality education for all our children.

It’s pleasing Halfon recognised investment since 1998 in education had been ‘steady’.  Education spending in Labour years is usually portrayed as profligate.  But it’s disingenuous to imply a steady rise in education funding year-on-year.  As Henry Stewart pointed out last year, education expenditure rises under Labour and falls under Tories.  

The second challenge is workforce. This follows the critical report on teacher shortages published by the Education Select Committee in the last Government.  

The third challenge is ‘improving social justice in our school system.’   Halfon highlighted the very low GCSE performance of pupils outside the mainstream.  Similarly, he was concerned that just 33% of children receiving free school meals achieve five ‘good’ GCSEs compared with 61% of more advantaged children.

But ‘social justice’ is more than examination results.  It's ensuring that society as a whole is more equitable:  making sure disadvantaged groups aren’t further disadvantaged by government policies over, say, benefit changes or targets to reduce migration.

Halfon called for action ‘to remove the built-in injustices and anachronisms’ in the English education system.   He cited ‘the favourable conditions under which the independent school sector operates’.  He suggested private schools pay a levy ‘similar to the apprentice levy’.  This would help the ‘very poorest’ to ‘climb the private school ladder.’

This statement reinforces the perception that the ‘private school ladder’ is the best way of helping our ‘poorest children’.  But private schools will only take a tiny number of these pupils – and they’re likely to be the highest-achieving.  Far better to help all poor children by raising them out of poverty in the first place.

The fourth challenge is the curriculum.   Halfon doesn’t seem impressed with the Coalition’s National Curriculum which was supposed to match the world’s best.  He highlights the ‘skills deficit’.  This puts him at odds with skills-hating schools minister Nick Gibb.  He also warned about ‘a gradual and dangerous narrowing of the curriculum’.   

Halfon supported the call for ‘much more vocational education’ and hoped education secretary Damian Hinds would look at ‘replacing A-levels with a ‘wider baccalaureate that would include much more vocational and technical education’.

 However, he acknowledged there’s ‘a way to go in giving young people the consistent message that technical education is every bit as demanding and worthwhile as a traditionally “academic” course’. But this isn’t likely to be helped by performance tables which place more value on the academic and politicians who praise schools sending pupils to Oxbridge.

Halfon’s fifth challenge is ‘improving careers advice’.  This was a chance for Halfon to plug the eight ‘Gatsby’ careers benchmarks.    But he didn’t.  Instead he focused on the ‘Baker clause’ which legally requires schools to invite UTCs and others to talk to pupils about apprenticeships.  But inviting college and employer representatives into schools to address pupils en-masse is the least productive way of giving careers help.  High-quality careers education and guidance is much more than that.   


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