Former Chief Inspector of Schools Chris Woodhead gives a low mark to Labour policies
Lessons in spending
Spending on state schools has now reached £77.4 billion a year, an increase of two thirds in real terms since 1997 when Labour came to power. £50 million here, another £100 million there: it’s easy to lose all sense of perspective.
Most teachers and, at least until recently, most parents have applauded this increase in expenditure. Ministers, of course, are immensely proud of the fact that the nation’s schools, after ‘decades of underinvestment’, are now better resourced.
The question is: are standards in schools higher because of this increased spending? Are they, one might reasonably ask, 66 per cent higher? The answer is that they are not.
Test and examination statistics might look good, but the intellectual demand of examinations has been subjected to a relentless dumbing down. You either believe that each new generation of students is cleverer than every previous generation and that teachers are teaching more effectively than they ever did, or you conclude that the annual improvement in grades is explained by the fact that the examinations are now easier than they once were.
The cost of state education is now colossal, and, as the Public Accounts Committee recently concluded, a decade of overinvestment has not resulted in a commensurate rise in standards.
If the initiatives which have been pursued since Labour won the 1997 election had been sensible, then the expense might be justifiable. They have not been sensible. Every penny wasted on some fanciful scheme could have been used to recruit more teachers, to buy more library books or to lower taxation.
Examples of wasteful spending are not hard to find. Over a billion pounds has been spent since 1997 on initiatives to counter truancy. Result: more children truant from school now than in 1997.
Educational Maintenance Grants, which are paid to half a million teenagers from households with incomes of less than £30,810 a year, have cost the taxpayer a further billion. A recent survey of teachers in schools and colleges found that many students are turning up just to collect the grant. Half of those surveyed said that the grants were being ‘routinely abused’. Five hundred million pounds is being spent on Child Trust Funds to give every child £250 on their 18th birthday. Do you believe that the majority of 18 year olds are going to use this money wisely?
Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) expenditure on consultants and outside contractors has doubled in the last two years to £72 million, a sum which would fund an extra 2,057 teachers.
The impact of these outside ‘experts’ is, to say the least, questionable. You will remember that 1.2 million children had to wait months last year for their SAT results after a series of mistakes by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) and its contractor ETS Europe. Another private firm employed by the DCSF failed to pay Education Maintenance Grants to 26,000 teenagers.
Attempting to defend his department’s extraordinary reliance on outside expertise, Jim Knight, who was then Schools Minister, said that ‘the most significant increase has been the need for external specialist support for our major delivery programmes, including the big expansion in Academies’.
I was talking to a major sponsor of Academies recently. He told me that he had just sacked the consultants who were meant to be helping him. Their advice, he said, was useless.
Looking back over the last 12 years, it is clear that some Government educational initiatives have ended in disaster because Ministers and their civil servants neither planned nor delivered them efficiently.
Individual Learning Accounts, which wasted millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, because elementary safeguards against fraud were not taken, are a case in point. Others, like Education Action Zones, a flagship project of the late 1990s, failed because they were intrinsically silly. The basic idea was that partnerships between failing schools and local businesses in disadvantaged areas would invent new solutions to the problems under which the schools were sinking. In fact, as any head teacher who has turned around a failing school will tell you, what is needed is not a new fangled initiative, but basic old fashioned leadership and a relentless focus on behaviour.
The Government does not understand this common sense truth. Take its much-vaunted ‘Children’s Plan’. The key to achieving ‘world class standards’ in schools and ‘closing the gap in educational achievement for disadvantaged children’ is, according to the Plan, ‘partnership with parents’.
I agree that it is a good thing for parents to be involved in their children’s education; I know that the key to higher standards is better teaching. What worries me is the very obvious point that the more time teachers spend ‘partnering’ parents, the less time they have to teach. The announcement that the Government is ‘to set out and consult on a new relation between parents and schools’ does not fill me with great enthusiasm.
Do you think that the instruction that schools must establish a ‘Parents Council’ to ensure that ‘parent’ voices are heard within the school’ will achieve anything? Do you think that £30 million should be spent on helping ‘parents and carers to learn with their children’?
How, for that matter, do you respond to the Plan’s promise that the Government will ‘build on’ the £144 million already allocated over the next three years to the Every Child a Reader and the Every Child Counts projects?
The parents I talk to ask me why such initiatives are needed when primary school teachers are paid to teach children to read and write. Why, they go on, is £25 million needed for ‘intensive one to one catch up in the areas of writing children find difficult to master’?
If teachers find these ‘areas’ difficult to teach then the Government should be helping them, not shutting the classroom door, at huge cost to the taxpayer, after the child has failed.
There are no quick fixes to the problems in our schools. Children from, in particular, disadvantaged homes will achieve more when we improve standards of teaching in the schools they attend. End of story.
(This article is an edited extract from Chris Woodhead’s recent book A Desolation of Learning, published by Pencil-Sharp