A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

Education: Not a Political Football

In Home Affairs on October 1, 2009 at 10:32 pm

By Stephen Wan

If so much ‘progress’ has been made as some politicians claim, then why are so many disgruntled by the current system?

About 4 days before the release of A Level results this year, the metro ran this headline: “Even monkeys can get A levels”.

Although I hardly consider the metro the most authoritative paper on the topic of education, this particular time really riled me. Not only was it demeaning and humiliating, it took away for many students the purpose they might once have got from studying in further education.

Students are in a catch-22. If exam results improve, then people say it is because exams are getting easier, or teachers are spoon-feeding them to the exams. If exam results get worse, the it is because students are getting dumber. Even if results were to stay the same, we would be (to some extent understandably) dismayed by our lack of progress in education.

One thing that struck me was how politicised education had become. Political parties are bashing out ideas for new education schemes without, I feel, any proper knowledge in the area. From the tripartite system in the 1940s, to Blair’s academies today, its not hard to see what politicians’ brand as their ‘solutions’.

My question is this – if so much ‘progress’ has been made as some politicians claim, then why are so many disgruntled by the current system? It seems obvious now that relying on politicians for education policy is not working. It is used as point-scoring in the adversarial politics we live in, and a popular platform for election without any concrete policy behind it.

So, what’s the alternative? One thing I was very interested in looking into was a course known as the ‘International Baccalaureate’. This is presented as an alternative to A levels in sixth form and colleges for more gifted students. Although I do have personal reservations about the course (the intrinsic elitism present in such a course for example), one thing I did like was the independent nature of its running – the curriculum, examination and overall running was overseen by an independent non-government organisation, affiliated with the UN. Politicians had, essentially, little to no say in it.

I believe an independent system like that could run across the board. Education should not be a political football to be kicked around till half-time when the government and opposition switch sides, only to be kicked in the other direction. Education can and should focus purely on students and teachers, not political demands.

Of course, certain areas will need to stay under political control – funding for example, the allocation of resources, can’t be decided by an independent group. However, the practical applications of that money, where it goes, and who spends it, should be left to an independent board.

Education is an absolutely huge issue, the intricacies of which I have neither the expertise nor time to commit examining. However, it is clear the current system is neither working nor desirable, and a more independent education system away from government ‘initiatives’, and similar in nature to the International Baccalaureate,  should be established. I just hope such a system will come about before we become disaffected by politicians’ promises of change.

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  1. Although I agree with you when it comes to the dilemma of standards in education, I’m not sure I agree when it comes to the way you characterise the existing system compared to the International Baccalaureate. You say:

    “the curriculum, examination and overall running was overseen by an independent non-government organisation, affiliated with the UN.”

    …but to my knowledge detail of the national curriculum is not written by politicians at all, who rather merely legislate what broad areas of study should be necessary, and leave the drafting of detail up to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, working with Ofqual.

    There seems to me to be quite a difference between structural reform (which politicians are always fiddling about with) and curriculum reform, which actually effects the fundamentals of what pupils are learning. Politicians often get mixed up in the former, but far less often get involved in the detail of the latter. And structural reform is, unfortunately, something which can’t be taken away from politicians, as you seem to acknowledge.

    I’m not sure that “it is clear the current system is neither working nor desirable”. There are many flaws in the current system, but despite this it still generates a reasonable set of opportunities, which pupils can exploit to their advantage if they have the drive. As for people moaning, people *always* moan. Changing to the International Baccalaureate won’t change that, transfering more control to an independent body wouldn’t either — people still blamed politicians for the banking crash, despite the fact that the regulator was officially an independent body.

    The biggest structural reform with the national curriculum is probably its prescriptiveness, and the flawed idea from politicians that they can achieve better standards in education by more and more centralisation and micromanagement. But when you have a system of education which features such a rigid public/private divide in opportunity and choice, then there is going to be a desire for equality in standards and operation among State schools, because of the fact that it is rarely possible for those who use the State sector to opt out of it. Simply transfering more control to an independant body would not address it, although it might possible lead to people feeling the decision-makers were even less accountable. In reality, curriculum and academic considerations can’t be improved further from the centre — they can only be addressed through structural reform that improves school autonomy and opens up parent choice as the mechanism..

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