Increasingly, it becomes more difficult to react to news about education policies with anything but despair. It would be expecting too much of the Tories for them to base their policies on empirical evidence, given Gove`s examination reforms, but even the report by Tory think-tank, Policy Exchange, on which their "500 more free schools" announcement is founded, admits its limitations. (Cameron to pledge 500 more free schools despite statstical doubts,09/03/15) The fact that the report confesses its own "data cannot demonstrate conclusively" that any improvements in state schools have anything to do with being near a free school, beggars belief; they should have added, "despite what the prime minister will say"!
Sadly, news from Labour on the education front fares little better, despite their intention to "scrap" the free school scheme Only last week we saw Tristram Hunt showing enthusiasm for another policy testifying, in Rafael Behr`s words, "to the power of nostalgia above evidence". (Policy by nostalgia just ain`t what it used to be,04/03/15) Of course, the country needs to "make the most of the talents of all our young people" but how can that be achieved by identifying only a small proportion, the so-called "gifted and talented", and giving them special treatment?
All children have talents and deserve an educational system which will stretch them to the limit, but designating some as worthy of a more expensive education, is clearly unfair, and certainly should not be featuring in an education policy of any political party. Whatever happened to the idea of equality of opportunity?
Whilst not usually finding anything significant with which to disagree in a Fiona Millar column, her article on "character education" appeared to be based on the mistaken premise that pupils in state schools today lack sufficient "character and resilience". (You can`t measure good character,10/03/15) Tristram Hunt frequently has remarked on this alleged difference in this respect between the state and privately educated, but is this not an example of merely carrying on where Gove left off, making huge generalisations about education without the empirical evidence to substantiate them? Rafael Behr would, no doubt, refer to it as "the power of nostalgia above evidence". (Policy by nostalgia just ain`t what it used to be,04/03/15)
Millar states that the DfE`s definition of character includes everything from "perseverance, drive, and grit" to "honesty and dignity", but, in my experience, all of these characteristics, and more, abounded in state schools. As for resilence, state pupils constantly display the ability to recover from setbacks. How often have they had to bounce back in the face of assessment "goalposts" being frequently moved, and their excellent examination results being crticised and challenged by politicians from all parties, not to mention the personal economic and social problems many face? Then there`s the Education Maintenance Allowance being removed, 6th form courses being dropped because of lack of government funding, university fees being hiked, and the ever-present preference shown by the so-called top universities for students from the private sector, despite recent research showing how state-educated undergraduates do better at university than students educated at the so-called "schools of character", with similar A-level grades.
Of course, the "enrichment activities that help cultivate well-rounded young people" are under threat in state schools, and perhaps it is here where the DfE`s attention needs to be focussed, rather than on England becoming a "global leader of teaching character", with its inevitable criticism of teachers, albeit implicit this time.