Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Bigger isn't always better

Writing in today's Times online, Alice Miles ponders the government plans to deal with failing schools.

Most “failing” schools take the toughest kids from the most socially disadvantaged areas. They are not dealing with the problems you and I might be worrying about: whether the curriculum is broad enough for Sophie's myriad interests, or when Jamie will fit in the third language you want him to learn.

In essence she is right - although I doubt whether the majority of "you and I" share the concerns for Jamie and Sophie that Alice does. Maybe I'm the exception, but my overriding concern for my children at school is "are they going to like it?" followed by "will they actually learn anything useful?" from the state run indoctrination centres.

Where I disagree strongly with Miles though is this ........

Lord Adonis, the man who has pushed the most radical elements of the school reform programme through the Blair and now the Brown administrations, was telling The Daily Telegraph that the solution to underperformance may be to introduce schools that take children from the age of 5 through to 18. I can hear the protests at this already: the school will be too large, kids will feel overwhelmed; five-year-olds will be frightened by teenagers. Ignore it all. You can construct a school with separate entrances and different play areas for the younger children; I have seen one in Singapore where you would not even have known in the youngest years that there were older pupils in the school at all.

But we're not in Singapore. Singapore is a country where you face being lashed and imprisoned for being caught in possession of chewing gum (not a bad idea in my opinion), so kids grow up in a very different world from that we see in Britain.

The idea that what we need are more giant schools - bigger is better - that I disagree most with. Miles goes on .....

The problem highlighted by Lord Adonis is this: if children cannot read and write by the time they get to secondary school, it is extremely hard to help them to catch up.

Well, what difference does it make if they then go on to a different school or merely a different part of the same school? They still can't read or write and they are still going to have to catch up. You've solved nothing by keeping them in the same place. Typically of liberal progressives, Lord Adonis has not "highlighted" the problem - he's noticed the symptom and wrongly identified that as the problem.

Alice Miles is right to say that the reason education is failing is because of government. As government becomes more centralised so does education - and that is the problem. The needs of a community are best addressed at the level closest to that community and basic education is a specific community need.

There are a lot of problems with education today, but not being centralised enough isn't one of them.

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