The past few months have witnessed a revolution in education. No, I don’t mean the publication of the Government’s White Paper (of which more later), but rather the public admission that education policy in some areas over the years has been dreadfully wrong. I set out below three policy u-turns.
First was the admission in June by Baroness Warnock of Weeke that the policy of including children with special needs in mainstream classes was a big mistake. Lady Warnock was the leading proponent of that policy. From 1974 to 1978, as Mary Warnock, she chaired the Committee of Inquiry into the Education of Handicapped Children and Young People, as it was then known. The main thrust of Lady Warnock’s and the Committee’s thinking was that disabled pupils merely had ’special educational needs’ (SEN) which were different from those of mainstream pupils, and that these needs could be addressed by means of a ’statement’ of their needs. Such statements would then be prepared for each pupil, and with the help of that, special needs pupils could be included in mainstream schools. This recommendation was accepted by the Government, and for about 30 years, the majority of children with special needs have been educated under the ’statementing’ policy.
The drive to include even more SEN pupils in mainstream education continued apace as this Government introduced legislation aimed at closing down more of the few special schools remaining. Some figures: the Daily Telegraph (9 June 2005) reports that the Government has managed to close down ninety-one special schools, and the remaining 1,148 are catering for 89,540 fewer pupils despite a steep rise in the number of children diagnosed as having special educational needs.
However, as teachers and parents of disabled children have known for years, ’statementing’ was not effective in meeting the educational needs of the affected children. It did not ensure the best learning environment for SEN pupils, and in most cases, it led to confusion among the other pupils in the classroom.
Thirty years on, Lady Warnock has changed her mind. She now believes that inclusion may not necessarily be ideal for schools. She acknowledges the isolation that vulnerable SEN pupils can feel in mainstream schools. She accepts that statementing was not a very good idea, and that it was too bureaucratic and unresponsive to parents.
Last week, Jim Rose, a former OFSTED official, published a report on the Government’s national literacy strategy. Its findings were dire. One of its recommendations was for teachers to return to the traditional synthetic phonics method of teaching children to read. Currently, pupils are taught by a mix of methods, including the highly dubious ‘look and say’ method where a child is taught to recognise words by their shape.
Synthetic phonics is the method by which people learn to read by mastering the sound of the letters of the alphabet, and using that to work out the words. An earlier study had revealed that children taught with phonics performed a lot better than those taught using the methods recommended by the national literacy strategy. The study, which was of children in Clackmannanshire taught by the phonic method, found that on average, they were three and a half years ahead for their age in reading and one year and eight months in spelling by the age of 11. All credit therefore, to Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, for accepting Jim Rose’s recommendations without reservation.
Government White Paper
The Government published its Education White Paper two months ago. At the time, Tony Blair loftily pronounced that he intended for every secondary school to become an independent self-governing academy within five years. The new trust schools Mr Blair wants to create will be free from local authority control, with parents given more say over the syllabus. This is all very interesting, and some might even say it is yet more evidence of Mr Blair’s ‘reforming zeal’. But wait. Haven’t we been here before? These trust schools sound very similar in concept to the old grant-maintained schools which were abolished by our very own Mr Blair when he came into office. So what was wrong with grant-maintained schools that merited their abolition in the first place? I don’t think we will get a satisfactory answer from the Government. The grant-maintained school system was introduced by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. She wanted to create a system whereby state schools could opt out of local authority control. Such schools could be allowed to select on the basis of specialisation, somewhat similar to Mr Blair’s special academies. As expected, Tony Blair’s pronouncements were greeted with enthusiasm by the Conservative Party, and hostility by his own party. He will probably get his reforms through, but if he does so, he will have been helped in no small part, by the votes of the Opposition party. Curious.
Seriously though, the above shows that we have let our children down very badly. When Governments play around with education policy, it is the children who suffer.
Who can count the number of special needs pupils who have suffered incalculable harm as a result of statementing? How on earth can a statement have been adequate to cater for the needs of such children in a mainstream school? It is not too late for the Government to halt its harmful policy of closing down special schools.
As far as reading is concerned, literacy levels have been falling for years now. An alarming percentage of children leave primary school having not learnt to read. This is in large part attributable to the scrapping of traditional teaching methods, such as synthetic phonics.
On the matter of trust schools, it is a step back in the right direction. It is heartening that Labour have recognised their error of abolishing grant maintained schools in the first place. Schools can only flourish away from excessive government control. For example, last week, the headmistress of the primary school at the top of the league tables admitted that they achieved this by ignoring most of the Government’s advice. Independence and the right to select can only be a good thing. Maybe I am asking for too much, but I look forward to the day that the Government of this country (whether Labour or Conservative) will be brave enough to scrap teaching in age groups, and introduce streaming by ability. It may sound radical, and would no doubt offend leftwing opinion, but therein lies the way to success.