Academic journal article Education Next

The British Experience

Academic journal article Education Next

The British Experience

Article excerpt

IT HAS BEEN 16 years since Britain's Conservative government under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher introduced the Education Reform Act. The law created a national curriculum for all state-supported schools as well as a national system of student testing and school inspections. The act was a determined attempt to diminish the power of local education authorities (which are similar to America's school districts) and to devolve resources and responsibility for meeting national standards to individual schools. And it has been seven years since the Labor Party and its prime minister, Tony Blair, came to power, pledging to raise standards with a blitz of initiatives and reforms. Labor's proposals included introducing national literacy and numeracy strategies in order to improve the learning of basic skills; establishing Education Action Zones that would encourage local businesses to work with schools; funding after-school homework groups; creating courses in citizenship; revising the national curriculum; and setting up a task force of leading educators to advise on new reforms.

What has this flurry of reform achieved? And what lessons, if any, can be drawn from this huge investment of political energy and public funds?

The answer to the first question is "not enough." A quarter of British 11-year-olds still leave primary school unable to read well enough to deal with the demands of the secondary-school curriculum. Results from the General Certificate of Secondary Education exam that students take at age 16 show improvement each year, but there is a general recognition that grade inflation makes the progress illusory. Only 43 percent of 16-year-olds pass the General Certificate exams in the core subjects of English, mathematics, and science. Thousands leave secondary school with no meaningful qualifications at all.

The lesson of this failure is simple: the top-down imposition of politically inspired education reforms does not work.

In the early 1990s, when I became chief executive of the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority, the body responsible for introducing the national curriculum into English schools and administering the tests in English, mathematics, and science that children were to take at ages 7, 11, and 14, I thought differently. I supported the idea of a national curriculum that defined core bodies of knowledge in English, mathematics, science, history, geography, art, music, physical education, information technology, design technology, and, in secondary schools, a modern foreign language. Such a curriculum would, I thought, challenge the child-centered orthodoxies and raise academic expectations.

National testing would give us crucial information on how individual students and schools were performing. At the time, in England, as in America, too many parents expected too little. They had no point of reference, no data on how their child's school was performing compared with other schools. More often than not, mediocrity went unchallenged. With testing, successful schools could be rewarded and the unsuccessful helped to improve. Failing that, they could be closed.

I also supported, and still do, what were known as "grant-maintained" schools. Grant-maintained schools, which are similar to charter schools in the United States, were established by the 1988 reforms. They are funded directly by the government and run independently of local education authorities. The thinking here was that the school should be responsible for its own destiny. Resources should not be wasted on local and national bureaucracies. It is the principal who makes the difference, not the distant bureaucrat. So let principals decide how the curriculum is to be organized and pupils taught. Give them the resources to do the job and hold them responsible for their school's performance. However, one of the very first things the Labor government did on coming to power in 1997 was to abolish grant-maintained schools. …

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