How to Build World-Class Schools. (Educational Reform in England)

By Barber, Michael | New Statesman (1996), October 2, 2000 | Go to article overview

How to Build World-Class Schools. (Educational Reform in England)


Barber, Michael, New Statesman (1996)


Michael Barber explains the government's strategy to improve education and speculates about where it will go next

The goals of education systems in the era of globalisation are broadly shared across the developed world. England's are summarised in a green paper, "Teachers: Meeting the Challenge of Change", published in December 1998:

Our goal is a world-class education service for all our children. Every pupil should become literate, numerate, well-informed, confident, capable of learning throughout life and able to play an active part in the workforce and the community. All pupils should have the opportunity to become creative, innovative and capable of leadership. Pupils will need education for a world of rapid change in which both flexible attitudes and enduring values have a part to play.

The one thing that perhaps deserves more emphasis is what the Dutch call "social competence", or the danger that Mahatma Gandhi called "education without character", an issue to which I will return. The crucial message at this stage is that, however good our education service was in the 20th century (and much of it was very good), it was not up to the much more demanding challenge of the 21st century. Nor was any other education system in the world.

Recent international comparisons suggest that we lead the world in the adoption of the kind of reforms likely to succeed. A report on our national literacy and numeracy strategies -- from Michael Fullan, dean of the education school at Toronto University and a leading school reform commentator -- says that they are, "without question, among the most explicit and comprehensive in their attention to what is required for successful implementation". England may have to come from further back in terms of pupil outcomes, but we are also moving faster in what is likely to be the right direction.

Another way of examining where we have come from and where we are going is to consider the educational history of the last 30 or so years. Back in the 1970s, England had a low-challenge, low-support education system. In other words, the government made few demands on schools and local authorities and it provided little support, a situation that led to stagnation and underperformance. The need for change was spelled out in the famous speech at Ruskin College in October 1976 by the then prime minister, James Callaghan, but it was not until the mid to late 1980s that the Thatcher government introduced the national curriculum, testing, performance tables and more systematic inspection. It also delegated to schools greater control over their own budgets.

Thus, the system became one in which there were high challenges on schools. But with continuing low support, the result was often conflict and demoralisation. The present government, while it has maintained and refined the high challenge, has tried to transform the scope and character of support. The impact of this is now becoming evident and will become more so as levels of funding in education rise over the next three years. We have a framework which should bring high performance and rapid progress: with responsibility devolved to schools, it involves ambitious standards, good performance data and clear targets (for schools and pupils), access to best practice, high-quality professional development and intervention in inverse proportion to success. It also involves recognising that, for some schools in some circumstances, extensive additional support is necessary.

There is firm evidence from this country and elsewhere that this combination of policies brings about school improvement, better teaching and higher standards. To reinforce this framework, the government has three important strategies. First come the national literacy and numeracy strategies; this year's test results show that 75 per cent of 11-year-olds have achieved Level 4 in English and 72 per cent in maths, putting us well on track to reach the targets set after the general election in 1997. …

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