The British Experience

School reform, hijacked

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. The policy was termed elitist and divisive because only a minority of schools, usually successful ones, had applied for and been given grant-maintained status. It therefore had to go.

I was also enthusiastic about the new school inspection system, especially after I was appointed chief inspector of schools in 1994. The new policy required that every school be inspected every four years. The idea was that expert inspectors would comment on standards of pupil achievement, the strength of the principal’s leadership, the use of school resources, and the quality of what we called, rather quaintly, “social, moral, spiritual and cultural education.” A report was to be published immediately following the inspection, and the failure of underperforming schools was to be made public.
In other words, from the beginning I supported nearly every change wrought by the Education Reform Act in 1988. That was before government officials and various education groups got into the act and diluted nearly every reform, rendering the changes impotent.

The National Curriculum

From day one, there was a battle over the content of the new national curriculum. Politicians felt that they had to involve the education “experts.” Predictably, these experts fought strenuously for their pet theories, which were usually progressive. Skills were deemed more important than knowledge. Strenuous attempts were made to introduce “cross curricular themes” that, it was hoped, would undermine the focus on separate subject disciplines. In an open letter published in the London Times Higher Education Supplement, 576 English professors and lecturers complained that the government’s “doctrinaire preoccupation” with grammar and spelling “betrayed a disastrously reductive, mechanistic understanding of English studies.” They objected to making the study of Shakespeare compulsory in secondary schools and rejected as “dictatorial” a plan to “impose” a “canon of supposedly great works,” including having all pupils read some Dickens and Wordsworth.

One of the results of all this lobbying has been the removal of the knowledge base from subjects like geography and history. The emphasis in geography is now on “sustainable development,” field-work techniques, and the teaching of general skills (such as how to “collect, record and analyze evidence”). In history, 7-year-olds are encouraged “to see the diversity of human experience, and understand more about themselves as individuals and members of society.” The fact that many students leave school at the age of 16 knowing next to nothing about the history of their own country does not appear to matter.

By all indications, officials in the Blair government support the progressivist tilt in the curriculum. “We need,” said Blair appointee Estelle Morris just before resigning in 2002 as secretary of state for education, “a shift in understanding away from the old model of teaching as transmission of facts and figures towards one which captures the teacher’s role as expert practitioners in advanced pedagogy.” David Hopkins, who Morris appointed to the key role of head of the Standards and Effectiveness Unit at the Department for Education and Skills, believes that “when students begin to take ownership of the learning behavior, you see something quite transformational taking place inside the school, because then it is the students who actually control learning rather than the teacher.”

The ideas about education and teaching that determine government policies and drive the spending of billions of pounds of public money are important. Yet the state relies on the “thought world” of the education establishment to define and implement its program of reform. The result is the waste of huge sums of money and the exhaustion and anger of teachers who want to get on with the job of teaching.

So how can a society establish a standards-based curriculum without having it hijacked by the education experts whose views are responsible for the mess we are trying to resolve? The key is a political will that remains resolute in the face of carefully orchestrated resistance and has the confidence to challenge the arguments of the professional lobby groups.

Inflated Results

Then there are the tests and examinations that are meant to be a robust, objective measure of students’ and schools’ performance. The problem is the fact that the national government, which desires that the electorate view its reforms favorably, controls both the national curriculum tests that pupils take at the ages of 7, 11, and 14 and the public examinations that are taken at ages 16 (the General Certificate of Secondary Education exams meant to assess skills and knowledge in the traditional academic subjects) and 18 (the Advanced Level exams for students hoping to attend university). This control is denied, but the organization that holds direct responsibility for the administration of the tests and the maintenance of standards in public examinations (the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, formerly the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority) has, as I know from my experience when I was its chief executive, a very fragile independence. Meetings with government officials are held regularly. Department of Education officials attend all board meetings. We knew exactly what the ministers wanted, and they knew exactly what we were doing.

Consequently, results from these tests and examinations appear to improve each year, but endemic grade inflation, maladministration, and, in my view, political interference have undermined public and professional confidence in the entire examination system.

For instance, in 2002, the scores 11-year-olds needed to pass the national curriculum tests in English and mathematics were reduced by 4 percent and 5 percent, respectively. Was this done, as the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority argues, because 2002’s test was significantly harder than the previous year’s? I very much doubt it. In fact, the public examinations have been diluted across the board. David Burghes, a professor of mathematics in Exeter University’s education department, recently wrote, “It has become obvious that a [General Certificate of Secondary Education] tells you nothing. You can get a grade C in Mathematics (the pass mark) without being able to do long division and multiplication or anything to do with decimal fractions without a calculator.”

A biology question that was on the 1979 examination for 16-year-olds turned up 16 years later as an Advanced Level question for 18-year-olds. In 1989, the mark needed to achieve a grade C in one mathematics examination for the General Certificate of Secondary Education was 48 percent. In 2000 it was 18 percent. Students can get four-fifths of the answers wrong and still pass. Moreover, university admissions tutors report escalating worries about the knowledge base of applicants for their courses. Cambridge University has extended the term needed to earn a mathematics degree from three years to four because the tutors found that today’s students were simply not able to make enough progress in the time previously allocated to the degree.

It is hard, given such evidence, to have much, if any, confidence in England’s system of tests and examinations. A recent survey of ordinary classroom teachers found that they also think the examinations have become easier. But the government and the teacher unions remain in denial. “We have every reason,” a Qualifications and Curriculum Authority spokesman reassured the great British public last year, “to think improvements in grades are a consequence of hard work and better preparation of pupils and teachers.”


Would the system of school inspections make up for the problems with the national curriculum and testing? At first the inspection system showed real promise. Of the 24,000 state-supported schools in England, 1,500 have failed their inspection since the system of inspections began in 1992. Many of these schools had been failing for years, yet no one had bothered to do anything. With the establishment of inspections, however, the trauma of public humiliation, coupled with a change in senior staff and some extra resources, led most failing schools to improve. Done well, the inspections provided school managers with invaluable information about how their school was performing. The inspections also provided politicians and their bureaucrats with the information they needed to formulate relevant policies and to target resources intelligently. More generally, the prospect of inspection concentrated a large number of minds that needed concentrating.

But of course the unions and the education establishment hated the whole thing. Why, they asked plaintively, did the government want “to pillory and demoralize” hard-working teachers? They compared school inspections to the Spanish Inquisition. And in the end they won. During the past four years, the inspection process has been softened gradually in response to teachers’ criticism. Schools are now inspected less frequently, less extensively, and, some would say, less rigorously. In 2004 the idea is to make the inspections a check on the school’s own self-evaluation, thus destroying the whole idea of an independent appraisal.

Good Money Chasing Bad Ideas

My sense, seven years after the Labor Party took control, is that the wheel has more or less come full circle. The old socialist belief that problems can be solved by throwing money at them has replaced a commitment to real change. The secretary of state for education insists that the decision to spend more on education is dependent on the willingness of the profession to “modernize,” but the truth is that billions of pounds have been spent with precious little to show for it.

For instance, 230 million pounds were wasted on a policy known as Education Action Zones that was meant to encourage partnerships between business and schools in deprived areas. It had no discernible effect on standards and has now been abandoned. A National College of School Leadership has been established with a budget of 60 million pounds a year. Does it have to send groups of prospective principals to China for no apparent reason? Should it really be encouraging schools to believe that it is better to teach “emotional literacy” than reading and writing? The current secretary of state for education, Charles Clarke, wants every secondary school to become a “specialist” school focusing on a particular subject, such as science, technology, business, or foreign languages. The fact that the inspectorate has not been able to find any link between specialist school status and improved examination standards is, apparently, irrelevant.

Perhaps the best example of the waste of public money is the scheme to introduce a system of performance pay for teachers. In theory, this is a sensible idea. Good schools and successful teachers ought to be rewarded for their success. But in practice it has been a disaster. The absurdity is that once teachers have received their “bonus,” they will be paid that extra money for the rest of their professional life. There is no annual setting of targets, no review of performance, and no possibility, therefore, of the enhanced motivation that additional pay is meant to encourage. The government pretends that it has overseen a “radical modernization of the teaching profession.” Hogwash. Of teachers who applied for the extra pay, 95 percent crossed the threshold. Our teachers are being paid more. End of story.

In the past few years, the belief that centralized initiatives coupled with massive new “investment” will solve the problems of state education has triumphed over the drive to open the performance of state schools to public scrutiny. The bureaucracies, local and national, have grown in size and power as the number of initiatives has multiplied. Many of the new initiatives are based on the educational ideas that created the problems in our schools, such as the drive to teach “thinking skills” in a knowledge vacuum.

What is the alternative? The way forward is to return to and extend the concept of the grant-maintained schools that Labor abolished in 1997. Principals should be allowed to run their schools according to their own professional judgment and the wishes and aspirations of parents. Teachers should not have to waste 25 percent of their working day on bureaucratic tasks that add nothing to their effectiveness in the classroom. Forty percent of every pound spent on state education should not be squandered on the bureaucracies that are responsible for the miseducation of so many children.
It does not have to be like this. The state does not have to micromanage what happens in each of its schools. We could trust parents more and politicians and their bureaucrats less. But there is little sign that the current government really wants to involve the private sector in the running of state education or to find ways, through vouchers or tax credits, of genuinely empowering parents. Neither does our Conservative Party seem to have the courage of what ought to be its natural convictions. Sooner or later, however, because the present situation is untenable, change will come. Taxpayers will realize that they are paying more for public services that have not improved. Parents will grow more restive as they fail to secure a place for their children in a decent school. The government of the day will have to respond.

Christopher Woodhead is a professor of education at the University of Buckingham. He served as chief inspector of schools in Britain from 1994 to 2000.

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