Are you in despair about British schools? If so, my advice is to skip School, the new BBC six-part series. It is likely to persuade you that things are at least as bad as you thought and possibly rather worse.
A multi-academy trust in leafy south Gloucester has decided to allow television cameras access to three of its four secondary schools. From what we have seen so far in programmes 1 and 2, the approach is more forensic and analytical than previous fly-on-the-wall classroom documentaries. The trust’s decision to allow the filming was, clearly, politically driven. Under the guise of an ‘honest’ portrayal of school life, the intention of the programme-makers is to apportion blame for the chronic state of our education system. The motivation is to hammer home a highly misleading message that schools are under-funded by government.
As The Guardian points out, the series ‘aims to address a gap in public understanding of what is happening in schools’. It quotes a science teacher from the first episode who, faced with blocked sinks and broken windows, observes: ‘If parents realised the extent of what’s happening they would demand change.’
Time and again, school leaders explain failures as being a consequence of budget cuts. The second programme focused on Marlwood School, founded in 1606 as Thornbury Grammar School and comprehensive since 1972. With 1,300 pupils it was once the most popular school in the area and often the first choice of parents from Bristol. These days it has only 500 pupils and, in July 2017, was rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted. This places it in ‘special measures’, which means regular monitoring by Ofsted.
A year on, the latest monitoring report (June 2108) confirmed the ‘inadequate’ status. It does recognise that the school is operating under financial constraints but, correctly, attributes this to falling rolls. Fewer pupils means less money. To the school’s credit, Ofsted judges that ‘the school’s improvement plan is fit for purpose’. Alarmingly, though, it also concludes that ‘teachers know what they need to do but they do not all know how to do it’.
Perhaps inadvertently, the inspectors are identifying a problem at the heart of our entire school system. Too much of it is failing not because of a lack of funding but because of a lack of ‘know-how’. Why do we spend so much more than most other countries around the world but, with some exceptions such as the USA, achieve so much less?
I am not expecting the BBC series to address this issue. The notion that there may be cheaper and more effective ways of teaching than the expensive child-centred methods we employ is not up for consideration by our educational establishment. How is it that the Vietnamese, for example, can achieve higher standards than us on OECD tests and yet spend less than a fifth per head? True, attendant costs are much lower in Vietnam, but that is not the whole story. Teacher-led methodologies and high expectations are central, too.
The BBC’s School programmes are showing that our education establishment, the ‘Blob’, is redefining the very meaning of schooling. Education these days is more about therapy and self-analysis than about mastering academic subjects. It is the cost of the support staff needed to sustain this new educational world that is draining school budgets. The real scandal in our schools is not a lack of money but the waste of money and the complete inability of school leaders to see that there are cheaper and much better ways of educating children. The BBC programme-makers need to cut out the political campaigning and provide licence fee-payers with the whole picture.