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Chris McGovern: Chalk and talk and bigger classes would revitalise our schools


Is educational attainment in schools related to ‘per capita’ expenditure on pupils? Most teachers, politicians, parents and commentators, seem to think so. It has become, almost, an axiomatic truth in Britain today and underpins the row over school funding in English schools that has started to hit the headlines. But is it true?

The UK spends more per head on schools than most countries around the globe. This expenditure, however, is far from producing higher levels of pupil attainment. We outspend Vietnam by over 800 per cent, for example, but our pupils trail that comparatively poor country by a considerable distance in the OECD PISA tests of attainment for 15-year-olds. You may get ‘more for your bucks’ in Vietnam – teacher salaries, in particular, are much lower – but that can only go part of the way towards explaining the much greater value for money being achieved, not only in Vietnam, but in other parts of the Asia-Pacific.

Britain’s ‘per capita’ expenditure exceeds most of the countries that are ahead of us in the international league table of pupil attainment. Interestingly, however, pupils in wealthy little Luxembourg, the biggest OECD ‘per capita’ spender of all on schools, does even worse than the UK. It seems that spending more does not, after all, ensure pupils maximise their potential. How else can one explain the 900 per cent real terms increase in UK expenditure on education since the 1950s resulting in today’s school leavers, according to the OECD, attaining below the level of their grandparents in basic skills?

It is against this background that the current debate on funding should be taking place. Sadly, the price for telling the truth would be an admission of failure in education policy stretching back several decades. Few politicians, let alone educationalists and teachers’ leaders, are prepared to face up to the stark reality of what they have created or have presided over. It is something they do not wish to talk about.

Instead, we have a well-publicised letter of resignation from the head teacher of The Forest School in Berkshire. It is heart-rending, tear-jerking stuff that speaks persuasively and seductively for the educational establishment, the ‘Blob’. The head concerned may be closing in on her 60th birthday but she wishes us to know she is throwing in the towel “with deep regret” and that she is most certainly not taking early retirement:

“The situation with regard to schools funding, both nationally and locally, is bleak. In common with other head teachers, I did not enter the teaching profession to make cuts that narrow the curriculum, or to reduce the number of teachers and increase class sizes, and yet my hand has been forced, and I see no immediate easing of the situation. In addition, there is an acute teacher shortage, which is really beginning to bite. Consequently, I feel unable to deliver the quality of education the boys at The Forest so clearly deserve.”

Her declaration in the letter that her school “is a great school” is not an opinion shared by Ofsted. Having previously been rated as a “good” its latest report judged that teaching was not good enough, that learning was not good enough and that leadership was not good enough. It has now fallen into the category of “requires improvement”. The BBC, in giving prominence to the story nationally, overlooked this insight into the school, even though I had pointed it out during an interview I gave to the school’s local BBC radio station.

The Government is right to confront the very real issues of unfairness in the existing allocation of school funding. If it wants our schools to compete with the best in the world, however, it needs to restore the traditional whole-class teaching methods still used in the Asia-Pacific superstar education systems. This would allow for slightly larger classes but make teaching easier and more effective than the chaotic child-centred ideology that now holds sway. It would, also, solve the problem of teacher shortages and allow those who remain to be given a hefty pay increase.

Fewer stressed-out teachers on better pay, more effective teaching, higher pupil attainment and improved classroom behavior! The price? Slightly larger classes made possible by restoring teaching methods that work…and all within budget! What’s not to like?


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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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