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Chris McGovern: Soaring school spending has failed to boost results

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(In the latest of a series of alternative manifesto ideas on TCW, Chris McGovern sets out his ideas on education policy)

“The more we spend on education the better it gets!” This is the mantra that the educational establishment, the Blob, has been promoting for decades. It is a dogma that remains largely unchallenged and is now embedded in the manifestos of all the political parties for the forthcoming general election.

Even the Tories have done a U-turn on school budgets, in order to embrace the mantra. Their promise of an extra £4 bn on schools in England by 2022 is, though, somewhat less profligate than the Lib Dems £7 bn. Labour promises a £25 bn overall education spending bonanza.

Only for reasons of short-term political expediency does it makes sense for politicians to appease the Blob. Howls of protests from schools have alarmed many parents, and media coverage has added fuel to the fire. Few mums and dads are going to vote to give their child what head teachers warn them will be hard times ahead caused by per-pupil funding cuts.

It is, nevertheless, widely recognised that, in many areas, our education system has been under performing for some time. If spending more and more money could solve the problem, however, it would have been solved a long time ago.

Politicians should be required to read “A Survey of Public Spending in the UK” published by the Institute of Fiscal Studies in 2009. It shows that between 1953 and 2009 government expenditure on education increased by around 900 per cent in real terms. Did attainment improve in direct relation to expenditure? No. Rather, it has stagnated or fallen. According to the OECD we are the only country in the developed in which grandparents out perform their grandchildren in terms of the basic employment skills of literacy and numeracy.

Politicians should also be asked to explain why, on the OECD PISA tests, UK pupils trail some way behind their peers in Vietnam even though we spend around eight times as much per head.

The party manifestos fail to address some inconvenient truths about education. They either side with the Blob because it makes life easier on the campaign trail or they have been genuinely taken in by the Blob’s sophistry and self-interest.

The truth is that building a first class education system is less dependent on expenditure than the Blob would have us believe. Here are three manifesto proposals for education that might actually make a difference:

A restoration of more teacher-led, whole-class teaching that is the norm in the Asia-Pacific education superstar economies. This will have a number of benefits:

  1. Moving away from child-centred group work in which the teacher acts as a ‘facilitator’ will allow for slightly larger classes requiring, therefore, fewer teachers and creating budget savings.
  2. The reduction in the number of teachers required will allow teacher salaries to be increased. This should help attract more high quality entrants into the profession and reward good teachers.
  3. Larger classes are much less practical for child-centred teaching. They will, therefore, help to drive out this popular but ineffective teaching method.
  4. Whole-class teaching improves pupils’ classroom behaviour since all the pupils are in the teachers sight all of the time. Improved classroom discipline will help raise attainment and reduce teacher stress.

At secondary level, a commitment to providing a dual pathway – academic or technical/vocational – according to aptitude:

  1. Many more grammar schools should be set up to allow children with an academic aptitude to maximise their potential regardless of postcode.
  2. Alongside each new grammar school a technical/vocational school should be set up to allow children whose aptitude is not academic to maximise their potential regardless of postcode.
  3. Comprehensive schools should be organised on a bi-lateral academic-technical/vocational basis.
  4. The academic-technical/vocational pathways should be introduced at age 13 or 14.
  5. UK pupils should be allowed the same access to GCE O-Level as exists in Singapore. A new and equally rigorous technical/vocational version should sit alongside it.

In order to build on the dual pathway at secondary school, a restoration of polytechnics providing technical/vocational higher education courses and qualifications.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovernhttp://www.cre.org.uk
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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