Monday, 28 January 2008

THE CAMBRIDGE PRIMARY REVIEW: ANOTHER CASE OF MEDDLE AND MUDDLE?

Fifteen months ago the Esmé Fairbairn Foundation announced that it was funding the first independent review of primary education in England since the ill-fated inquiry presided over by Lady Plowden in 1967. That investigation led to a widespread, chilling decline in standards that have scarred successive generations of pupils. I had hoped that the new inquiry, chaired by Professor Robin Alexander, of Cambridge University, would avoid the obsession with reform for reform’s sake that had so comprehensively undermined the Plowden review. Now, with the recent publication of its latest batch of reports, I am not so sure.

The report which caught my eye is entitled Aims for Primary Education: the changing national context, co-authored by two London University academics, Stephen Machin and Sandra McNally. It makes a ritualistic bow to acknowledge that one of the aims – I would have thought an overriding aim – of primary education is to inculcate a basic proficiency in literacy and numeracy. On the transmission of civic values (tolerance, respect, and so on) the report devotes but one sentence. Its focus is unashamedly on the crimes of middle-class parents:

"some aspects of primary education discriminate in favour of higher income groups and thereby exacerbate existing inequalities. For example, current admissions policies favour parents who not only know how to use published information about school standards (for example from Ofsted inspections and the Performance Tables), but can also afford to choose exactly where to live."

Well, we can’t have that, can we? I mean, we can’t have a situation in which parents actually read Ofsted reports and choose schools accordingly, with the result that high-quality schools are oversubscribed and poor quality ones are left with unfilled places. Oh no! We never actually meant Ofsted reports to be read and acted upon. Perish the thought!

Nor can we tolerate a situation in which parents who can, move to areas in which these high-quality schools flourish, leaving poorer parents to make do with poorer quality schools. We could recommend putting more money (and better teachers) into these schools, to bring them up to at least the national average. But why should we? Instead, say Drs Machin and McNally, we should adopt a more dirigiste approach:

"A fundamental reform of admissions policy (for example, prohibiting schools to discriminate [sic] on the basis of residence) would do much to level the playing field in terms of educational opportunities. It would thereby reduce the large inequalities that appear later in terms of wages and intergenerational mobility. "

Not to put too fine a point on it, the good doctors want schools to be banned from choosing pupils according to where they live. “Quite how far children should be bussed to other schools,” Dr McNally confessed to the Times (18 January) “would need to be worked out, but the local authority could organise some help with that. It’s a really vital area and an obvious way of making things fairer.”

But is it?

To begin with, I would have thought that the disastrous experiences of ‘bussing’ in the USA should act as a warning to us all against adopting an expensive and hideously bureaucratic device that will not achieve the desired result – unless, that is, we enforce, alongside the device, a system of internal passports of the sort used in the Soviet Union and present day North Korea: don’t live where you like, live where the state decrees.

Secondly, I can tell Drs McNally and Machin now, for free, that neither bussing, nor the enforcement of any ‘lottery’ system to allocate primary-school places, nor any other similarly contrived stratagem, will ‘make things fairer.’ Kids from some homes – by no means only middle-class, incidentally – will, no matter what kind of sink school they are legally obliged to attend, always be at an advantage because of the supportive domestic environment to which they return at the end of the school day. And I’m afraid the only way to deal with this fact of life, and to bring about the “level playing field” that Dr Machin and McNally say they want and we all need, is to remove children from their parents at birth, placing them instead in state-run kindergartens.

By a very convenient coincidence, during the same week that the Machin-McNally report was issued by the Cambridge Primary Review, schools minister Jim Knight announced the introduction of a new, mandatory, admissions appeal code, designed to give parents greater rights when appealing against decisions not to admit their children to particular schools. In making his announcement, Mr Knight cited instances of schools acting outside the law in the types of information they sought from prospective pupils. This is all well and good, I thought, until I read that one of the practices Mr Knight could not abide was the request for information that might enable a school to assess how supportive a parent might be of her or his child’s education.

Well, Mr Knight, there may be very sound reasons indeed why a school should want such information, which could help in deciding how best to educate a child from a less- or non-supportive home environment.

Children learn as much if not more at home as they do at school. Unless the Cambridge Primary Review accepts the truth of that axiom, I fear that any quick-fix recommendations will do as little good as those of Lady Plowden a half century ago.

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