The Independent View: Beware! A two tier state education system is being created

Lib Dem MPs need to take a vital role restraining the exuberance of the Coalition’s secretary of state for education. His enthusiastic promotion of academy status for top ranking schools (as opposed to the previous government giving this to struggling schools) and his determination to get parents and others to set up state-funded free schools answerable only to himself, is in danger of creating a two-tier system of state education.

These innovations are driven by political ideology rather than by educational evidence and professional advice. They will undermine the erstwhile democratic attempts by local authorities, once supported by the Lib Dems, to ensure that education serves the whole community of young people.

A letter published on 14th September in The Guardian, from twelve professors of education, myself included, says:

In crude terms there will be an upper tier of successful schools mainly in affluent middle class areas and a lower tier of struggling schools mainly in poorer working class areas. The upper tier will be independent of local authorities and, in effect, by taking funding from them, reduce the support that the authorities can provide for the schools in the lower tier.

Mr Gove denies that there will be two tiers because he claims that the ‘pupil premium’ to be paid to schools for every ‘underprivileged child’ will correct the ‘underachievement’ of these children. The chance of the pupil premium being substantial enough to contribute significantly to raising the achievements of ‘underprivileged’ children, looks slim.

In our letter, we urge Mr Gove to delay making approvals beyond the 16 free schools and 32 new academies opening this term until he has taken speedy advice from leading researchers into school admissions, governance and school finances, with other experts and professional leaders, on the likely consequences of his far-reaching policies.

Professors of education may be an endangered species, but we speak from wisdom garnered over many years of serving education through research, teaching and teacher training. Lib Dem MPs should be vociferous in helping ministers to anticipate negative and possibly perverse consequences of Coalition policies.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • We already have a two tier system in state education good schools and bad schools.Given that the advice of these dozen wise professors has had so little effect so far perhaps it is time to try something different?

  • Liberal Eye 17th Sep '10 - 4:54pm

    Certainly school education in this country has been bedivilled by a two tier system for as long as I can recall. The terminology has changed – it used to be secondary modern vs grammar – but the underlying reality is of ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ schools as if measuring them on a single dimension could ever be terribly useful. The basic assumption has always been that university entrance (especially Oxbridge) is a ‘success’ and anything else a ‘failure’.

    At the root of this is an education industry that is characterised by what management writers often characterise as ‘producer push’. The producers are producing as if on autopilot – an internal dynamic that myopically only sees academic results as valuable – without regard for what is actually wanted by ‘customers’. (Using market based thinking and terminology is not always justified in what I do not regard as a proper sphere for a market, but it is analytically helpful in this case).

    Hence schools are asssessed largely on how many good GCSE grades their students get. In such circumstances forcing 15 year olds who can barely read to attend is little more than ritual humiliation. What nonsense! What a waste of human talent! What a waste of money!

    An better approach would start by recognising that those students who do NOT reasonably aspire to go to university require an alternative path through school and post school that leads into the world of work via apprenticeships (with formal teaching elements as appropriate). The important thing about this path is that it should be as simple, transparent and in general as visible as the current route to university and that the entry requirements for apprenticeships should be demanding. The school’s task would then be to ensure that its graduates were suitably pre-qualified to take up apprenticeships. (Thus providing the customer-pull for the schools to respond to). The existing piecemeal approach will never work; we need a well designed system.

    Providing a viable alternative for students who are never realistically going to be suited by university will be a boon for those students. It will also help schools by giving them a clearer objective for these students that they – and their parents – can identify with.

  • Chris Gilbert 17th Sep '10 - 5:06pm

    It’s been shown time and time again that the schools that do better, largely do better because of greater parental involvement in children’s education. This is often the case in wealthier households, thus middle class children do better at school.

    Tinkering with how schools are run will not change this. What really needs to be altered is the catchment policy of schools, and the league tables which encourage competition for places, house price inflations, and exodus of wealthier families from areas with poorer schools. It’s a difficult problem to solve fairly, but it’s important to do this, else we will just end up with more and more unfairness in the school system.

    Good teachers don’t want to work in schools full of unruly kids, and parents who can afford to buy houses in other areas don’t want to send their children to less good schools either. It’s responsible for a great deal of the social divide we are seeing in our society today, and the ‘flee to the suburbs’ mentality.

  • Chris Gilbert 17th Sep '10 - 5:10pm

    Liberal Eye – you probably didn’t intend it, but it sounded awfully like you were suggesting schools are there just to churn out mindless little workers suitable for employment. As far as I were aware, they are social institutions designed to lead a child to their full potential in all areas of life – not just employment. Perhaps I was being naive 😉

  • David Langshaw 17th Sep '10 - 8:11pm

    Two tiers isn’t enough! If we are going to allow a diverse range of individual schools, then there should be as many tiers as there are schools. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

  • there do not seem to be many flowers planned for the desperately poor areas in which I live!

  • >CHRIS. It’s been shown time and time again that the schools that do better, largely do better because of greater parental involvement in children’s education.

    Yes, 100%. But:

    >Tinkering with how schools are run will not change this. What really needs to be altered is the catchment policy of schools,

    I went to a comp with a wide catchment area and young, enthusiastic teachers. From day one, the kids whose parents encouraged them to learn tried to do so, while the kids whose parents couldn’t give a stuff called us “snobs” and disrupted any lesson where the teacher wasn’t in firm control.

    They all left at 16, with maybe a few CSEs. We said “good riddance” and enjoyed the sixth form.
    Mixing with middle class kids hadn’t pulled them up, but they’d done their best to pull us down and stop us learning.

  • @ Chris Gilbert,

    I certainly didn’t mean to imply that schools should just churn out “mindless little workers”, although what the system is producing at present in some cases seems to be non-workers unfitted for a place in society – economically or in any other way. Give a person the ability to earn a good living and you also give them the ability to do everything else.

    @ Cassie

    That was more or less my wife’s experience. She was in the age cohort when leaving age was raised to 16 frustrating some who had hoped to leave. She says that two in particular did their level best to stop the rest learning as long as they remained in the school.

  • @Andrew Tenant
    Don’t buy your argument here at all. If a school thrived under state intervention why assume that freeing it from state control will help it/further it/continue it? And why should a school that is failing under state intervention benefit from more of the same? Surely you can also conclude from each of these examples that schools that succeed under state control will continue to thrive if they remain under it, and schools that don’t might thrive if they are freed of state control.

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