IT IS widely accepted that the Education Reform Act of 1988 will introduce the greatest changes in English state education since 1944: indeed, if t he Act leads, as many suspect, to the eventual disappearance of the local education authorities, it may be seen as the most significant piece of legislation in this field since W E Forster initiated state education in his act of 1870.
The major areas of interest as far as Catholic comprehensive schools are concerned are the national curriculum, including its effect on religious education, the proposal to allow schools to "opt out" of local authority control, and local management of schools.
Last week I suggested that part, at least, of the concern about academic standards in state schools was based on misinformation about the present, and a false view of the past, in effect, selective nostalgia. In particular in the year or so before the passing of the Education Reform Act, as education rose to the top of the political agenda, there was a widespread failure to distinguish between the argument that standards had actually fallen in state schools and that they were too low compared with our major industrial competitors.
The difference is not trivial for this failure has, I fear, led to a fundamental confusion in the aims of the Education Reform Act. On the one hand it seems that the act looks back to a 'non-existent' (in my view) golden age of selective schools, whilst on the other it looks outward to the supposed educational superiority of countries as socially diverse as West Germany, Japan, France, and rather surprisingly, the USA.
Without doubt there is much to welcome in the act. For too long the curriculum in England has been a "secret garden" with individual schools establishing their own patterns with far too little regard to even neighbouring institutions in the same town, let alone national policy. Most teachers, parents and governors, I feel, will welcome the laying down of clear targets for pupils in the national curriculum, "clear objectives for the knowledge, skill understanding and aptitudes which pupils of different abilities should be expected to have acquired at certain ages." Moreover, the detailed proposals of the mathematics, science and English working groups are very much to be commended.
However, I see no reason for the national curriculum to have been extended beyond the core subjects of English, mathematics, science and religious education. To compel all pupils by law to study a modern language, history, geography, technology, art and music up to the age of 16 is unduly restrictive. Despite the assurances which have been given about religious education, I believe that within five years the pressure from parents on heads and governors of Catholic schools to reduce the amount of time spent on RE in the fourth and fifth year will be very great. This pressure will arise from the lack of time available in the curriculum for pupils wishing to pursue subjects not specified in the national curriculum.
In the summer of 1988 my school entered 15 candidates for GCSE Latin, 11 for classics, 27 for the three home economics disciplines, and 41 for a second modern language. The motivation of these candidates is indicated by the facts that 40 per cent gained a grade A or B at GCSE and that only two of the 104 entries were unclassified. Yet I can see little future in the long term for these subjects, at least to GCSE level as they are not specified in the national curriculum.
The clumsy way in which the Department of Education and Science has dealt with the future of science in schools has revealed the internal contradictions of the national curriculum. Over recent years the DES has urged schools to adopt balanced or integrated science courses to replace the traditional single sciences of physics, chemistry and biology. This has been done in many schools on the assumption that most pupils would follow dual science courses taking up 20 per cent of the curriculum time. But the DES response to the problems created by its overcrowding of the national curriculum has been to announce that some pupils will be allowed to take single science courses taking up only 12.5 per cent of the timetable.
The DES clearly overlooked the fact that whereas, at least, under the old system a pupil opting for one of the traditional sciences at 14 knew they could follow that subject through to A-level, a boy or girl taking the 12.5 per cent science option in the fourth year will have an insufficient scientific base to take any science at all to A-level. This could lead to a reduction in A-level entries in science, particularly, I suspect, amongst girls. So much for Mr Baker's broadening of the curriculum!
But if the national curriculum is flawed in parts, the other major reform of the Education Act "opting out" is, of course, a complete and utter nonsense. Allowing schools to opt out of local authority control has two fundamental flaws. First, it denies the need for any regional planning body, whether it may be a local authority or a diocesan education commission, which can look ahead and plan the future needs of an area. Of course, I appreciate these bodies are not to be actually abolished by the government but, frankly, I cannot see how either an LEA or a diocese can begin to fulfill its tasks in this area if "opting out" becomes a reality. Already there is talk of one middle school which both draws from and feeds into LEA schools opting out!
The second point, about which I feel even more strongly, is that the policy assumes that a school belongs only to parents of children within it at a particular time. The wider community whether through its elected representatives, appointees of the bishop, parents in feeder primary schools should have a say in the future of a school towards which, if nothing else, many of them may have contributed financially!
The folly of opting out is already revealed by the fact that nearly all those schools wishing to do so are threatened by closure, amalgamation or a change in status. Of course, parents and staff will resist this! During my career I have been involved in three major reorganisations. I haven't the slightest doubt that in every case, many parents would have voted to opt out to avoid the change, and 1 have no doubt also that in every case, the needs of Catholic education were best served by the re-organisation taking place.
The final irony is that many of the schools facing closure are in that position because local education authorities have been under such pressure from the DES and Mr Baker to remove surplus school places. I am reminded of one of those films set in the first World War in which the gallant U-boat captain, having torpedoed the British merchant ship, rises to the surface and offers a tow to the life boats.
I suspect many parents will eventuality be disappointed and as the large number of lifeboats becomes apparent, the U-boat will quickly disappear again beneath the waves! It is, of course, easy enough to criticise legislation and 1 will now turn to those measures I believe should have been introduced to bring about the improvement in standards which we all wish to see.
In the first place, as I stated earlier, the national curriculum should have applied only to English, mathematics, science and RE. All pupils should have to study a humanity (which might include RE or classics) and a creative or practical subject to 16. Modern languages do remain a problem solved, I suggest, by some provision that all pupils of at least average ability and above should study a language. The above curriculum would, I feel, leave sufficient flexibility for pupils to follow several preferred subjects in the crucial 14 to 16 period.
The national curriculum should, without doubt, be applied to all schools, state or independent. The spectacle last year of ministers, newspaper editors, Conservative MPs and peers solemnly telling the majority of us what our children must learn but not apparently theirs will live with me for a long time!
Outside the scope of the Education Reform Act, clearly the three most important tasks for government in improving our schools are an increase in nursery provision, the reform of sixth form education, and the recruitment and retention of effective and well-qualified teachers.
It is evident that with the widespread breakdown in family life in Britain, unparalleled in western Europe, many children are entering our primary schools at five lacking the basic social, verbal and motor skills.
If our pre-school provision is lamentable, our staying on rate after 16 is a national disgrace, practically the lowest in the western world. By the end of the century countries such as South Korea and Taiwan will have a higher proportion of their 16 to 19 year olds in full-time education than Britain. Unfortunately, our main post-16 examination system, GCE Advanced level as introduced at a time when only about 10 per cent of pupils stayed at school until 18. A-level courses are far too narrow, a fact universally recognised in education and industry and the Government's rejection of the Higginson Committee's proposals for reform last year was a most backward step.
Even the Department of Education and Science has at last conceded that there will be a
shortage of thousands of teachers in the next decade in physics, chemistry, languages and technology. The true position is, of course, far worse with "hidden shortages" in subjects such as maths or English with nearly a third of secondary English teachers having no post 0-level qualification in the subject.
Incredibly, the DES has stated that there will be a surplus of RE teachers, a statement I find baffling.
For Catholic schools, the issue has an added dimension. Cardinal Hume, speaking to the Conference of Catholic Secondary Schools in Birmingham in 1987, said that the other problems facing Catholic secondary schools were insignificant compared with the difficulty of recruiting Catholic staff. It is proving hard enough for Catholic headteachers and governors to recruit any staff in many parts of the country, let alone committed Catholics.