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Let's Get Heretical on Education: Competition Has Failed

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It's time we talked about education.

Not just about the disasters of free schools, the horrors of stressful, damaging Ofsted inspections that produce random results (as the organisation itself has just acknowledged), the huge workload being carried by teachers and pupils, but about the basics - the philosophy behind our education system and indeed education itself, and its place in society.

I'm going to begin by quoting the Open University's Ron Glatter, who has argued: "international experience indicates that emphasising choice and competition to drive improvements is not effective".

That makes sense when you strip away the ideology and think about what competition between schools means - the driving force of Michael Gove's free schools approach. If you have competition between widget factories, then some of them will fail. That will be pretty bad for the workers, but we might assume that if there's a fixed need for widgets they'll get a job at a more successful plant. So no great problem for society.

But turn that model to schools, and what happens when a school closes down? Pupils have their education disrupted - disastrous in our age-driven, rigid system, that means they can't just go back to catch up. Pupils in neighbouring schools see their education disrupted too, as new groups are levered into their existing structures. Local areas lose what should be their heart - the place where parents get together, build organisations and build community spirit.

Schools are encouraged not to share good techniques and approaches, but hug them close - or at best to to try to sell them to other schools. And they're encouraged to sneak sideways into selection - ensuring by hook or by crook that pupils who aren't going to be an ornament to their results aren't on their rolls at test time.

So let's start with one heretical thought: competition is disastrous in our education system and should be abandoned as a guiding principle. Instead what we need is cooperation - an informal co-operative of pupils, teachers, parents, communities working together to help achieve the best possible outcome for each pupil.

Then we come to what education is for: and I couldn't argue with the 1988 Education Reform Act, one of the few in our history to explain what schools should do: "promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils ... and prepare pupils ... for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life."

But that's not what schools and teachers are being judged on now. The test result is king. Sat results, league tables, are what heads hold or lose their jobs by, and they're forced, whether they like it or not, to pass that pressure down to their staff.

Look at the turnout at the recent elections, particularly among the young, and hear when many explain they don't vote because they don't know enough, and you have to acknowledge that citizenship education is certainly failing, and if we think about skills that everyone needs: cooking and nutritional knowledge, financial management, sex and relationship education, gardening even ... few would claim that many schools are providing these essentials, let alone more abstract but essential life skills like problem-solving, emotional resilience, and effective communication.

So my second heretical proposal: let's cut the testing, stop spending time on endless drilling for Sats and other exams, let's ensure that our children get a broad, healthy education for life.

Based on a speech delivered on the afternoon of June 1st at the How The Light Gets In Festival 2014 in Hay-on-Wye

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