The Coalition vehemently believe that the UK’s education system needs investment and a radical restructure to meet the skill and qualifications demands of the economy, both today and in the future. This restructure has taken shape in two forms, autonomy and curriculum. Taking autonomy first, at the extreme end we see this is in the academy and free schools programmes whose aim, in true Darwinism style is to stimulate competition and ensure survival of the fittest. Those weak and failing schools will see themselves taken over by a stronger and more popular institution, their independence will diminish and unless they can once again prove their academic mettle they are likely to be swallowed up by the operations of its more successful adversary.
The second form is that of restructuring the curriculum in terms of content, process and outcome measures. The desire to improve the UK’s state schools is an admirable one, and the governments rationale can be seen in our rankings in the PISA (Programme for Internal Student Assessment) Studies which are undertaken every three years, which show that Britain is slowly sliding down the world education league tables in terms of the academic prowess of 15 year old students.
In the PISA survey of 2000 (looking at 15 year old students) we ranked ranked 8th for maths, 7th for literacy and 4th for science. By 2009 England’s students ranked only 28th for maths, 25th for reading and 16th for science.
Although there is some argument that the PISA tests do not reflect the whole truth –especially when another major study, TIMSS (Trends in International Maths and Science Study) shows that the maths scores of English 13 and 14-year-olds rose compared with other countries over the past decade – they do prove a powerful incentive for the Coalition to hang their hat on, and declare that the Labour government system was not working and so radical reforms need to be implemented.
The 2011/12 Ofsted Annual Report had mixed reviews on school performance. On a positive note it starts with ‘schools are improving considerably’ and ‘standards are rising steadily’, however it acknowledges that performance needs to be higher if we are to keep pace with our competitors, stating that “England is being significantly outperformed in applied reading and mathematics by several other European and Commonwealth countries and Asian economies”.
In 2012 the government announced that from 2014 it intended to strip out a vast number of vocational qualifications from the school league tables. This was partly in response to a government review headed by Professor Alison Wolf which suggested that schools had been lured into offering vocational qualifications that attracted more points in the school league tables yet did little to help the students gain work or get into higher education. Michael Gove’s response to the review was that "For too long the system has been devalued by attempts to pretend that all qualifications are intrinsically the same. Young people have taken courses that have led nowhere."
As always opinion differs on the right course of action, whether you believe that some courses artificially bumped up league tables or not is really only one aspect of the issue. The other side, is that for some pupils, who are at risk of being disengaged, certain vocational, rather than the traditional academic courses may keep them in the system and motivated. Not all vocational courses were deemed to be unworthy, in January 2013 the list of those that were judged to be high quality and rigorous enough to be included in the league tables alongside GCSE’s was updated.
On the 7 of February 2013 Michael Gove made a statement on the future of the curriculum, exams and accountability reforms. It was already widely known that Gove wanted to ‘slim down’ the curriculum and focus on ‘essential knowledge’. It was thought that he would end competition between the exam boards by having just one wholly new board, however he admitted “this was a bridge too far” and would not push ahead with this particular proposal. He is however committed however to reform of GCSE’s and A levels with an end of course exam and minimum internal assessment. The move to retain GCSE’s and scrap the move to bring in English Baccalaureate Certificates in some subjects was welcomed by many bodies.
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) stated “We have never believed that GCSE is beyond repair and have been urging the government for many months not to abandon it. It is encouraging that the secretary of state has listened to the voices from all sides that have urged him to think again.”.
The National Union of Teachers echoed this stating ““This is really good news. Michael Gove has for once listened to sense. The English Baccalaureate Certificates were universally condemned by everyone…”
The NASUWT response was that the reforms still raised unanswered questions and “The only certainty from today’s announcement is that he is removing the entitlement of children and young people to have access to a broad and balanced National Curriculum. Today’s announcement puts the final nail into the coffin of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy of National Curriculum entitlement.”
Gove’s reform of the national curriculum included a move to ensure that local authority schools have the same freedoms as academies and free schools, in that the whole curriculum should not be determined by the national curriculum.
In respect of accountability reform, a consultation will consider a new portal which would clearly set out schools financial plans and illustrate the quality of the education they provide. New performance indicators will also be established to guide this process and aid understanding.
There is as all the unions point out more work to be done in respect of process and as always the devil is in the detail.
Many schools are so focused on meeting attainment targets that the bigger picture can be overlooked. The government saw the move towards vocational and easier GCSE exams as part of the problem, in that it wasn’t equipping students for jobs. However when results are often paramount to a schools success you can see that ‘points make prizes’ and where those points are collected from is often irrelevant. It’s easy to recognise how both virtuous and vicious circles can be self-propelling in the world of education. With good results (as defined by the league tables) then your school is in demand, you get more pupils through the door, and, as much of the funding works under the principle of ‘bums on seats’ you get more money. With more money you can employ extra staff, you can offer a wider breadth of subjects at GCSE and A level, and you can afford to offer after schools clubs. All of which generate more interest, and more students and more money! Poor results however can mean (if parents have other school options) an exodus of students and money, and under the new education landscape this can result in a take over bid – hostile or otherwise!
The government believe that the way to deal with a failing school is to bring it under the wing of another academy. There are polarised views as to whether this approach is a winning solution, however a Department for Education announcement in January 2013 stated that “The secondary school performance tables show that standards are rising in sponsored academies at a record rate – and more than five times as quickly than in all state-funded schools”. 
Their focus on ‘closing the gap’ between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers in respect of academic attainment has manifested itself in monetary investment. We have the pupil premium at £900 per eligible pupil in 2013/14 and now also the year 7 ‘catch up’ premium (£500 per pupil) for those who do not achieve the floor level in maths and literacy at the end of key stage 2. There is nothing wrong with focusing investment on reducing the effects that social and economic disadvantage have on pupils attainment, the key element however is the outcome rather than the noise that such a large scale investment makes.
A recent Ofsted report raised concerns over the use of the premium, saying that research found that many schools did not separate the pupil premium from their main budget. Half of the schools surveyed for the report said the cash made little or no difference to the way they work while two-fifths, mainly primary schools, said they were spending it on extra teaching assistants.
So, what is the education landscape today? We have more autonomous institutions but less autonomy over curriculum choices.
What really matters is not whether the pupils are taught in an academy, a free School or a local authority controlled school, but HOW they are taught. Will the new curriculum deliver us a generation equipped to meet the demands of the economy, will it move us up the international league tables or will it make no difference at all!
CIPFA Finance Advisor
Caroline White, Advisor
T: 01964 533097/07919 018938
+44 (0)20 7543 5805
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