Is the system failing?

One of the questions in this week’s edition of BBC Radio Four’s Any Questions concerned the state of education – as you might expect given that it is GCSE results week. As has become the norm in any commentary about education these days, the discussion moved from the merits of the changes to GCSE marking to the choice of subjects being studied, and on to the customarily shrill debate about whether ‘the system’ as a whole needs to be changed, yet again. And from one panellist came the familiar assertion that ‘the system is clearly failing so should be reformed’.

Government and media reports and neighbourhood conversations about schools are polarised. Schools are either labelled ‘excellent’ (albeit rarely these days) or ‘failing’ – an emotive term unlikely to instil anything but fear or despair in most parents and teachers. But this ‘system’ contains not only the schools (there are more than 24,000 in England alone not to mention other aspects such as pre-school provision, alternative provision and Local Education Authorities), but also the complex rules which govern what happens in them – exams, curriculum etc. And it’s a system which operates in, and seeks to mitigate, an unequal world – otherwise all children would enter the system with the same chances of success, which they don’t.

So just as with any other large entity, it’s quite likely that at any one time, not everything is working as well as it might. This isn’t an excuse for failure, but a plea for a broader perspective. Allowing ‘the system’ as a whole to be rubbished just increases the anxiety for parents that their children will be failed by it – not a promising start for any child as parents should be encouraged to engage in their children’s schooling, not spending all their time worrying or looking for other schools. Why politicians and pundits think that it makes sense to both exhort parents to support their children in their schooling and spend considerable effort rubbishing the exams those children will take or the schools they will take them in, I don’t understand. They may do either with good intent, but the resultant conflict just creates confusion for parents. 

So what should the system be doing? Ensuring that all children can access a well-rounded education which equips them to be adult citizens (which is not at all the same thing as all pupils getting A grades in lots of GCSEs). ‘The system’ might be better placed to do this if it were properly supported to identify and address any issues from within (as the Heads Roundtable have been doing for the last few months), not being constantly subjected to change from the outside.

When the people in the education system are busy either making or rebutting charges of failure, the system as a whole is distracted from identifying and addressing those aspects which are not working as well as they need to.

So instead, as we approach a new school year, why can’t we start focusing on the things that do work, and on helping spread such good practice across the system?  Talk the system up instead of down. Take some of the fear and despair out, and we as parents might feel a bit more like stakeholders, a bit less like puppets, and a bit more able to support our children through their school life.

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