Evaluating the New Right’s Perspective on Education

In this post I offer four pieces of evidence students can use to evaluate the New Right’s perspective on education, particularly their claim that Marketisation policies since 1988 have raised standards for all pupils.

Item A: GCSE Pass Rates

Probably the strongest piece of supporting evidence for the New Right’s policies on education is that they have worked to improve GCSE results nearly every year for the last 30 years:

The latest reports focusing on the long term trend are a bit dated, such as this one from The Guardian, but it clearly shows a long term improvement in grades at GCSE:

Despite recent dips in top grades, this 2013 report from Full Fact, which also focuses on the long term trend in results since 1988 points out that:

  • The pass rate for grades A*-C has increased by almost two-thirds from 42.5% in 1988 to 68.1% in 2013.
  • A*/A grades have almost trebled from 8.6% in 1988 to 21.3% in 2013.

However, the report also recognizes that some of this is due to grade inflation as this increase in performance is not mirrored by English and Welsh students in international tests, such as PISA BELOW.

Item B: PISA international league tables

(http://www.oecd.org/pisa/aboutpisa/)

The PISA league tables demonstrate how the neoliberal/ New Right idea of ranking educational achievement has gone global – Since the year 2000 we now have International Education League Tables.

Since the year 2000, every three years, fifteen-year-old students from randomly selected schools worldwide take tests in the key subjects: reading, mathematics and science, with a focus on one subject in each year of assessment. In 2012, some economies also participated in the optional assessments of Problem Solving and Financial Literacy.

Students take a test that lasts 2 hours. The tests are a mixture of open-ended and multiple-choice questions that are organised in groups based on a passage setting out a real-life situation. A total of about 390 minutes of test items are covered.  Students take different combinations of different tests.

PISA is unique because it develops tests which are not directly linked to the school curriculum. The tests are designed to assess to what extent students at the end of compulsory education, can apply their knowledge to real-life situations and be equipped for full participation in society.

The students and their school principals also answer questionnaires to provide information about the students’ backgrounds, schools and learning experiences and about the broader school system and learning environment.

The UK currently ranks 23rd for English and Maths.

Item C: Stephen Ball (2003)

argues that government policies of choice and competition place the middle class at an advantage. They have the knowledge and skills to make the most of the opportunities on offer. Compared to the working class they have more material capital, more social capital – access to social networks and contacts which can provide information and support.

Ball refers Middle class parents as ‘skilled choosers’. Compared to working class parents (disconnected choosers) they are more comfortable with dealing with public institutions like schools, they are more used to extracting and assessing information. For example, they use social networks to talk to parents whose children are attending the schools on offer. They collect and analyse information about GCSE results, and they are more used to dealing with and negotiating with administrators and teachers. As a result, if entry to a school is limited, they are more likely to gain a place for their child.

Ball also talked of the school/ parent alliance: Middle class parents want middle class schools and schools want middle class pupils. In general, the schools with more middle class students have better results. Schools see middle class students as easy to teach and likely to perform well. They will maintain the schools position in the league tables and its status in the education market.

Item D: Sue Palmer – The Problems of Tests, Targets And Education

Sue Palmer Is usually introduced in Families and Households module. She argues that technological and social changes have made modern childhood ‘toxic’, and testing in education (because of league tables and The New Right) is part of this problem. Sue Palmer writes…..

‘As long as league tables exist, in a risk averse society most people daren’t ignore them. Primary schools at the top of the league (which, by a strange coincidence, tend to be in the wealthiest areas) have a reputation to maintain; those at the bottom have to try to claw a little higher. The status of all interested adults (teachers, governors, parents) depends on how their Year Sixes perform in national tests.

So from four years of age, our children now live in the shadow of SATs. ‘No time for play in the reception class now,’ one teacher told me ruefully. ‘As soon as they arrive, it’s fast forward to the Key Stage One test.’ The curriculum is dominated by the core subjects of English, Maths and Science, broken down into a series of discrete‘learning objectives’ – closely matched to ‘assessment criteria’ – to be ticked off as children progress through the school.

There are ‘voluntary’ SATs for each year group, so children’s progress (and teachers’ competence in coaching their pupils) can be checked every summer. Then, in Year Six, come several months of concentrated exam practice, ‘booster classes’ during the Easter holidays for those who might not scrape the required mark, and sleepless nights for 11-year-olds terrified of ‘letting themselves down’ on the day.

Not surprisingly, this regime leaves far less time for creative but unquantifiable experiences, like art, drama and music, which through the millennia have nurtured children’s imaginations and contributed incalculably to their emotional and social development. Less time also for the active, hands-on learning children need if they’re genuinely to understand the concepts underpinning the tests.

Last year researchers found that the conceptual understanding of today’s 11-year-olds lags two to three years behind their counterparts in 1990. While performance on pencil-and-paper tests of has soared over this period, children are apparently less likely to understand the principles they’ve been trained to tick boxes about.

Research published recently by the independent Alexander Review of primary education shows that – on tests other than those for which children are coached – there have been only modest improvements in mathematics, and little change in literacy standards. And in last month’s PIRLS survey of international achievement in literacy, England had actually gone backwards, slumping from 3rd to 19th place.

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