As an education blogger, I read lots of articles that try and explain what’s wrong with our education system. Recently I came across one that is some of the best journalism I have ever read.
In a piece for the Telegraph, Peter Tait – headmaster of Sherborne Preparatory School – has truly hit the nail on the head by considering our educational obsession with Oxbridge – the broad term to describe the two ‘premier’ universities in the land, Oxford and Cambridge. Tait was writing in response to the news that two thirds of schools in the country don’t get a single pupil to either Oxford or Cambridge – and that if you’re from an independent school, you’re twice as likely to be attending the ‘elite’ (those from the Russell Group) institutions than if you weren’t.
Mr Tait had a very interesting perspective on this – broadly, he argued that Oxbridge acceptance shouldn’t really be the main yardstick for A Level success and it shouldn’t really be the way we judge sixth forms either. He makes the point that, “read the literature of almost any independent school, and there will be some reference somewhere to the number of Oxbridge places they have achieved… It is what their governors and parents want… what a lot tosh!”
Peter Tait’s attitude towards Oxbridge is somewhat ground-breaking in a nation that seems entirely focussed on league tables and exam results – it doesn’t even vaguely seem near the norm, especially when you consider it’s written in the Telegraph, a normally-staunch supporter of the Conservative government. There’s a reason why Private Eye calls it the Torygraph after all… Still, Tait even goes on to describe the two universities as “venerated old ladies” that are being hung up as the yardstick. It would seem that in this day and age anything less can be deemed as a failure.
Tait also recognises that schools feel under massive pressure to perform and force results out of pupils, something that he claims explains the ‘epidemic’ of mental health issues seen in undergraduates. There’s evidence to support this claim – it’s something that we looked at here last year.
The rest of Peter Tait’s article focuses on the wider issue of incessant testing in schools and the focus on getting results – it turns into an interesting look at everything else that’s wrong with the system in general. Here are some of the things that I’ve spotted:
- There’s mention of Nicky Morgan’s ‘moral mission’ to improve the well-being of children – Mr Tait argues that perhaps she could start by dealing with the tunnel vision that exists in schools that’s been created by just competing through league tables.
- Tait touches on the principle point that’s been made by teachers for many years – that it’s the broader issue that, through league tables and a need to succeed, schools are now places where success or failure is now measured by a single – and, in his view, flawed – measure of what makes a good education.
- Mr Tait argues that the school system is ‘dysfunctional’ – held back by numerous politically-charged ideas that have all backfired. Schools, he attests, are held back by bureaucracy that anything out of the ordinary like school trips and sports are now not worth the bother.
- Perhaps the bluntest statement of all simply reads “schools (and when did we think it was helpful to start dividing schools up into academies, free schools and their like?) are treated like businesses.” I think you can see the big point there – the system is now very fragmented.
- The final point that Mr Tait slams is the notion that parents have become stakeholders in schools. He makes a very valid point in asking what would happen if we did the same with the Ministry of Justice – we could sit back and watch the vested interest take hold there too!
I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite so spot-on, and this isn’t coming from someone from the outside – it’s come from a headteacher who has to deal with this every day.
Of course, there are probably groups of people out there who have read the article and are saying ‘OK, the system isn’t perfect… but what exactly can we do?’… Right off the bat, Mr Tait implies that the less-quantifiable factors of success should be included somehow – the goals, leadership skills, creativity, purpose, and independent thinking. OK, so we can’t measure them so easily, but that doesn’t make them any less relevant to us as a nation. He’s got a point, and I applaud the fact that he sees the potential limitations of analysing these skills. How would we work out if pupils feel any more comfortable with these areas – more testing? Oops.
There are two clear ways forward if we’re to follow Mr Tait’s logic: either we find ways of measuring how creative and free-thinking our pupils are… or we simply scrap the league table theory of education for good. In case you haven’t worked it out by now, I’d be in favour of the latter – and I’d start by asking Mr Tait to offer his vision of schools moving forward.
Interestingly, I took a look at the report on Mr Tait’s school, Sherborne Preparatory School – as published by the Independent Schools Inspectorate. As well as academic achievement and results and the effectiveness of teaching, the ISI took a look at the following areas:
1. Personal development of pupils.
2. Pupils’ social development.
3. Pupils’ cultural development.
4. The school’s pastoral care.
5. Welfare, health and safety.
You know what the comments said on these topics? Well, the words ‘outstanding’ and ‘excellent’ appeared in every area.
You’ve got to be doing something right then these sections are commented on more than the bit about attainment and results. What Mr Tait has going on at that school is clearly of a high standard and offers a great deal more than just an exam factory.
Peter Tait has spoken with sense and has backed it up at his own school. If I see him, I’ll shake his hand and breathe a sigh of relief that all is not lost just yet.