Last week Ed Balls, the prime minister’s right-hand man, proudly announced in parliament a new 10-year Children’s Plan to make Britain “the best place in the world for children to grow up”. I nearly laughed.
Balls must surely know that after 10 years of Labour, 10 years of his boss as a dirigiste chancellor and 10 years of heavy spending on education and child poverty, Britain is by several independent measures one of the worst places in the industrialised world to grow up, unless you are rich.
In February a Unicef report on child poverty in rich nations put Britain last out of 21 countries on various measures of wellbeing. The number of children in poverty, one of Gordon Brown’s greatest concerns, increased by 100,000 in 2005-06. The details of failed education policies and missed literacy targets must be almost as sickening for the government as they are for parents: Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) figures this year showed Britain falling fast down an international education league table and at the bottom of a social mobility league. A report for the Sutton Trust showed that social mobility in the UK was no better than it was in 1970.
The predictable response of both Brown and Balls to this is yet more government intrusion and yet more micromanagement. The Children’s Plan contains no fewer than 170 pages of initiatives largely based on the idea that when children fail at school it is because their parents have failed at home.
Schools, therefore, will now be required to take over things that parents fail to do: armies of teaching mentors, social workers, health visitors, breakfast club workers, after-school club experts, community police, sex educators and mental health experts.
It is true there will be new parenting support advisers to encourage failing parents to try harder but they will hardly need to; all those experts will do it for them. And schools will come into children’s lives much earlier, with free nursery places for two-year-olds in poor areas and extended versions of wraparound educare. It sounds like, and is intended to be, the state taking over the role of the parent. There is possibly some justification in the case of children from inadequate homes (although the state has an abysmal record in caring for other people’s children). If such plans were well managed, they might genuinely make underprivileged lives better.
However, I suspect that in practice this new official intrusion into every part of an underprivileged child’s life will extend, with unthinking egalitarianism, into every child’s life regardless. What’s more, the knowledge that the school will take over so much – the doctor, the dentist, the after-school club, the music practice, the homework and even breakfast – will tempt better mothers and fathers into parenting-lite. School will provide free (or cheap) childcare for longer hours and earlier years. It will extend the time that parents can spend at work and away from their children and therefore not reading to them. The Children’s Plan runs a real risk of becoming the unparents’ plan.
Fashions come and go in explaining why so many children fail at school. Currently the two favourites seem to be poor parenting and poverty. The Sutton Trust’s research found that bright children from the poorest 20% of households dropped from the 88th centile in cognitive tests at three to the 65th centile at five – a life-changing fall. The least able from the richest 20% of households moved up from the 15th centile at three to the 45th centile at five – an even more striking change.
I do agree that background matters, although you don’t have to be rich to be an excellent parent. However, there is another explanation for why children fail. I remember several international studies that suggested low teacher expectation was mainly to blame for the low achievements of pupils. I would go further and suggest that an obvious explanation is the low quality of many teachers. Contrariwise, a good teacher can compensate for social disadvantage, and traditionally did, especially before the progressive education disaster.
More than 20 years ago Chris Woodhead, the then chief inspector of schools, said there were 15,000 bad teachers in the state system who ought to be sacked; he became a public hate figure. Last month Sir Cyril Taylor, a leading education adviser to the government, said there were about 17,000 poor teachers who should be got rid of; they were, he said, damaging the education of about 400,000. There was barely a murmur of dissent. Things have got bad enough for the truth to be admissible.
It would be a great deal easier to sack a few thousand bad teachers than to impose 170 pages of micromanagement on the lives of millions of parents and children. Teachers’ unions have always passionately resisted the idea of sackings and governments of all hues have weakly given in to them. If they had taken on the unions and allowed head teachers to hire and fire and to pay better teachers more, we might not now find our schools worse than Estonia’s.
The Children’s Plan appears to grasp this nettle. It announced, in its euphemistic way, that government would look “with social partners at whether more can be done to address the performance of teachers who have the greatest difficulty in carrying out their role effectively. . . This should include helping them to leave the profession if that is appropriate”. Well, that’s telling them. The plan also announced ministers would work with the General Teaching Council (GTC) to revoke teachers’ qualifications where necessary. In other words, bad teachers are to be sacked and even disqualified.
However, according to The Times Educational Supplement, this assertion was a mistake. Instead, the existing process of referring competence cases to the GTC will be strengthened. As you were, then. Instead of aiming precisely at one of the central problems in schools – the low quality of teacher recruits, the low entry requirements and the low level of training – the government prefers to spray them with a blunderbuss of misdirected initiatives.
Such is the new Labour way. Despite its excess of planning, it’s not much of a plan and there’s not much new about it