“CHILDREN IN THEIR FIRST YEARS OF SCHOOL HAVE TO LEARN ARCANE TERMINOLOGY AND SYNTAX”
But by far the most unpopular schools announcement this year came from George Osborne, proclaiming that all schools would be forced to become academies within six years.
Although two thirds of secondary schools are already academies, thousands of primaries and other secondaries are still under local authority control and many are perfectly happy with the arrangement. There were particular fears that small or rural village schools would have to close or merge, or be swallowed up by large, unaccountable academy chains.
Eventually the government capitulated but although blanket conversion was dropped, the government retained powers to force schools to convert to academy status in “underperforming” local authorities (even schools doing well) or those in areas where councils were deemed unable to provide the necessary support.
Teaching unions, parent groups and head teachers had decried the changes. Malcolm Trobe, interim General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said last month about academies: “We note that full academisation remains the government’s aspiration. There is no need to force all schools to become academies and partnerships must be entered into on a voluntary basis. The most pressing issues facing schools are the ongoing crises in funding and teacher recruitment.”
These latter issues grab fewer of the headlines but are likely to have the biggest impact on children. Changes to the national funding formula may sound dull but will have a potentially catastrophic impact on the budgets of some schools, which are already operating on a shoestring, while others will be better off.
Despite attempting to lure top graduates into teaching with lucrative bursaries, the government has missed its teaching recruitment targets for the fourth year in a row. While the number of qualified teachers keeps rising, so do the numbers needed as new schools open and teachers retire or resign from the profession, some because they have had enough of the turbulence in the school system.
Confusion for parents is amplified by the different qualifications offered at schools. Some schools teach International GCSEs, known as IGCSEs, rather than GCSEs. Others teach the International Baccalaureate (IB) or the Pre-U instead of A levels.
The IGCSE initially appealed to independent schools because it was more akin to the old O level. Proponents said it was more rigorous and had less coursework than GCSEs, with a linear two-year course ending in examination.
However, the difference between GCSEs and IGCSEs has become negligible. The new reformed GCSEs have also shed coursework and focused on examinations, and schools are discouraged from resits. IGCSEs are being redeveloped to offer “the same breadth and depth as the reformed GCSEs”, according to the Cambridge board, and will also be marked from 9-1. The Cambridge board also offers the pre-U in 25 subjects as an alternative to A levels, but this is not as popular as the IB. There is also the Cambridge Primary programme for ages five to 11, which is not as widely taught in the UK.
Teenagers taking the IB diploma for 16- to 19-year-olds select six subjects, and also study theory of knowledge, undertake a community-service project and write an extended essay. The subjects they study must straddle a range of groups including literature, language, society (humanities), science, maths and the arts.
Those behind the qualification claim it encourages pupils to think independently, become more culturally aware and perform more strongly than A level candidates. Others argue that A levels offer a greater depth of intensive learning about chosen subjects and are well respected by universities and employers, who are familiar with the qualification and understand its grades better than the IB.