Stop the education train crash

Forget what you’ve been told about the Great Education Debate – pause and review is shaping up as a sham. It’s all about political expediency instead of putting in place a new system to produce outstanding results for island children, says Richard Digard

EARLIER this year our new man at the Ministry of Justice wasted no time in putting the boot into Sark’s government: ‘…the evidence strongly suggests it is now time to accept that Chief Pleas is unsustainable in its present form…’.

Significant change was required. And that, said Parliamentary Under Secretary of State Lord (David) Wolfson of Tredegar, meant ‘…ensuring both politicians and officials have the necessary skills and capacity to govern effectively’.

This is significant. What he was saying is democratic legitimacy exists only while the islands are conducting themselves sensibly and have access to the skills and capabilities required to come to whatever decisions and conclusions they do. ‘It’s what we want’ isn’t automatically a defence under the watch of Lord Wolfson, a QC and Commercial Litigation Silk of the Year 2020.

I mention this because, although the MoJ’s intervention is a column in itself, I fear like many others that Guernsey’s on the brink of doing the wrong thing for all the wrong reasons over the future of education. And that would be a disaster for island children, the taxpayer, and the island’s reputation for competence.

And before you ask, yes, it is that serious. Not least because it comes after the two lost decades of the previous Education regime in which islanders, parents, the then Education Council/Committee and the States themselves were suckered into believing they had an outstanding system producing outstanding results.

An event, you will recall, that ruined the political career of Carol Steere, the then Education president.

To be clear, this is a game in which I have no skin – offspring gone; any grandchildren will be born and educated in the UK – so the following is my, hopefully, dispassionate view based on a lot of conversations with people who know more about it than I do, including Dick Taylor, a former deputy director of education and a past industrial disputes officer.

We ought, also, to bear in mind the reports on poor school standards by leading educationalist Denis Mulkerrin, which exposed the years of underperformance in the States schools and the poor literacy of children in primary schools. Former Education Committee member Richard Graham’s exposé here on Monday was also particularly powerful.

You’d think, in these circumstances, there would be a withering focus on putting children first and, with the cost of education here being about double per student compared to England, an emphasis on producing an outstanding system capable of being externally assessed and ranked.

Instead, we have a new committee that’s painted itself into a corner over the best way forward and now dances to the tune of the unions. The extent to which it has allowed itself to become a hostage to the wants of teachers rather than the needs of children is demonstrated by current ESC president Andrea Dudley-Owen’s desire to abandon previous States resolutions on this topic – without providing an alternative.

Setting aside on a whim all the policy development and research, plus the States’ own considered deliberations, is questionable enough. Expediency rarely leads to good outcomes. But one of the express decisions of the Assembly the committee now seeks to duck is ‘Quality of education – promoting the highest possible standards and outcomes’.

(Picture by Shutterstock)

The current committee cannot let that stand because it conflicts with its opposition – without considering the evidence – to an 11-18 school model. Please note that the 100 leading comprehensives by attainment in England are, almost without exception, 11-18 schools. Yes, their average size is 1,200 students, but no one turned a hair a few years ago when Grammar School numbers topped 1,000.

But then the current ESC president appears relaxed about standards and performance. She believes the main focus of education is on something she calls ‘joyous learning’. That, plus keeping everyone happy and unchallenged is akin to maintaining mediocre schools as expensive creches.

If you think that’s unfair – and none of this is an attack on individuals – where’s the independent review of performance? What standards are we striving towards and who are we holding to account for academic improvement? Or lack of it?

This matters not just for the island’s children but for Guernsey’s future. It’s why one of Policy and Resources’ Covid recovery actions is developing something called a human capital development strategy. That’s so young people can achieve their potential with increased employment and enhanced matching of skills while – crucially, in these times – providing employers with a resilient and flexible workforce.

In other words, ESC’s desire to abandon earlier States instructions to attain ‘highest possible standards and outcomes’ runs counter to the new Revive and Thrive aspirations. That’s deeply disturbing and shows how badly they’re hanging from a hook of their own making.

The other point to flag is Education’s enthusiasm for abandoning work on a new education law because it’s allegedly a distraction while they’re so busy messing things up elsewhere.

It’s also a deceit. The new committee members are sitting on a draft policy letter ready to go to the States AND there’s a matching draft of the new law itself ready for the law officers to give the final polish-up.

Former HM Procureur Howard Roberts was brought out of retirement to work alongside the previous committee to prepare these all-important revisions and you, Mr and Mrs Taxpayer, have already paid for what the new committee now wants to dump.

The reason is because it would enable local management of schools, where parents and employers hold teachers to account for the quality of education they are providing, budgetary control at school level and decentralisation of recruitment – which Denis Mulkerrin flagged as the biggest single factor in improving educational outcomes. Head teachers, not Education bureaucrats or unions, would call the shots. Which is exactly what some teachers want to avoid.

So you can see why I think this is such a mess and a looming governance disaster, even though I am unaffected by it.

What the island needs now is objectivity brought to this. That means an inspection by Ofsted, a regulator committed to raising standards, to show where we are and what’s needed to improve educational performance. If that’s via two 11-18 colleges and the new education law, so be it.

I’ve run out of space to get on to the problems of a Sixth Form, the Guernsey Institute and the shortage of skills noted by employers but I hope the point’s been made: we need an impartial review of where education is in Guernsey, what will make it truly outstanding and how to act on that evidence.

By Education, Sport & Culture’s own admissions and actions, Deputy Dudley-Owen’s pause and review won’t do that – to the enduring detriment of island children.

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