Educating Guernsey

With the winds of educational change blowing through the island at the moment, it can be useful to get an outside perspective of Guernsey’s divisive decision to move to a comprehensive system. Since Education has been named as one of Boris Johnson’s priority policies, Susan Wallace headed to last week’s Conservative Party Conference to find out whether the experts there think we are going in the right direction...

People queuing outside the Manchester Convention Centre for last week’s Conservative Party Conference. (Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire)
People queuing outside the Manchester Convention Centre for last week’s Conservative Party Conference. (Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire)

WE TEND to be nostalgic about our school days – good or bad.

When true stories, perhaps of overlapping teachers and an intimate, practical knowledge, are shared within a fortunate family who’ve attended the same good local school, or by others who get to perhaps enviously see those that go, it can hold a place in our hearts for years.

For some, accepting the States approval of the final version of the estimated £157m. new two-school model of state secondary education, with its closure of the island’s only grammar school, established way back in 1883, has not been without turmoil – maybe for others relief, or even excitement.

At last week’s Conservative Party Conference, after attending a fringe event entitled ‘Does school choice drive school improvement?’, which had representatives from the National Association of Head Teachers, The Education Policy Institute and other interested bodies, I asked Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, about his thoughts on the shake-up and the recent abolition of the island’s 11-plus.

He said: ‘Two years ago, I was very pleased to go to the island of Guernsey to meet with members in primary and secondary schools there. Teachers in the primary schools, in Year 6 (10-11), were really upset, telling me about the impact that the 11-plus had on the psychology of the children. They were very concerned about all the children who failed and felt really defeated at age 11 – and were really committed to there being one comprehensive education system on the island. Our union has been involved in that campaign.

‘In other education jurisdictions, it’s completely non-controversial, so I think parents on Guernsey should be reassured. Most other countries in the world don’t have grammar/secondary modern systems – they have systems which succeed very well, where children are taught together and all children can do better in those situations,’ he added.

Conference attendees congregate, with things to do, like a collective consciousness – many dressed in smart, navy hues. The commodity is meaningful attention. My impression is that nobody is there, dashing round under Manchester’s best movie-rain, because they don’t care; because they have nothing to care about or take care of. Perhaps surprisingly, the conference feels like one big, swirling, emerging knowledge and care zone. Later, yes, with bubbly. But fretting over those empties, from such party conferences, is a distraction.

Dodging the raindrops, standing outside Manchester Central Convention Complex facing The Midland Hotel, which together formed the secure venue for the conference, Steve Mastin, a state school history teacher and vice-president of the Conservative Education Society, spoke to me before heading off to a nearby anti-grammar school fringe event with Comprehensive Future and others.

He said: ‘When people think about grammar schools, and how good they are, it’s things like a strict discipline policy, good behaviour, a school uniform that you can be proud of, a very knowledge-rich, well-sequenced curriculum – they think about children being stretched at the top and children at the bottom being supported – and rigorous exams.

‘The problem is that grammar schools only benefit the 19% of pupils who get to go to them and I want 100% of pupils to have all of those things; to have a fabulous education. Nobody who makes the case for grammar schools ever cares about the 81% of pupils who don’t get into them. So when they talk about grammar schools and their great successes, I totally agree. I want that for every child. Which is why I believe in non-selective education of grammar school standards for every child on the island of Guernsey.’

I also asked Mr Mastin about the decision to abolish the 11-plus. ‘If you have non-selective education, you don’t need it. What you do is you set and stream once pupils are in comprehensive school, so you have top sets, middle sets… effectively streaming children by ability – but you’re doing it in a way that benefits them in certain subjects. For instance, in music, I’m not sure that at key stage 3 (11-14) you want music to be set and streamed, but in maths, you definitely want to have setting and streaming.’

Better inclusion, regarding targeted studying to get into work, was also on the conference agenda for older teens progressing out of secondary education, and adult learners.

In his conference address, Gavin Williamson, the new Secretary of State for Education – one of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s priority policies, with £14bn going into primary and secondary education in the next three years – set ‘a new target to supercharge’ the ‘overlooked’ area of further education, giving a commitment to boost apprenticeships, technical and vocational education over the next decade.

The Centre for Progressive Policy, which held a fringe event, cited as a panel debate on the importance of, and barriers to, lifelong learning, broadly welcomed yet critiqued Mr Williamson’s speech.

Discussion also included the theme of ‘Implementing Augar – building an adult education system fit for the future of work’, with the need for ‘joining up’ education with business being paramount for productivity needs and growth.

This summer’s 216-page report, The Augar Review – a post-18 review of education and funding, commissioned by former Prime Minister Theresa May – is the probable catalyst for Mr Williamson’s pledges and available to read on www.gov.uk.

Even for the well-to-do leaving university – the future leaders, entrepreneurs, and potential employers harvesting parental know-how and networks – competition for sought-after graduate jobs is stiff, a bachelor’s degree no longer being a pass to social mobility and a prosperous career. Many others will need, or prefer, these now-committed alternative pathways to secure rewarding work when looking at leaving school or seeking a change later in life.

Without proper systems in place across and connecting the political spectrum, however, those looking at a lifetime of working in the nebulously defined, and increasingly precarious, ‘unskilled labour market’ look set to struggle. So, kids, pass your exams!

At night, head on the pillow back home now, recovering conference delegates and politicians considering subsequent action may still be having their own internal dialogue on how what they particularly cared about in Manchester went. As every good negotiator knows, what counts is what you walk out the door with.

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