Education escape tunnel ‘built on duplicity’

Former Education, Sport & Culture member Richard Graham fears that the new committee is on track to settle for the worst of all worlds with an option that is expensive and will not get the best out of island pupils

A DECISION on the future model for secondary and post-16 education is due to be made by the States.

When it comes – probably in May/June – the debate of the relevant ESC policy letter will witness many election promises colliding head-on with reality on an issue of fundamental importance. It will be not only a crucial decision but also one of the most difficult that the new States will have to make.

For far too long, a suffocating complacency on the part of successive generations of politicians, the education establishment and ourselves, the general public, has allowed the quality of our secondary education provision to fall too far below the best on offer elsewhere. The future model needs to address that deficit head on.

The resolution of the previous States was that any political decision should be informed by the report of a professional review of specified models. That review began in April last year but we now learn that the current ESC wants the States to rescind that resolution. I will predict the model which the ESC is likely to propose to the States.

Experience of educational policy-making in recent years gives us one clear message: it is the secondary school teachers who will call the shots. The public instinct will be to back them.

That is understandable, but in my view it is also mistaken on two grounds.

First, it is predicated on the assumption that teachers’ views will be guided above all by the best interests of students. I challenge that assumption. I do not accept that secondary teachers have a greater concern for the interests of our students than any of us non-teachers, especially the many of us who are the parents or grandparents of today’s students. The raison d’être of the teaching unions is to protect the interests of their members, not those of students.

It was interesting that when secondary school teachers were surveyed last summer about their priorities for our future comprehensive school model, the feature that was most heavily rated by them as ‘essential’ was the provision of parking spaces for themselves. At 75% this was way above the percentage who voted ‘essential’ for features that related to the interests of the students: only 38% considered it essential for students to have equivalent standards of facilities irrespective of which college they attend; 24% for students to have access to similar curriculum offers and extra-curricular opportunities whatever their college site; 28% for avoiding the need for students to change school during their 11-16 phase; and 38% for minimising movement between sites for sixth-form students, and so on.

Am I suggesting that our secondary teachers are not committed to their profession and their students? Not at all.

Am I suggesting that our secondary teachers do not have a monopoly when it comes to concern for the best interests of students? You bet I am.

The second reason why the public instinctively supports the views of secondary teachers is the belief that when it comes to designing a model fit for the 2020s and beyond, secondary teachers know best. This is another belief that I challenge.

Let me explain.

First a question. If it is accepted (albeit reluctantly by some) that two successive States assemblies have committed to a comprehensive model for secondary education, what does an outstanding non-selective school look like? The answer is ‘nothing like any of our States secondary schools’.

What do I mean by outstanding?

I would settle for any schools that match the performance of England’s top 100, non-selective, state secondary schools and have gained an ‘outstanding’ grade from a recent inspection.

Why English schools? Three reasons: standards in Scotland and Wales have declined in recent years; historically we have leant heavily on English schools as a source for recruiting our secondary teachers and headteachers; and it is with students from these schools that our own students compete for places at the best higher educational institutions in the UK.

Why the top 100? Because the average English non-selective schools in the state sector are of modest standard when assessed internationally whereas the top 100 (roughly 3%) are up there with the best anywhere. I believe we ought to set our sights that high.

When I last researched the matter in 2018, 97 of the 100 best-performing, comprehensive schools were all 11-18 colleges each with its own, integral sixth form. Only three were 11-16 schools.

This poses a problem, because until last year we have never had non-selective secondary schools in the States sector, let alone non-selective schools that are outstanding 11-18 colleges. All but a handful of our secondary teachers have no relevant experience of teaching in one, and we cannot blame them for not knowing what such schools look like, what makes them the best, what works well in them and what doesn’t work in them. They know what they know, and what the vast majority of them know is what it is like to teach within a selective system, either in an 11-18 grammar school or in 11-16 high schools. Furthermore, our system so handicaps them and their students that they have consistently produced educational outcomes that lag behind those achieved by the best non-selective English state schools, despite costing us twice as much per pupil in the process (in 2017 it was annually £10,000 compared with £5,000).

Having been privileged to see at first hand four of these outstanding English comprehensive schools and talk with their teachers, the contrast with our expensive but tired, under-performing model is truly painful.

Am I suggesting that we should ignore our secondary school teachers’ advice on the future model of secondary education? No, I am not.

Am I suggesting that when it comes to assessing the best model of secondary education they have no monopoly on wisdom? Yes I am.

All that said, I have to accept that nothing I write here and no amount of factual evidence will change the fact that our secondary teachers are likely to determine the ESC’s recommended model and the public reaction to it. So what will that preferred model be?

It won’t be any form of 11-18 schools with their own integral sixth forms because the current ESC has already succumbed to the teaching unions’ veto of them. The 11-18 school model has successfully educated generations of Guernsey students at Elizabeth College and The Ladies’ College and is about to be adopted by Blanchelande College. It is a model which elsewhere enables the best comprehensive 11-18 schools to recruit great teachers and consistently achieve better GCSE results than those achieved by the best 11-16 schools, and better A-level results than those achieved by stand-alone sixth-form colleges.

In a joint letter to the Le Pelley/Dudley-Owen ESC Committee in 2017, the headteachers of the Bailiwick’s five States secondary schools all indicated their support for 11-18 schools. I quote from their letter: ‘We recognise the benefits of 11-18 secondary schools and the five headteachers are keen to explore a federated sixth form model.’

Referring to the concept of federated sixth forms in Guernsey, the same headteachers went on to comment as follows: ‘Further development of this work will undoubtedly support continued recruitment and retention of high quality staff.’ Their advice was ignored.

I am confident that an objective, factual analysis within the review process would have demonstrated that 11-18 schools, whether two or three in number, would have offered the prospects of excellent educational outcomes with initial capital costs and future revenue costs at the lower end of the range. That explains why the ESC wishes the States effectively to abandon the review.

It was always inconceivable that the current ESC committee would in any circumstances recommend an 11-18 model to the States. After all, the ESC president personally led the successful requete against an 11-18 model and all four of her hand-picked ESC members campaigned against it.

Even the prospects of a model with three 11-18 schools are zilch, the reason being that the secondary teachers are wedded to preserving in aspic the Sixth Form Centre as it is, and the ESC is firmly in the teachers’ pockets on this.

The ESC narrative has two strands.

First is the claim that the current Sixth Form Centre is a huge success and should not be tampered with. I have never seen the evidence for this claim. Indeed, the clear evidence is that the sixth forms of the top 100 English comprehensive schools consistently produce significantly better A-level results than our Sixth Form Centre.

Second is the claim that to educate between 400 and 450 students within three sixth forms, each comprising around 135-150 students, would produce sixth forms so small as to be unviable. Whilst it is true that the sixth forms of the top-performing English comprehensive schools typically have 200 or more students, the ability in Guernsey to operate three smaller sixth forms as part of a federation is a great advantage. It provides an effective way of overcoming the difficulties of scale, as was indicated by the five secondary headteachers in their 2017 letter to the ESC.

The evidence of this advantage lies close at home within Elizabeth College and The Ladies’ College, whose highly successful sixth forms have rarely exceeded respectively 130 and 100 students and whose response to relatively small student numbers has been to operate with great success as a sensible and pragmatic partnership. If the colleges can do it, why can’t the States schools do likewise with larger sixth-forms?

They could do it, but they won’t, simply because the majority of Guernsey’s secondary teachers will oppose the concept of three 11-18 schools. They may well have different motives dependent on which schools they currently teach in. It would be understandable if teachers at the Grammar School were intent on preserving as much as possible of the model to which they are accustomed and in which they feel most comfortable. They seem predisposed to regarding the formation of three, federated sixth forms as regressive rather than progressive. Teachers at the 11-16 high schools will be similarly reluctant to change; in their case there will be many who wish to teach only up to GCSE level, some of them lacking the self-confidence or the qualifications to teach at A-level.

Advocate Peter Harwood was appointed as independent overseer of the review expressly to ensure that the review process was conducted objectively by appropriate professionals and kept free from political or ideological interference. He survived an early challenge from the new ESC as to his suitability, but significantly was excluded from the committee’s briefing given to States members in December on the progress of the review.

He was in good company; only two or three ESC staff have any first-hand knowledge of what makes an outstanding, modern comprehensive school, and they were excluded, too.

It is a sobering fact that for a workshop about such an important issue as the future comprehensive education of our secondary students, none of the ESC presenters – either officers or political members – and none of the attending States members, had seen the inside of a truly outstanding comprehensive school within the last 10 years, if ever.

I conclude it is inevitable that the ESC will propose a model comprising 11-16 schools, arguing that such a model is in the best interests of students.

That is a dodgy core belief on which to build a new model because it is clearly contradicted by the evidence provided by the record of the best English comprehensive schools and – like it or not – the evidence provided by the UK model is relevant to us here in Guernsey and cannot be ignored simply because it inconveniently undermines the case for 11-16 schools here.

In England, when due allowance is made for the different demographic and social make-up of schools from region to region, 11-18 comprehensive schools consistently outperform 11-16 comprehensive schools in their academic outcomes at GCSE, while their sixth forms similarly produce better A-level results than stand-alone sixth-form colleges.

So if 11-16 schools and a stand-alone sixth-form college will not provide our students with their best chance of fulfilling their academic potential, perhaps they are nonetheless the most cost-effective model, as asserted by one ESC member in his election manifesto.

They are not. In fact quite the reverse; it is by far the most expensive model in terms of revenue costs, especially given the relatively small number of Bailiwick students.

In 2020, the top-performing English sixth-form colleges had student numbers averaging around 2,000. By contrast, Guernsey rarely has as many as 450 sixth-formers at the Les Varendes centre, whose viability requires the vast majority of its teachers to teach students from Year 7 to Year 13. Providing a separate cohort of specialist teachers who would only teach A-level and IB subjects to a mere 400-odd students would be ruinously expensive and a barrier to teacher recruitment.

The ESC consequently faces a dilemma. How does it convince P&R, as holders of the public purse, to support a model to which all ESC members committed themselves, even though that model is demonstrably not only sub-optimal in terms of educational outcomes but also most expensive?

Miraculously, an escape tunnel has appeared. It provides a cynical way out and anyone – teacher or politician – who advocates following it should forfeit any claim to have the interests of students at heart.

I refer to a model which, significantly, was added to the original list of review models at the request/insistence of the secondary teachers.

It is an option built on duplicity. It will be portrayed disingenuously as comprising two 11-16 schools (at St Sampson’s and Les Beaucamps) and a third 11-16 school at Les Varendes that will in no way benefit from being co-located with a sixth form centre because the school and the centre will be run as two entirely separate institutions.

The reality will be completely different.

Currently, only a handful of teachers teach exclusively in the Sixth Form Centre; the vast majority teach throughout the 11-18 school. They will need to continue to do so because the financial costs of creating two separate cohorts of teachers on the same site would be ruinous. Currently, only a few niche A-level/IB subjects such as film and media studies are actually taught in the Sixth Form Centre building; most sixth-form students attend nearly all of their lessons in the original school because that is where the classrooms, science laboratories, specialist rooms, gymnasium and school hall all are. To create duplicate facilities in an extended sixth form centre would raise the capital costs to unacceptable levels and add to the annual revenue costs, too.

Sixth form students play a significant role in the pastoral life of the whole school, for example through mentoring younger students and generally acting as role-models; to deny them any engagement with students in years 7 to 11 would be perverse and irresponsible.

And the point of this blatant pretence? Pure and simple, to sustain the false narrative that there will be no advantage to the one-third of students attending the ‘11-18 college’, even though the 11-16 bit and the sixth-form bit will share not only the same site but the same facilities and, crucially, the same teachers. The spurious claim to separate identities will be based on pure trivia: separate assemblies; different colours for sports teams; different names. Whatever the disguise assumed and whatever the rhetorical devices deployed, this model would be the continuance of a grammar school that would simply have replaced selection by academic test with selection by catchment area.

I call it Option Father Christmas or Option Trojan Horse: Father Christmas because it is make-believe and makes people feel happy; Trojan Horse because it attempts to smuggle in a model under the deliberate pretence that it is something that it isn’t. It is the equivalent of trying to sell a camel to someone who wants a horse and explaining that it really is a horse that just happens to have a hump. The fact remains that the educational experience of one-third of our secondary students would be substantially different to that of the other two-thirds, and it would be where they live that would determine which experience they have.

I predict that the ESC will be sorely tempted to follow this escape route. It represents minimum change, minimum challenge and minimum ambition and is supported by many secondary teachers. Its supporters will huff and puff about all students having equivalent opportunity rather than identical opportunity, but I doubt such verbal acrobatics will convince parents of primary school children in the south and north of the island when they realise that their children would feed into 11-16 comprehensive schools at Les Beaucamps and St Sampson’s respectively whilst the children in the Town primary schools would benefit from attending an 11-18 school at Les Varendes.

The ESC president, when vice president in January 2018, offered the States Assembly an ESC amendment with an option she could recommend, namely two 11-16 schools and one 11-18 school. Sound familiar? The four new ESC members – having pre-committed themselves to three 11-16 schools and a separate sixth-form college, only to find that model is unaffordable and sub-optimal – may make a bolt for the escape tunnel, claiming they never spelt out that the sixth-form college needs to be on a separate site. Pull the other one!

On the other hand, the ESC has talked of adding models to the review. Could this include amalgamating the Sixth Form Centre with the Guernsey Institute, an eccentric, untried model condemned by the teachers and lecturers when proposed by the Le Pelley/Dudley-Owen committee in 2018?

Whichever 11-16 model is chosen, I predict its supporters will bestow the accolade of ‘world class’ on it without offering the slightest evidence to justify it. The grant-aided colleges will know better and be discreetly pleased. And why shouldn’t they be? Ambitious teachers wishing to teach both GCSE and A-level students will have little motivation to teach in our outdated 11-16 schools and will gravitate towards our successful 11-18 private colleges. Similarly, more parents may decide to somehow find the extra money to give their children a standard of education that will be beyond the reach of the sub-optimal model with which the States will have handicapped States students and teachers alike.

Anybody want to buy a horse with a hump?

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