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Style over substance?

Peter Gillson | Published:

A HAPPY New Year to all, let’s hope it is better than 2017.

(Picture by Shutterstock)

We’re straight back in the political fray with the recurring subject of secondary education. Having seen the committee’s, or rather the States-directed, three-school model before Christmas, the ‘Gang of Four’s’ proposals for an alternative two-school model have been published in a 105-page report.

As would be expected given the authors, it is a well-written report and I offer congratulations, however it is a good example of a report for which the quality of the writing is better than the content.

What I mean is the use of techniques and arguments which seem to bolster their arguments but are either unsubstantiated or equally valid for a three-school model.

Reference is made to updating the Education Law. This has been recognised by successive Education committees. The same with local management of schools, neither issue is specific to the alternative model.

I have seen many votes where deputies who start undecided end up supporting a proposition for reasons that are not central to it. This raises the question of whether these have been included in the report in an attempt to bolster support by seeming to offer something which the committee does not, knowing full well that the committee report has followed normal practice of focusing on the subject in hand.

For six years I was chairman of Ladies’ College and spent a lot of time researching educational matters, including optimum school sizes. The conclusion I came to is there is no definitive, winning evidence for any of the school sizes being considered.

Schools are unique organisations, with many variables: size, funding, catchment area, quality of teachers, quality of leadership, any conclusions can only be very general.

It is negative that the alternative report goes to great lengths to discredit the CfESC preference for medium-sized schools but does comparatively little to support any claim that their larger schools are any better.

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The authors quote an external 2014 report which concluded that ‘international comparative assessment studies do not show school size as a strong correlate of educational achievement’. Additionally, they quote another external report: ‘Newman, et al. (2006) published research from 31 studies on the effects of secondary school size in OECD countries and concluded that student attainment and attendance were better in larger schools up to an optimal size but that estimates of that optimal size were so imprecise as not to be useful’.

The reality is that there are some very good medium and large schools and there are some very poor ones. Much depends on the quality of teaching and especially the quality of the head teacher and leadership team.

I find one aspect contradictory, that of a single school on two sites. Deputy Tooley explained on the radio that each would have their own culture, possibly their own uniform. Surely that amounts to two schools, not one.

One aspect I could not find not in the report is compulsory purchase of land. Extending either the Grammar or Les Beaucamps will require the purchasing of land.

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Probably the biggest omission is not identifying which schools close, although there is an attempt to bypass this by suggesting the schools would merge rather than close. Whatever term is used, if teaching ceases at Les Beaucamps, then that school has closed.

By not addressing this aspect, the two-school proposal would create years of uncertainty until the decision is made. Given that any extension to Les Beaucamps would mean the purchasing of land, probably by compulsory purchase, then it has to be the more likely to close.

If we turn to costs, a very clever sentence is used: ‘There are reasons to believe that more detailed analysis of operating costs will in due course show that the alternative model could obtain greater economies of scale than have been assumed thus far by the CfESC and in practice prove less expensive and better value for money than the proposed CfESC model’.

It places in the mind of the reader the thought that costs would be lower, but does nothing to evidence these factors. It could be equally accurate to say there are reasons to believe the CfESC’s cost will be lower, or to believe the costs of the two-school model could be a lot higher.

The report misses a significant cost. It mentions the possibility of receiving up to £10.3m. for the sale of redundant sites but not the write-off cost if Les Beaucamps is closed (or merged).

The school cost £36m. with a 50-year life, a depreciation cost of £720k per year. It opened in 2013 and assuming it closes in 2020 the un-depreciated cost is £30.24m. While a sale may generate £10m. in cash, the value of the asset being written off would be over £30m.

Some may suggest this is an accounting cost and the States does not apply correct accounting principles. True, but it is still a write-off of assets that should be included in any cost evaluation, and puts Deputy St Pier in an interesting position. For years he has advocated the use of standard accounting principles so P&R, as guardians of the public purse, should ensure this non-cash cost is considered.

How will the debate go? My gut feeling is that it is going to be close, it is likely that the two-school model will prevail, not because of the strength of argument of the core issues, but by picking up votes on the non-core issues of devolved power, a new Education Law or wanting a new committee. Additionally, as a group, the ‘Gang of Four’ will perform better in the Assembly, producing high quality speeches which overcome any weaknesses in their case.

The final question has to be how I would vote. Despite all of the hyperbole neither side has an academic ‘knock out’ punch – both would attract good quality staff and be capable of producing excellent results. I maintain my dislike of the committee’s post-16 plans, so I would opt for the three-school option but with the amendment to review post-16 options. This has less risk, less delay, less uncertainty, lower costs – and no compulsory purchase.

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