The new States will have to hit the ground running on Secondary Education. In theory, the debate on selection is finished and the new Committee for Education, Sport and Culture has been sent away to evaluate possible three-school configurations for the new system.
In practice, a number of new and returning States Members will want to revisit the selection debate. There will be sustained public concern about the three-school options, and the new States will be held to account on this issue from the beginning. It’s a question of fundamental importance to the future of our island and, especially, to our children’s growth, opportunity and achievement, in education and in life – so it is right that candidates should be expected to make their views clear.
I would not reopen the selection debate. In the March States’ Meeting, there were strong arguments for and against selection, based on academic outcomes. I read the research commissioned by the Education Department – a review of the impact of selective and non-selective approaches, conducted by researchers at University College London (available online here). Whatever the Education Department’s own policy agenda, it’s important to stress that this research is independent, uses an appropriate academic method to evaluate a wide body of evidence, and does not exhibit any obvious bias towards a preferred ideology. The report finds that there is no conclusive evidence that either selective or non-selective systems have a better impact on academic outcomes.
So, if both systems seem to be equal in terms of overall academic outcomes, the argument for or against selection has to be made on grounds other than academic achievement.
Some who support the 11-plus reflect, quite reasonably, that selection is a fact of life. However, I find one of the most compelling arguments against the 11-plus to be the exact opposite of this. In much of our daily lives, mixed-ability environments are the norm – at work, in our families, in our sporting or social activities. An educational environment in which children mix with others of different abilities and different backgrounds, and share common experiences, seems to me more likely to prepare our young people to be good citizens and to foster mutual respect and understanding within a community.
There has been a strong note of concern about hard-working children being mixed with “disruptive” children in a non-selective system. This is a difficult argument to take to its logical conclusion. Arguably, children who need greater academic support would benefit more from being shielded from disruption, than those who are already academically strong; but the opposite tends to happen in a selective system – selection results in those who need most support with their academic development being placed with those who, for whatever reason, don’t apply themselves and may disrupt or misbehave. I strongly agree that disruptive behaviour must be managed, and must not become detrimental to the education or wellbeing of other children – but I can’t interpret that as an argument for selection.
Lastly, the impact of the 11-plus on the morale, confidence and self-esteem of children must be taken into account. While I can only draw on anecdotal evidence for the time being, there is enough of it out there that this is a significant point of concern for me, and one I will continue to read up on.
While I do not support the 11-plus, I believe strongly in aspiration and ambition for all the island’s young people. In terms of academic outcomes, the research suggests that the selective or non-selective nature of the system has little impact, while factors such as quality of teaching are much more significant.
I believe Guernsey has the opportunity and the ability to provide a world-class education for all of our children. That will be my focus in respect of education policy in this States. The States has already signalled that academic achievement will be highly valued and supported in the new system; a position I fully endorse. I think the value that we give to technical and vocational education is also part of the solution, as is the importance we give to support within education, and to approaches which nurture a child’s growth, personal development and interest in the wider world.
I’m disappointed that inclusive education has been such a small part of the conversation so far. For example, little attention has been given to the possible impact of delaying the purpose-built Autism Centre at La Mare De Carteret. The new States must be better at making education policy decisions that take into account all young people: bearing in mind that Special Educational Needs (and other needs, which may not be specifically education-related) form a wide spectrum that’s present in both mainstream and specialist schools; and ensuring that our education system helps to provide all children with the best possible start in life, and every opportunity to succeed beyond education.
To build a world-class education system, we must also give schools the stability and confidence they need to develop. That means concluding the outstanding questions (including the number and location of the future secondary schools) quickly and fairly.
I’m not sure the time was right for a debate on school closures – the change to a non-selective system will be a major transition for the secondary school teams to manage; the switch to three schools from four will compound the challenge. The UCL research doesn’t provide strong evidence in favour of closing a school, and my own instinctive preference would have been to keep four – but several current States Members whose politics I respect voted in favour of three, which challenges me to scrutinise my own prejudices closely as I research this issue.
I believe the transition won’t leave any school untouched. It’s not just a question of “shutting” one school. Students, and some teachers, will be dispersed to the other sites, changing the culture and community at each. Infrastructure changes, small or large, will be required at each school, altering the look and feel of the place. While all of this could have many positive benefits, we must acknowledge that there will unquestionably be significant change at every school as a result.
The Committee for Education, Sport and Culture has been directed to evaluate all possible options for a three-school model and return with recommendations before the end of 2017. It falls to the new States to make sure that this evaluation process is as reliable as possible: to ensure that appropriate criteria are used (including the cost, practical considerations, and projected outcomes, in terms of academic achievement and student welfare, of each model) and that the process is publicly acceptable. I’m not going to pre-judge the findings of that process by identifying a ‘preferred site’ for closure.
However, I will advocate for the inclusion of young people in the decision-making process. From United Opposition, who champion the preservation of four schools in a selective system; to the young people at La Mare De Carteret, who launched a petition for the future of their school; to the Youth Forum who, in their impressive takeover of the States, challenged the role of the 11-plus in a system that promotes real equality of opportunity – young people have spoken out with power and conviction on all sides of the debate, and have more than earned a place at the table.
Coming from a health and welfare background, this debate marks my first in-depth involvement with education policy, and I know I have only just begun to scratch the surface. There are aspects of the debate I haven’t touched on here, and I will return to the topic on my blog later in the campaign period. But I hope this post reflects how seriously I take it; recognising the significance of decisions which will shape outcomes for current and future generations of young islanders. I am reading, researching and analysing the issues in depth; listening carefully to views on all sides of the debate, on social media and in person. Starting this morning, I am meeting with all the States’ secondary schools over the next couple of weeks, trying to understand their current situation and how the potential changes might affect them. I really appreciate how open and welcoming they are all being, in the middle of a tough and uncertain time. I’m very happy to meet with others who have particular views on the education debate, and to consider any research or hear any concerns that you’d like me to be aware of – please get in touch.