On Wednesday, 11-year-olds around the island will be ready to start secondary school for the first time. Their year group is the first not to have taken the 11-plus, ushering in the long-awaited beginning of non-selective education in Guernsey. The very same day, the States will be coming back from its own summer break, ready to decide whether that form of education has any future in this island – or not.
Nobody will have missed the fact that another big debate on Education is due this week. But there are plenty of myths and misinformation out there about what’s actually being decided, and what’s at stake.
I have not been able to reply individually to every email asking about different parts of the policy, or wanting to know how I’m going to vote. A general update is not as good as a personal response, I know, but I hope it is at least of some use.
So, what’s at stake?
Well, back at the start of this States’ term in 2016, we agreed to get rid of the 11-plus and move to a non-selective form of secondary education. This means children aren’t sorted into different schools based on a set of tests at the age of 10: instead, like at primary school, they continue to go to school based on where they live and any teaching to different abilities and aptitudes is done within the school. This is very common in other countries, and has every prospect of working well for Guernsey, so long as we make sure our schools are set up well for it.
And that’s where this debate got started. The politicians responsible for Education came to the States in January 2018 with some proposals for providing non-selective secondary education in 3 schools starting from September 2021. These schools would teach children from the ages of 11-16, and from age 16 onwards, students would be taught in a sixth-form college and a college of further and higher education.
The States didn’t accept those proposals, and instead approved an alternative model proposed by a group of four Deputies. Under this model, we agreed that secondary education would be delivered in one school, with two colleges – now known as Victor Hugo College and de Saumarez College – on separate sites, both of which would have a sixth-form (meaning that the colleges will provide 11-18 education); as well as a separate further and higher education institute known as The Guernsey Institute.
Now the States is being asked to sign off on the practical changes – and, of course, the money – needed to turn this new education system into a reality. Specifically, we are being asked to agree:
• That the two new Colleges will be on the existing Beaucamps and St Sampson’s school sites. Both sites will need extensions, and some remodelling of current buildings, which could cost up to £69 million over 5 years (starting at once).
• That The Guernsey Institute will be based on the Ozouets site, and the cost of building fit-for-purpose further and higher education facilities there could cost up to £47.5 million over 3 years (starting from 2021).
We are also being asked to approve:
• Up to £8.6 million over 5 years (between £1-2m a year) for the additional costs of putting these two major changes into practice, and
• Up to £5.8 million on improving digital services across education.
Finally, the States is being asked to agree to two other developments, which aren’t directly linked to the changes in secondary education, but which are very closely related:
• First, the much-needed redevelopment of La Mare de Carteret Primary School, at a cost of up to £22.4 million, starting in 2022.
• And second, the creation of a Community Hub for health and care, as well as education-related, services – starting at Delancey on an interim basis, and eventually moving to the former Grammar School site.
Yes, but what’s really at stake?
Okay, the issue is really whether the States is capable of putting its money where its mouth is, and following through on the decision to remove the 11-plus with the creation of a model of secondary education that will do all the Bailiwick’s children justice.
Honestly, I think what’s at stake is whether we manage to deliver non-selective education, or go back to the 11-plus. That sounds alarmist, so I’m going to try and explain why I think it’s that big a deal as I go on.
What else is at stake? Our ability as politicians to follow through: to say yes to the sometimes-difficult steps necessary to make a bold idea reality, rather than refusing everything that falls short of our personal ideas of perfection. Our ability as an island to take on a challenge and win. This decision requires a kind of courage we’re going to need again and again in the next decade as we address the big issues in health, or the challenges of economic and environmental survival: we need both the vision to think up better solutions, and the guts to see them through.
If we don’t have the guts to follow through on this one, then we really will have messed a whole lot of children around for nothing; raised and then dashed hopes for change; and spent a whole lot of time and energy and money to end up trapped right back where we started.
Isn’t there an alternative?
This is perhaps the most important thing to understand about this week’s debate: No. No, there is no alternative.
Now, I don’t mean that the one-school, two-college model is the only possible way of providing non-selective secondary education in Guernsey (or anywhere). It is a good model; and it’s a model that has been developed with a lot of professional involvement from people who understand education and know how our local system works. But it’s definitely possible to imagine other models that could work for us, too.
So when I say there’s no alternative, perhaps what I mean is – it’s the only game in Town.
We already know that we don’t want the three-school model presented by the previous Education Committee. It failed on some pretty important hurdles: it didn’t provide equal opportunities for all children – a lot depended on which school you went to (the three were significantly different sizes) and whether or not it was the one with the sixth-form centre attached or not. There was a four-school model suggested last term, but no one is seriously considering reviving it now. And no one else is bringing any new suggestions for any different models of secondary education to the table.
We can talk about imaginary, ideal schools until the cows come home. But if we want to actually provide an education system for the island, we have to choose from real options – each of which will have some benefits and some disadvantages – which are actually on the table. In other words: we can have this model; or we can revive one of the rejected models (as some Deputies hope to do); or we can stay as we are. That’s all.
Couldn’t we just keep the schools that we have?
That’s what is happening right now, so of course, in literal terms, it’s possible. The new Year 7s have not taken the 11-plus: they will be going to the secondary school that’s partnered with their primary school.
But is it desirable? We have three schools providing 11-16 education and one school, with a sixth-form attached, providing 11-18 education. The schools are comparatively small, meaning that it’s harder to offer a broad range of subjects (although the schools are federated, meaning they can help each other out a bit with this). If this model continues for too long, it will create a real ‘postcode lottery’ in education, with children accessing different opportunities at school simply because of where they live. Almost no one thinks it’s a good idea to continue with four mainstream secondary schools for long – that’s why the so-called 3- and 2-school models have been proposed.
Wouldn’t it at least be worth waiting a bit longer to make a decision?
The question has to be: what would be achieved if we waited a bit longer? The Meerveld-Paint sursis is asking for the debate to be delayed until May 2020, and for us to decide based on a comparison between the current model and the 3-school model that was rejected last year. The Dudley-Owen-Prow sursis is asking for the debate to be delayed until November, and for us to decide based on a comparison between the current model, the 3-school model, and the 4-school selective system we had until last year.
The argument is that a delay would allow more information to be provided – but it is worth pointing out that this argument is being made by the very same people who presented the States with all the information they thought we needed about the 3-school model a year and a half ago: information that was sufficient for us to reject it as an unsuitable model for Guernsey. More to the point, as members of the previous Committee, they should know the 3-school model well enough simply to brush the dust off it and bring it back to this debate, if they really believe it’s a better alternative than the one we’re being offered now.
So it’s important to ask, not just what a delay would achieve – but what would it cost? The financial price tag of delay is estimated as an extra £1.5 million: small compared to the overall costs of this project, but not a small sum of money in its own right. The human impact is even more significant – even if the States eventually decided to support the current model, it would be another year before the two Colleges could be properly established; leaving the four-school system, which we’ve already said is not fit for purpose, in place for another critical year of learning for many children. That isn’t right or fair.
The question that needs to be answered honestly by the people bringing the delaying motions, and the people who might vote for them, is: do they really believe that over the next two months, or the next eight, enough new information will be produced about the various different models, to change the way they might vote? If so, the two sursis have some justification. If not, we just need to make a decision – for or against this new model – now, so that parents and children and teachers can have some certainty about what the future will look like.
But aren’t the proposals missing some important details?
Perhaps the best answer to that is “judge for yourself.” The proposals are available here and the business case, which is a more technical document, is here. Both documents are long and packed with detail.
Deputies have also been sent emails from members of the public with all manner of questions about the proposals. Almost every email, whether challenging or supportive, has had a detailed response from the President – so we’ve had the added benefit of seeing that the Committee is capable of giving thoughtful and thorough explanations of every part of their proposals. Of course that doesn’t mean that everyone who wrote to us will have been satisfied with the responses they got – I wouldn’t want to pretend otherwise – but it has allowed us to see that there’s a lot of depth underpinning the proposals we’ve got before us.
I suppose, in brief, don’t take headlines at face value – they’re there to simplify complex concepts. Take social media with a pinch of salt. And if you’re going to read the proposals with a critical eye (please do), just make sure to apply the same standards of rigour and logic to their critics, too.
What if these big schools won’t work for my child?
In absolute numbers, we haven’t actually heard many concerns about the new schools. But among those we’ve heard, children getting bullied or falling between the cracks at bigger secondary schools is perhaps the most common concern.
I really think that we’ll soon find the risks are no worse at the new Colleges than they are today – a lot of thought has gone into the way that the schools and the school day will be structured to provide good pastoral care to all students. The proposals include more space and support for children with communication-related difficulties at both Colleges, and promise that health services (including CAMHS – the child and adolescent mental health service) will be integrated within the schools. All of this will provide an environment of care and support for young people who need it.
But if you’re not convinced by the proposals, that’s okay. In that case, you need your politicians to have an honest conversation: Do we want this secondary school model – yes or no? (And if no, shall we go back to how we were before the 11-plus went, or revive the 3-school model of non-selective education?) The uncertainty that will hang over children’s education if we come out of this debate without a definitive answer, one way or the other, will help no one.
Isn’t this all about personality politics? Can we trust the Committee?
I trust them. Secondary education has been perhaps the most difficult, highly-charged and contentious issue of our political term, so it’s easy to feel there’s no good left in it anywhere. If I get the time, I’ll write separately about the recent turmoil relating to Education appointments, and how that links to a wider issue, but it won’t be before this week’s debate.
But the key thing here is that you don’t (necessarily) need to like or trust the people to reach a decision on whether their proposals stack up, and whether they’re capable of being put into practice. The critical thing we need this week is a decision on whether or not to go ahead with this model of secondary education. The proposals are here – the question we as States Members need to answer is: are they good enough to provide the children of the Bailiwick with an education that’ll serve them well through life?
You’re painting this as bad because the 11-plus might come back. But what if that’s what I want?
Actually, that’s completely okay. I’m writing this as someone who thinks the 11-plus has been bad for generations of Bailiwick children; that it probably never fulfilled the promises of educational opportunity and social mobility that it said on the tin, and certainly hasn’t done for a very long time; and who is glad to see the back of it.
It is me, and people like me, who have the lion’s share of responsibility in this debate. Those of us who voted to get rid of the 11-plus have an absolute duty to the children of the Bailiwick to make sure that an effective system of non-selective secondary education is put in place, so that all of them get the educational opportunities they deserve.
Over the past couple of years since we made that decision, each of us has had choices. We could choose to get stuck into researching and promoting suitable models of secondary education. Or we could offer our support to one of the models that other States Members have proposed. Not many of us did the former. When we were presented with options, most of us put our backing behind this model (one school, two 11-18 Colleges) and rejected the 3-school model. We have to take account of all the decisions that have got us to this place, and take responsibility for our own vote in those decisions. At this stage, any amendments on the table – at least, from those of us whose votes brought the States to this point – should be offering tweaks and refinements to this model (or at worst, a fully-formed alternative); not delays or threats to derail it and take us back to square one.
Then there are people like Deputy Richard Graham, who wouldn’t have chosen to get rid of the 11-plus, but who don’t think it’s right to revisit the argument, because of the delay and uncertainty it will cause for a generation of Island children. Deputy Graham’s recent open letter puts the case brilliantly. Like those of us who voted for its demise, States Members who don’t want to reopen the 11-plus debate know that we need to put an alternative in place for the Bailiwick as soon as we can.
But even the Deputies who still want to see a return to the 11-plus know that they owe it to our children not to leave the future of the education system shrouded in uncertainty. The most honest way forward there, surely, would be to reject this model and propose a return to the old system.
The one thing we cannot do is play games with the future of a generation by pretending to ourselves that there might be fresh alternatives or new ideas out there – or undiscovered information so persuasive that it could turn this debate in a wholly different direction. Now is the time to have the courage of our convictions; to make a choice about what the future of secondary education is going to look like; and to honour it.
So are you going to vote for Education’s proposals (one school in two Colleges), then?
Yes. I’ll be glad to. In doing so, I think we will begin to create something really positive for this and future generations of Bailiwick children.