Thursday, August 9, 2012

John Boulton on Public Education in the UK

John Boulton
The Baltimore Curriculum Project's four-part series, Around the World in Four Newsletters, features interviews with education leaders from around the world. The interview below features John Boulton, Director of Training and Consultancy for the International Institute for Restorative Practices. Mr. Boulton is ex-Principal of a residential special school for pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.

What is the purpose of public education?
I would agree with a previous contributor who suggested that ‘the purpose of any education is to enrich the lives of students and develop in them the tools that they will need to be active, critical, and contributing members of society’, but I would also add that it should be about helping each individual achieve their full potential. The challenge for public education (state education in the UK), is that it needs to be made available to everyone and that there are conflicting demands and expectations. An additional and increasingly important factor is that of public finances.

There is a constant debate as to what direction the curriculum should take. For many years employers have been complaining that some school leavers have not reached the standards which enable them to function effectively in the workplace, thereby, impacting upon their employability. A similar claim, albeit at a higher level, has been made by various universities. The alternative camp argue that education should have wider horizons and is not only about future employment prospects as that would be also be achieved.
Since the introduction of the ‘comprehensive school’ system in the 1960’s, education has been a political issue both at a national level as well as local level, and as a result, a consistent and cohesive approach has not been achieved.

In my role as Director of Training and Consultancy for the International Institute for Restorative practices I visit many schools in different parts of the country and at times, the contrasts can be stark. The recent ‘Building Schools for the Future’ programme created some ultra modern schools with fantastic facilities that would not look out of place in a modern business environment. At the other extreme, pupils are being taught in poorly maintained buildings that house equally poor resources. Whilst quality education is not just about the environment it must have some impact upon both the pupils and staff. 

How does your country measure school success and hold schools accountable for educating students effectively?
Again, the answer is not straightforward. At the national level the answer to both parts of the question would be  Ofsted  and ‘league tables’. Ofsted is the process under which Inspectors visit a school for a number of days to; observe lessons, interview staff and pupils, gather information from parents and review all of these findings against the schools’ self evaluation. How this works seems to be subject to constant change, the most recent being that the notice to schools for the inspection is to be reduced to about 24 hours.
Over the years, and often in association with a change of government, the emphasis on, and benchmarking of standards, has also change.

League tables that provide an overview of pupil / school performances in the main subject at the various key stages of education receive a mixed reception. They are regarded by some as an effective way of ensuring that a school concentrates on achieving good results in the key subject areas, whilst others think that they merely reflect the catchment areas of the school, and as such, some schools are almost destined to appear to perform poorly.

How do the schools in your country address the impact of poverty on education?
Overall, schools are very aware of the socio-economic levels which prevail in their local area and attempt to meet the challenges in a variety of ways. For example, ‘Breakfast Clubs’ are popular and essential in some areas. Additional finances are made available from different sources and this translates into the deployment of additional staff and / or resources. A recent development has been the introduction of a system whereby   schools receive a relatively large amount of money for each pupil on their register who is receiving free school meals. How the money is used is then left to the individual schools.

How do we educate children to become citizens of a global community instead of merely competitors in a global economy?
Having recently looked at over 600 school websites it was very clear that some schools actively encouraged their pupils to widen their horizons and engage with the ‘global community’. There is much evidence of schools linking with establishments in different parts of the world, supporting charities and projects abroad and in some cases, arranging visits and exchanges. Those pupils who are involved in these projects must develop a greater understanding of global issues, however, the current worldwide economic problems are likely to have a ‘pull’ in the opposite direction.

The British have acquired an unenviable international reputation for being poor at learning other languages and this is now being viewed as having a detrimental impact upon our ability to promote international trade. The government has just released plans to ensure that the teaching of languages is given a higher profile and age related targets are to be introduced.

There is little doubt that at the moment, we are all in state of financial and economic uncertainty. Given these circumstances the tendency is for individuals, organisations and countries to become more insular. How this all unfolds over the next decade will be interesting and difficult to predict.