What’s happening in the English education system and how does it compare to Singapore’s system?

by Stacey Dingwall

At the end of last year, we looked at the state of the Scottish education system following the publication of some disappointing Pisa results for the country. In this blog, we focus on some of the issues recently highlighted within the English education system, and how the system compares to that of Singapore – a system that is frequently identified as a model for other countries.

Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment)

Although there was no significant change in England’s absolute score in the 2015 OECD survey of maths, science and reading, or in the country’s performance relative to other countries, England’s rankings did not experience the same decline seen in Scotland and Wales. While Scotland’s scores across all three areas were the lowest they had recorded in any other Pisa survey, pupils in England performed slightly above the OECD average in reading for the first time.

After a similar stagnation in scores were achieved in the previous Pisa survey, the Minister of Schools for England, Nick Gibb, promised reforms and funding in order to ensure that the country was able to better compete with the top performing countries. The 2015 results show that East Asian countries including Singapore continue to dominate the rankings, and are continuing to make advances.

Teaching

The success of Singapore’s education system has been attributed to its investment in its teachers. All of the country’s teachers are trained at its National Institute of Education and are selected from the top 5% of graduates. Teachers are required to commit to the profession for at least three years and are mentored by ‘master teachers’ at the start of their careers.

As we highlighted on the blog recently, the House of Commons Education Committee raised concerns about teacher training and recruitment in England in the report of their inquiry. The evidence the Committee received suggested that the government is failing to take “adequate” action to tackle what is described as “significant” teacher shortages in England. The report highlights data that more than 10% of teachers leave the profession after a year.

Teacher workload was also highlighted as a significant issue, and the Education Policy Institute gave evidence to the Committee that 60% of respondents to a survey they carried out identified it as a “key barrier” to accessing continuing professional development. EPI analysis also found that teachers in England average four days of CPD per year, compared to 12 in Singapore. Teacher CPD was identified as important for not only professionalism during the inquiry, but also for pupil outcomes.

The schools landscape

The quality of the teaching workforce in England is not the only area in which concerns have been raised over the impact on pupils. The education system in England is a complex one, and has become even more so in recent years with academies, free schools and the reintroduction of grammar schools. Government policy has not been consistent: the Education Bill and the academisation of all schools in England were both abandoned shortly after their announcement.

Last week’s Budget included the announcement of a one-off payment of £320m for 140 new free schools to be created, in addition to the 500 already pledged before 2020. However, there’s still no evidence that significant improvements at the primary level are associated with academy status, and differences at GCSE level between converter academies and other similar maintained schools are not statistically significant. At the end of last year, the EPI found that grammar school pupils’ higher GCSE attainment is not actually a result of better grammar school performance, but can actually be attributed to the high prior attainment and demographic of pupils at selective schools.

The EPI concluded that grammar schools are more likely to widen the attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils. It was further reported earlier this month by the Sutton Trust that a policy of ‘social selection’ is being operated in admissions to the best performing schools.

Research from the NFER has indicated that parents are confused about academies, and the different types that exist. A preference for schools to be accountable to local education authorities was also indicated, which conflicts with the government’s focus on expanding academies/free schools.

Singapore operates a centralised schools system, which is integrated and characterised by a prescribed national curriculum. English academies are not required to follow the national curriculum.

Funding for schools

Despite the Budget announcement, recent news in the education world has been dominated by claims from schools that they are underfunded. As we noted in a blog from last year, when the government announced its plans for total academisation, cuts of £600m to the Education Services Grant awarded to local authorities were also planned. Even though the policy has been abandoned, the cuts have not been reversed.

Analysis for the National Union of Teachers (NUT) found that under the government’s new ‘fair funding’ formula, 98% of schools would see cuts by 2020. Responding to the consultation on the formula, representatives from over a dozen Conservative-led councils said that they were “extremely concerned” over what they see as inadequate levels of funding.

At last week’s Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) conference, headteachers told education secretary Justine Greening that current funding levels have resulted in them having to cut some subjects and support services, and increase class sizes. The day before the conference, the heads of over 1,000 schools in England wrote to parents and MPs to report the same issues.

The government insists that funding for schools is higher than ever before, at £40bn for 2016-17 and rising to £42bn in 2019-20 to take account of rising pupil numbers. However, Labour argue that as the budget does not provide for funding per pupil to increase in line with inflation, it actually represents a real-terms reduction in the funds spent for every pupil. In December, the National Audit Office published a report which said that as the government was only offering flat cash funding per pupil over the next five years, “Schools have not experienced this level of reduction in spending power since the mid-1990s”.

The latest data from the World Bank indicates that Singapore allocated a lower percentage of its GDP in 2012 than the UK: 3.3% vs 5.6%.

The future?

In an article published just before the Budget, Theresa May published an article which spoke of her government’s ambition to “make Britain the world’s greatest meritocracy”. Meritocracy is a key policy of the Singapore education system, and is identified as one of the main reasons for the system’s success. With evidence continuing to point towards disadvantaged pupils being denied the opportunities of their peers, and schools declaring that they don’t have enough funding to provide vital services, it’s clear that there is still some way to go before this ambition can begin to be realised.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other education articles. 

 

 

Is the total academisation of schools in England a good idea?

by Stacey Dingwall

In one of the major announcements made as part of last week’s Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, declared that all schools in England must become academies by 2020, or at least have official plans to do so by 2022. Any schools who fail to comply with this timetable will be forced to do so under new powers adopted by the government.

The policy, Osborne claimed, would “set schools free from local bureaucracy” and is part of his government’s plan to “make sure that every child gets the best start in life”. As the plan was announced, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan tweeted that “Full academisation will empower great teachers & leaders giving them autonomy and accountability to let their schools succeed”. Writing in a white paper published the following day, her department stated that removing schools from local authority control would help to “empower local communities, putting children and parents first and clearly defining the role of local government”.

More academies – the reaction

Reactions to the announcement were broadly negative, with the reform attracting criticism from local authorities, the shadow education secretary, unions, teachers, think tanks and parents, amongst others. Alongside Conor Ryan, Director of Research at the Sutton Trust, many pointed towards the fact that limited evidence exists of academies’ ability to improve the attainment levels of disadvantaged pupils, which was their original purpose. A loss of accountability to parents was also raised as a concern by some, including the Local Government Association, who stated that they opposed the handing over of “significant” powers in areas – including the curriculum – to “unelected civil servants”.

It was also noted that the government has decided to go ahead with the reform despite a recent letter to Morgan from Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools in England and head of Ofsted, which described the results of recent HMI inspections of academies as “worrying”. Wilshaw also wrote that many of the inspected multi-academy trusts displayed the same weaknesses as the worst performing local education authorities, and that the large salaries paid to the chief executives of these trusts was a “poor use of public money”.

Ongoing concerns

The Budget announcement comes almost two years after we first looked at issues with the academies programme on the blog. At that time, we reported on concerns that money which could be spent on addressing the shortage of school places in London was instead being used to open academies in areas where there was no urgent need for more places.

International experience: America and the Netherlands

After facing similar criticism to the English programme of failing to improve the attainment of poorer pupils, some are suggesting that the American charter schools programme, which heavily influenced the creation of the academies programme, is in decline. The Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, continues to be a vocal opponent of the movement, despite facing legal challenges over his refusal to guarantee space to new and expanding charter schools.

Speaking at a town hall meeting in South Carolina in November 2015, former charter supporter and potential Democrat presidential nominee Hillary Clinton voiced her opinion that charter schools do not engage with the “hardest-to-reach” kids, or if they do, “they don’t keep them”.

Writing for the Institute of Education, University College London blog, Toby Greany and Melanie Ehren considered the experience of the Netherlands, a country whose schools system has higher rates of autonomy than England. Two issues experienced by the Dutch Schools Boards, which were set up to oversee groups of primary schools, are highlighted as particularly relevant for England:

  1. Some Boards have been placed into special financial measures due to their failure to correctly predict their pupil numbers; this, it is argued, could befall academies in England who cover more than one local authority area.
  2. Due to limited engagement with teaching staff and parents, the Boards have not managed to fully embed themselves as legitimate in the eyes of society.

Evidence update

Since our 2014 blog, both the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) have published new evidence on academies, focusing on their impact on pupil attainment. In their May 2015 review of available evidence, the NFER noted several difficulties in evaluating the performance of academies due to several gaps in the evidence. The review concluded that while there is some evidence to suggest that sponsored secondary academies have had a positive impact on attainment, no significant difference in progress could be found between converter academies and similar non-academy schools. In addition, no conclusive evidence was found of the impact of academisation on primary pupils’ attainment.

In a think piece published alongside the evidence review, the NFER concluded that further expansion of the academies programme by the government would require the following factors to justify it:

  • a clearly articulated theory of change
  • the right evidence
  • evaluation
  • sufficient capacity
  • accountability

Given the reaction to the Budget’s announcement, it can be assumed that most are of the opinion that the government has not yet managed to provide sufficient justification for its decision.


Further reading from our blog on the English education system:

Government’s free schools programme comes under fire again

free school

By Stacey Dingwall

The government’s already controversial free schools programme in England ran into trouble again this week, with the publication of an Ofsted inspection report on Greenwich Free School which found that “too few students make good progress across the different subjects taught in the school”, alongside Labour Party analysis which suggests that 70% of the schools are still not full two years after opening. Continue reading