Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Friday, 11 February 2011

The UK government is willing, but are their graduates ready?

This week, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the UK launched an EU careers month in order to make UK graduates aware of employment opportunities in the various EU institutions. Currently, only 6% of the EU’s workforce is British, despite the fact that the UK represents 12% of the EU’s population. In last year’s EU recruitment competition the UK produced the lowest number of applicants. Unsurprising, given that a survey conducted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office found that 81% of surveyed students had never heard of the competitions. The negative implications of this are numerous, but the overarching problem is simple: the UK is not adequately represented in the EU’s multilayered policymaking process. Consequently, the need make able UK graduates aware of employment opportunities in the EU seems to be imperative.

However, there are a few complex hurdles to be cleared first. The first is the UK’s perennial euroscepticism, which is reinforced by the UK’s almost universally euro-hostile popular media. The second is the steadily declining pool of graduates able to fulfill the basic language requirements of the EU civil service.

The first hurdle appears to be the more difficult to combat. The UK is historically a reluctant EU member, and anti-EU sentiment has been on the rise since the 1980’s. This is aggravated by the fact that the UK’s popular press is profoundly critical of the EU, and in particular of ‘Brussels’, which is presented as a cesspit of venality and indulgence. Whether the UK’s euroscepticism influences the press or vice versa is a longer research question, but suffice to say that the UK press does a good job of misinforming the British public as regards the EU. This can be seen by looking at the EU’s Euromyth website, which aims to dispel some of the myths bouncing around the EU sphere, and is almost entirely made up of stories originating in the popular British dailies. This is not surprising, given that most UK dailies do not in fact have a full time correspondent in Brussels. Such a hostile environment does not breed an eager pool of EU civil servants.

However, it is the second hurdle that poses the biggest problem for EU employers searching for employable UK graduates. The fact that the EU requires functionaries to speak another official EU language apart from their own is a big problem for the UK’s primarily monolingual graduate pool, which has continued to grow since languages became a voluntary qualification in 2004. French and German – the two other official languages of the EU aside from English – have proven particularly unpopular since they became voluntary subjects. Without these language skills graduates are unable to even pass the screening stages of the EU civil service.

As a result, this awareness drive is left with a limited audience. By the time students are searching for a graduate position, the chance to learn an additional language (without incurring gargantuan costs) has been missed. Therefore, it must be hoped that future initiatives will seek to address the information deficit at an earlier stage of the education process.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

In defense of free schools

What a bad week it has been for Education Secretary Michael Gove. His £15bn cut to the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) fund has been met with outrage by Labour and Lib Dem MPs, as well as a number from the Tory benches. And the publishing of an erroneous list of affected schools has further compounded his troubles, resulting in calls for his resignation. But what of the centre piece of Mr.Gove's education brief, the policy to allow individuals to set up independent yet government funded 'free schools'? As it stands, it has received almost universal hostility from across the political spectrum. I believe this is misguided.

The left claims that free schools will become havens for 'pushy middle class parents', siphoning off local authority cash from existing state schools. Simon Hughes, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, has explicitly linked the free schools to the cut to BSF, saying it would be a 'nonsense' to build new schools using cash that could have improved existing school buildings. The National Union of Teachers has said the policy is tantamount to a 'sweeping dismantling' of the current education system.

Prominent figures on the right have also been critical of the reforms, suggesting that Mr Gove’s free schools initiative is the wrong answer to the endemic problem of inequality in the UK's education system. Indeed Peter Hitchens, columnist for the Mail on Sunday, went so far as to call the policy a 'stunt and a gimmick'.

So is the initiative as misjudged as its critics suggest? At first glance, it is very hard to tell. A number of studies examining the Swedish model have been published, but they have almost always reached different conclusions. Yet I believe that free schools remain one of the best policies of the Conservatives' election manifesto,and have outlined the reasoning behind this bold statement below.

Allow me first to reference the UK's current two-tier education system, where a privileged 7% are educated privately at the expense of their parents and in turn gain around 50% of the available places at Oxbridge. The chasm between independent and state maintained schools can be seen in another striking statistic; namely that the total number of poor state educated boys (from across the whole of the UK) who gained top marks in their A-levels is currently smaller than the number of boys at Eton who did likewise. Unfortunately, when coupled with centralised control, Labour's gargantuan investment into education has not helped one jot.

I would argue that free schools will offer the state sector one of the elements central to the success private schools - their independence. And having taught for the past year as part of the independent Civitas Schools project, which aims to give a first class education to disadvantaged children, I am absolutely certain of the advantages independence brings to the classroom. Civitas Schools employ a similar approach to that envisaged for the free schools model, with makeshift classes being held in church halls and community centres. Free from the national curriculum, free from meddlesome bureaucrats and free from stifling targets, children are taught the basics of literacy and numeracy using traditional methods. The results are impressive – the schools' independence allows teachers to respond to children's educational needs as they see fit, and not as the curriculum dictates.

Free schools can only benefit from this independence. Let me use the example of the International Baccalaureate, which is regarded as a superior qualification to the A-level but is only available to private school pupils. This is profoundly unfair, yet unsurprising, as the last government preferred grade inflation to intellectually rigorous examinations. A similar philosophy can be seen in state maintained primary schools, where final year children are prepared for pointless SATS as opposed to common entrance– one of the most life defining exams one can undertake when good state schools are few and far between.

As they are non-selective, it is unlikely they will become havens for middle class parents. As the writer Toby Young has said of the free schools he is trying to set up:“not only will it not be the exclusive preserve of the local middle classes, I don’t even know if I’ll be able to get my own children in”. It could be argued that parents living in the most deprived demographics are unable to indulge in the setting up of a school, therefore limiting those parts of the country to local comprehensives, yet around half of the applications to set up free schools have been from teachers. This suggests that they will not just be the preserve of middle class parents, but a boon for all.

Of course, free schools are no panacea. After all, they will remain state funded and non-selective. No matter how independent, they will not be able to compete with rich and selective private schools. Yet I believe that they offer a viable alternative to the traditional comprehensive.

The free schools model is indeed ambitious. But after years of tinkering at the margins, it may just be time for a sweeping dismantling of the education system.