To many observers, the Five Year Strategy for Children and
Learners has a lot to commend it. Its 110 pages are an ambitious
attempt to tackle inequality and underachievement through an
all-encompassing, practical approach beginning at birth and
extending almost into middle age.
One of the education system’s biggest failings, says the
government, is that achievement and social class are still too
closely linked. Children who get a poor start in the early years
fall further behind as they progress through the system, and there
are too many secondary schools dogged by truancy and bad behaviour
and too many adults lacking basic skills.
A guiding principle, set out in the document’s foreword by
education secretary Charles Clarke, is “personalisation”, meaning
that the system should fit the individual, rather than the
individual having to fit the system. In theory, this should mean
not only more flexible types of learning, with a wider variety of
vocational options, career routes and learning styles and more
activities out of school, but that disadvantaged children and young
people should receive the extra support they need.
The strategy says that key agencies should work more closely
together to provide a better service to clients. So there will be
more “one-stop-shop” children’s centres providing child care,
education, health, employment and parenting support in the early
years, and children’s trusts with more integrated services
for children and families. There will also be more extended schools
and a wider range of services for local people.
But there are doubts about whether such good intentions can pan
out in practice for the most disadvantaged and disengaged young
people. Making all secondary schools into “independent specialist
schools”, with more autonomy over the way they are run, combined
with the strategy’s emphasis on tougher discipline and higher
standards, could also work against the young people who create the
most problems and demand the most time.
The National Union of Teachers and others have seen the call for
more independent specialist schools as an attack on comprehensive
schooling. These schools, once they meet agreed criteria, currently
specialise in an area of excellence such as technology, music or
languages, and are allowed to select up to 10 per cent of their
intake in terms of that aptitude. Although the government has
pledged that there will be no return to selection by ability, it
nevertheless wants to see all secondary schools becoming specialist
schools. Governors and head teachers will have greater freedom over
budgets, assets, management, buildings and employment, and there
will be a less hands-on and more strategic role for local
The most popular schools will also be allowed to expand, and
there will be another 200 academies – new schools promoted
and managed by independent sponsors, including philanthropic
individuals, educational trusts and faith groups – in areas
of low educational standards or where there aren’t enough
John Beer, head of Ladymead Community School, Taunton, and a
National Association of Head Teachers National Council member,
welcomes many elements of the strategy, but says increased parental
choice could create problems.
“In terms of equal opportunities it’s better for all
schools to be specialist schools, because otherwise some schools
could be missing out,” he says. “But the proposals to allow the
most popular schools to expand and to create more academies could
have unintended consequences. Local education authorities have
always managed surplus places across whole areas, but an unlicensed
free market could disadvantage the children that no one else wants.
There’s a danger with academies that they are seen as having
more resources, more freedom and more control over things like
exclusion, and could be isolated from the rest of the system.”
Ming Zhang, head of education welfare at Kingston Council, south
west London, agrees that parental choice can be an illusion. “In
theory parents have a choice, schools have a choice, and pupils
have a choice, but in practice you can’t give free choice to
everyone. Inevitably, schools have to take some pupils who they
don’t want and some parents may be disappointed.”
The proposals on improving behaviour and attendance in secondary
schools include universal school uniform, clear rules of conduct,
anti-bullying charters, tougher rules on attendance, truancy
sweeps, parenting contracts, and ultimately, removal of the most
disruptive pupils from the classroom.
Although some of these measures could work to the benefit of
at-risk young people, according to Dr Liz Todd, director of
educational psychology at the School of Education at the University
of Newcastle upon Tyne, they could equally work against them.
Underpinning everything should be a commitment to inclusion, she
says, otherwise no amount of flexible learning and good intentions
“Most schools are reluctant to exclude, but there are pressures
such as the standards agenda which put them in a difficult
position. Without clear support for the value of inclusion, you
could end up with more young people being excluded.”
Todd also points out that such measures often heap all the blame
for disruption on the child. “A young person may misbehave because
they don’t fit the system, or because the curriculum is not
appropriate. Their behaviour gets noticed, they get labelled, and
the whole problem escalates. School values and systemic issues can
also play a part, but are often overlooked.”
Todd’s research on the first extended schools suggests
that a more flexible secondary curriculum can help to make
disaffected young people feel more motivated. But she also believes
that the emphasis on school uniform is at odds with the
government’s own work on pupil participation.
“Pupil participation is missing from the strategy and instead
there’s an emphasis on traditional school discipline that
many young people see as inappropriate. Young people have made it
clear they want to be included in more of the decisions made in
Ming Zhang has some parallel concerns over truancy. “Evidence
suggests that scaring parents and punishing them for their
children’s truancy has not worked. There’s a danger of
relying too much on punitive strategies – to get results you
need a range of different measures.”
Jennifer Izekor, chief executive of East London Connexions, says
the strategy fails to address the fact that some groups, such as
young black males, are still excluded more frequently than others.
And there’s concern from parents of young people with
attention deficit hyperactive disorder about the drive for higher
standards and a clampdown on discipline.
“ADHD is not even mentioned in the special educational need code
of practice,” says Andrea Bilbow, chief executive of the National
Attention Deficit Disorder Information and Support Service. “If
ADHD is not acknowledged as a learning difficulty then no amount of
discipline is going to help. A high proportion of children with
ADHD are already being excluded and this could get worse.”
Dinah Morley, acting director of Young Minds, has worries about
conflicting priorities. “It’s difficult to see how a greater
emphasis on discipline and more autonomy for schools can be
balanced with better support for individual children,” she said.
“There is also very little in the strategy about how teachers are
going to be supported to develop a real knowledge of individual
students and to help them reach their potential. Many external
support services are already overstretched.”
Other elements of the strategy are more widely welcomed. John
Beer says the emphasis on a more flexible curriculum could provide
the interest that many disaffected young people see as lacking.
“Greater diversity is opening up many exciting opportunities for
young people, particularly those most at risk of becoming
disengaged. I’m convinced that there’s scope for
developing closer co-operation between schools, colleges,
vocational providers, employers, outdoor centres and the voluntary
sector to create a model of schooling that at risk young people
find more relevant,” he says.
He is also enthusiastic about the move to more personalised
learning through the use of computer technology and the internet.
“The whole e-learning agenda is quite exciting,” he says. “If it is
properly channelled it has the potential to engage even the most
disaffected children, especially boys, who respond well to ICT.
E-learning could provide additional support and individual learning
packages for young people, including those who tend to switch
Ming Zhang agrees that problems of exclusion, antisocial
behaviour, crime and substance misuse can often begin with boredom
“Young people often play truant because they are bored, or lack
real subject choice, particularly in the final year. They may want
to do something that they see as useful, but finding the right
vocational provision can be a lottery. Introducing more flexibility
from age 14 will help alleviate some of these problems,” he
Jennifer Izekor says the strategy’s emphasis on
partnership working is also vital. But in practice it is not easy
to implement. “The concept of collective responsibility for the
education of young people is a very positive one, but it requires a
real culture change. It takes compromise on all sides to make sure
that this agenda is really pushed forward.”
The Strategy’s Key Points
- Early intervention and better support for young children and
families, not just in education, but in the welfare of the child,
through better, more integrated children’s services, and
earlier identification of those at risk.
- Access to good child care and support at Sure Start
children’s centres where there will be more opportunities for
parents to stay at home or to find high quality child care from
birth to two years, 12.5 hours a week of free “educare” for three
and four year olds, and more wraparound and holiday child care at
schools from age five.
- An enriched primary curriculum and more extended schools
offering a wide range of community facilities and services.
- Secondary and further education which widens choice and
stretches and engages those who underachieve. Greater choice of
courses, vocational routes and places of study post 14, and more
support to young people at risk through closer multi-agency
- More independent specialist schools, with greater freedom over
budgets and more autonomy, as well as more independently managed
- Eradicating a culture of truancy and poor behaviour through
universal school uniform, clear codes of conduct, and use of
learning mentors, learning support units and pupil referral units
to deal with the most disruptive pupils.
- Groups of schools and colleges, including pupil referral units,
to take collective responsibility for the education of young people
in their area, and for establishing clear agreements and systems
for managing excluded and seriously disruptive pupils.
- More emphasis on individual learning needs and personalised