31 July 2007

The Weakest Link

Leadership often means saying what others don't want to hear and being able to point out an alternative way forward. Anyone doubting David Cameron's leadership needs to read his speech on school discipline today.

With figures showing that almost 40,000 children were suspended from school at least three times last year, over 1,700 children were thrown out of school for assaults on teachers, and with Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) condemned by Ofsted as the weakest link in the education system, the Conservative Party leader calls for less reliance on PRUs and more emphasis on the independent voluntary sector to educate school troublemakers. But before detailing a plan of action for the future, he examines the ways in which the Government has failed us:

In education, the whole country is still suffering from a series of orthodoxies which are a sort of hangover from the 1960s.

First, the idea that we should treat every child not as unique, but as identical - that equality and equal rights mean throwing every child into the same class in the same school.

It is this that has bred the doctrine of inclusion for all - the idea that schools should cater for everyone, no matter what their needs, aptitudes or behaviour. The result is special schools closed, and some children with special needs inappropriately included in mainstream education. Bright kids are held back and less able kids are left behind.

Second, the orthodoxy that education is a process not of learning from a teacher, but of solitary discovery - that the child should guide himself to knowledge. The result is the lack of rigour and falling standards we are becoming so familiar with.

And finally, the orthodoxy that schools should not be independent institutions, accountable to parents and the local community, but local outposts of the central state. The result is a target culture which makes it far harder for heads to create their own ethos for their school - and that includes rules on discipline.
Of course, anyone can criticise the Government for its mistakes. But Mr Cameron goes on to explain how the Conservatives will improve the provision of education for excluded children:
  • First, we will stop the closure of special schools. Over 60 per cent of children in PRUs have special educational needs. That's too many, we need to ensure there is the proper provision for these kids.
  • Second, we will ensure there is earlier intervention for kids with emotional and behavioural difficulties. I would like to see kids with emotional and behavioural difficulties picked up much earlier, at the start of primary school, rather than later in secondary school when they cost far more to look after and are far less likely to change their ways. Schools specialising in emotional and behavioural difficulties do an important and difficult job - too many have closed or are facing cutbacks.
  • Third, and vitally, we need a whole new relationship between state schools and those voluntary bodies and social enterprises which have real expertise in turning around kids who get excluded. It's time for the state sector to say that when it comes to these children, we're doing a bad job and you're doing a great job, we want to trust you with more of the resources, more responsibility, longer contracts and more freedom.
Once again, it all comes down to the Government's inability to trust the people. And, once again, the principles of empowerment and subsidiarity should be applied to all of us, not just young people...