Yesterday afternoon I attended a debate held by Oxfordshire’s youth parliament. This body is the local arm of a national organisation and eventually elects representative to the national youth parliament that is provided with an opportunity to debate in the House of Commons chamber. The youth parliament creates an opportunity for young people to receive their first taste of that part of the democratic process in action. During the day they discuss topics in groups, creating arguments for and against policies that allow them to see and understand how the debating process operates.
The topic for debate yesterday was around the issue of young carers and the responsibilities schools have to this group of young people.
The debate was surprisingly balanced between those that felt schools had a key role to play in helping young carers and others that felt school was a place to escape the burden of care and be yourself. This group was afraid of the stigma other pupils might attach to young carers if their role was too clearly known at school. Most contributors on both sides of the debate made single points that were rather more in the form of interventions than speeches although the opposition closing argument was an impassioned speech that may have swayed a few votes in his direction.
Four county councillors, including the Council Leader, along with a group of senior officers, turned up to listen to the debate and support the young people. Each councillor was able to express their support for the scheme and encourage the young people in their actions. After all, the teenagers had taken a day out of their half-term holiday to be at the youth parliament.
It was good to see the level of support and it is important that young people don’t take democracy too lightly, especially if England were to follow Scotland’s actions in the referendum and reduce the voting age for some if not all elections from eighteen to sixteen.
As we approach the 150th anniversary of the introduction of state education in England, in 2020, it is important to remember the part education has played in helping shape our democracy. One important change I have mentioned before is that the emphasis is now on educating children as individuals and not as classes. This makes more work for teachers, but creates more opportunities for children. How the rest of society handles that in terms of its effects on social mobility is another matter. But, we still struggle as a service to help those, whether young carers, pupils suffering from childhood illnesses and diseases, or children with parents that don’t appreciate the importance of school attendance. Unlocking the potential in all is a good phrase for an election slogan on education as it shows what we have still to do, but in a positive manner.
There is far more to a democratic state than the skill of debating, but to make at least that aspect of parliament real to young people might be to awaken the interest of the next generation of politicians.
Last week wasn’t a very good one for Free Schools that are effectively independent schools funded from general taxation. Firstly, there was the closure of the Discovery School in Crawley after an Osfted Inspection, then there was the National Audit Office Report that gave the whole Free School project something of a mixed blessing and led me to ask why, when governments local and national are busy cutting services because of a lack of funding, some Free Schools have been allowed to open in areas where there is no shortage of places for pupils at present. Finally, in a largely un-noticed Table in the Statistical Bulletin on Phonics testing published last week by the DfE it appeared that the 423 pupils tested in the 15 Free Schools did less well than pupils in any other type of school except for pupils in sponsored mainstream academies. The latter are probably in many cases schools in special measures that have been forced to become an academy with a sponsor. Interestingly, there was no difference in outcomes between pupils educated in infant and primary schools, with in both types of school 85% of pupils meeting the standard by the end of Year 2 compared with 82% in the Free Schools.
The Free School movement is entirely the opposite of the Gladstonian approach to State Education espoused by the Liberals in the Nineteenth Century. To Gladstone, the State was the default position and as a result if you wanted a different type of education, you had to pay for it. The only exception was that the revenue costs of existing schools that joined the state system were paid, but apart from on religious matters they then followed what the state demanded. To modern day Conservatives, including the Centre for Market Reform of Education and the Adam Smith Institute that jointly published a paper last week entitled School Vouchers: for greater equality and quality in English education it appears that the State should pay for any type of education parents want. As I have mentioned in a previous post, this is economic madness when the State is trying to cut back on expenditure. Those with even a limited knowledge of the history of education only have to consider the financial consequences if those former Direct Grant schools that left the state system in the 1970s over comprehensive schooling all applied to return to the state sector and ceased being private fee-paying schools.
There is a real debate to be had here about what the State should provide by way of education, and whether it should be encouraging more parents to move away from a private sector that is also busy becoming a significant export industry in its own right. If technology is about to play an important part in re-defining schooling, as some now claim, it may be worth considering both the purpose of schooling, and the role that the modern state should play in delivering a service. After nearly 150 years of one model, it might be time for a change. Whether that reform means extending the offer of free schooling to more pupils or restricting it to only those that cannot pay is an interesting issue we might need to debate as a society.