08 October 1992 - 10 October 1992

Primary and Secondary Education, Including Multi-Culturalism and the Perceived Problem of Falling Standards

Chair: Sir Claus Moser KCB CBE FBA

One of the most striking features apparent from the outset of this conference was that no-one professed anything even approaching satisfaction with the current condition of primary and secondary education in any of the seven countries represented. (It would have been interesting to see whether someone from Japan - the tacitly-underlying comparator in much of the discussion - would have been an exception.) Every country had in hand, by one route or another, a significant reform package, though the UK’s Government-driven agenda of changes stood on its own for breadth, weight, diversity, specificity and speed - an assemblage of characteristics whose wisdom and prudence, though stoutly defended, won less than unanimous endorsement.

We were not entirely sure whether the general discontent reflected perceptions of falling standards - a difficult proposition to establish, we agreed, without establishing underlying criteria which might have got us all into deeper philosophical debate than we were minded finding room for - or rather of rising requirements. We were in little doubt of the latter’s reality, as the demands of successful competitive economies intensified. Interestingly, though, it was suggested that these demands pointed if anything away from a bag of closely-defined skills and towards a more highly-developed capacity to learn afresh, and life-long, amid accelerating change; and the hopeful inference was offered that the awkward old distinction between education for living and education for earning a living might fade. But we reached no consensus on what the future’s needs implied for curriculum content. England and Wales (we were properly aware that, in education, Scotland is always different) were moving to central specification of this in a proportion which some regarded as likely to exceed 100%; at the same time others seemed to be moving in the opposite direction, away from close prescription - France, for example, was now tending to express requirements in terms of objectives like capabilities, rather than particular content to be included. We noted that explicit central prescription was not the only instrument of uniformity - in large areas of the United States a confined choice of textbooks could work the same way.

We beat our breasts about the overconcentration in Britain upon the top ability-slice of pupils - “80-90% of children are scheduled to fail” - and conversely about an excessive reluctance in the United States to insist on rigour - in a sense, too few “failed”. In the US, it was said, employers needed to provide better feedback into the school system, by questioning more carefully what intake they were getting and challenging the product. In the UK, we were warned against assuming that the right remedy for the “top-slice” problem was to try to give “top-slice” education all the way down - certain to fail, and anyway not what was needed. Germany and Japan were held up as models of more even and appropriate investment in all pupils.

In almost all our countries there was a sharpening focus upon devolution of management and responsibility to front-line partnership between individual schools and the parents of their pupils. (We were properly reminded, of course, that the pupils themselves should have some voice in their own right.) No-one argued against this general thrust, but equally no-one felt happy with leaving the partnership to its own devices without substantial third- party involvement. On the individual-school side, the role of leadership - crucial to performance, in a degree matched in few other social systems - placed formidable demands upon headteachers, and not all could reasonably be expected to be charismatic all-rounders. On the parents’ side, the skills and energy for truly balanced partnership could not everywhere be counted on; were parents also perhaps often too easily satisfied, or not knowledgeable enough to cope with the professionals (especially if the professionals deserved the accusation, voiced once or twice, of over-jargonising their business)? We might have wondered, too, about how sustained a commitment most individual parents would have, by comparison with the real lead-time for carrying through most sorts of educational reform.

Third-party involvement could have a variety of purposes - to provide support and specialist help beyond the professional resources of a single school; to provide oversight and audit in the wider interest of society; perhaps to brigade schools in an area system of greater complementarity and effectiveness than would result just from a market free-for-all. Some thought this pointed clearly to a local-government framework; others were a good deal less sure and noted that “third-party” roles did not all have to be discharged by a single entity. But a good many eyebrows were raised at the apparent thinness of the “third-party” segment as a whole envisaged for the 25,000 schools in England and Wales; perhaps we misunderstood the picture. We accepted the strength of the inspectorate arrangements there, but that was not the same as continuous engagement.

Most of us wanted to see the business world participate much more actively in school education. No dominant model emerged, but we spoke of direct resource input (though probably not full financial responsibility, as a general rule, though throughout we talked surprisingly little about funding routes and responsibilities), of clearer messages about its needs, and better selling of itself to the next generation. Business should in any event be an important player within a wider theme of giving schools a stronger sense of involvement in their communities, both as drawing upon other community resources - including energy and caring interest - and as being themselves important community resources capable of much wider exploitation (for example in duration of premises usage) than is yet customary.

We heard of many highly-interesting and often highly-radical experiments in school structure, governance and support (including for example an impressively broad engagement of a major university in one American city, and a drive, under a private-funding regime, to build up a fresh school concept on a clean-sheet basis). General replication often looked difficult and was perhaps an unreasonable expectation - especially if (as one or two participants feared) the scheme was of a kind that risked a creaming-off effect liable both to weaken the existing system and to invalidate replicability. But all that was not a reason to abandon experiment, or to ignore its lessons and stimuli; neat homogeneity was probably a false goal anyway for education systems in complex modem societies. We observed again here both the significance and the awkwardness of timescales. In the education field dependably-understood and proven outcomes from change took a long time to mature, so that we should not rush to conclusions; yet our consensus on the general need to do much better reminded us that the world around us would not wait upon a slow-moving laboratory. The choice among particular reforms - indeed, the more basic choice between incremental change and the kind of radicalism on which Britain was launched - had inescapably to entail a large component of judgment, and so of risk.

The quality, skills and morale of the teaching profession were, we agreed, at the hinge of whatever change we might want, whether radical or incremental. We thought new directions and emphases were needed in teacher training, including deeper grasp of multi-cultural aspects of modem societies. (In this latter regard, it was strongly argued that teachers were the key instrument, and also that the right way forward lay through wider understanding thoroughly cultivated within individual schools, building towards a common yet widening set of core values for our societies alongside greater knowledge of and sensitivity towards cultural diversities, rather than through fragmentation into separate-culture schools in a broader system.) We hoped that the concept of the teacher as professional leader rather than sole provider could gain ground; that the teaching profession could attract members from a wider background of life experience; and that those making the case for reform in our educational systems could do so in ways that encouraged rather than scapegoated the profession.

We would have liked to spend more time on the problems of disadvantaged areas (which could well include rural as well as urban ones) in which many of the components whose better use we had been commending - parent and family resource, business interest, community cohesion and concern - might be weakest precisely where the need for them was greatest. We did note that the problems of schools here underscored the general problem of school performance assessment. Even if criteria could be established (and established in ways that did not reverberate distorted back into curriculum and teaching approach), should assessment relate to absolute standard achieved, or to “added value” - that is, allowing for the initial or continuous difficulties which pupils brought with them? The former risked unfairness, the latter slackness or condescension. We agreed that the choice was not either/ or, and that both had a part to play; but even so the mix was hard to judge.

Our conference did not attempt to discuss the post-school sector directly - as these notes illustrate, our agenda was formidably rich even without it. But we were well aware of the enormous influence of universities upon primary and secondary schools. Some strikingly severe things were said - in relation to both sides of the Atlantic - about distortion, and about ivory-tower detachment. There is plainly more here for Ditchley discussion.

This Note reflects the Director's personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman: Sir Claus Moser KCB CBE FBA
Warden, Wadham College, Oxford


Mr John Abbott
Trust Director, The Education 2000 Trust

Mrs Beverly Anderson
Education consultant

Baroness Blackstone
Life Peer (Labour); Master, Birkbeck College, University of London

Mr Richard Bolsin
Strategic Management Coordinator (Education), Kent County Council

Professor Eric Bolton CB
Professor of Teacher Education, Institute of Education, University of London

Sir Brian Corby
Chairman, Prudential Corporation pic

Mr Michael Duffy
Head, The King Edward VI School, Morpeth, Northumberland (a Northumberland Community School)

Mr David Forrester
Under Secretary, and Head of Schools Branch 4, Department for Education

Dr Jagdish Gundara
Head, Centre for Multicultural Education, Institute of Education, University of London

Sir Geoffrey Holland KCB
Permanent Secretary (designate), Department for Education; Permanent Secretary, Employment Department Group

Professor John Howie
Regius Professor of Mathematics, University of St Andrews, Scotland

Dr Harry Judge
Senior Research Associate, University of Oxford Department of Educational Studies and Fellow, Brasenose College, Oxford; Professor of Teacher Education Policy, Michigan State University

Mr Stephen Love
Headmaster, Boundstone Community College, Lancing, West Sussex

Ms Margaret Maden
County Education Officer, Warwickshire County Council.

Mr Stuart Maclure CBE
Editor, Times Educational Supplement (1969-89)

Mr Ian Pearce
Director of Education, Business in the Community

Ms Sarah Portway
Public Affairs Manager, IBM United Kingdom Limited, London
Professor David Raffe
Co-Director, Centre for Educational Sociology and Professor of Sociology of Education, University of Edinburgh

Mr Stuart Sexton
Director, Education Unit, Independent Primary and Secondary Education Trust (IPSET), London

Mr Pierre Lortie
President, Bombardier Capital Group, Canada

Dr Stirling McDowell
Canadian Teachers’ Federation, Ottawa, (1982-92)

Mr Bernard J Shapiro
Deputy Minister of Colleges and Universities, Province of Ontario

Mr Uffe Gravers Pedersen
Deputy Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education and Research, Department of Upper Secondary Education, Copenhagen

Mr Fritz Wittek
Eurydice European Unit, Task Force, Human Resources, (Education, Training and Youth), Commission of the European Communities (working on Commission’s forthcoming report on education of immigrant children in the Community)

M Jean-Michel Leclercq
Lecturer in Comparative Education, Université Paris X-Nanterre; Specialist in Comparative Education; Deputy Chairman, Association Francophone d’Education Comparée

Herr Hermann Neumeister
Retired senior official; former Director, International Co-operation, Secretariat, Standing Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs, Lander (1974-88)

Dr Susanne Thurn
Director, Laboratory School, University of Bielefeld

Mr Cornelius van Gammeren
Part-time teacher (secondary school, higher level) managing courses for Dutch Association of Chambers of Commerce in co-operation with Dutch Association of Guidance and Career Teachers (NVS), linking education and labour market

Mr Donald Hirsch
Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD): Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, responsible for projects on school-business partnerships and on lifelong learning; Publication: Schools and Business

Professor Chester E Finn Jr
Professor of Education and Public Policy, Vanderbilt University and Director, University’s Educational Excellence Network, Washington

Ms Anne L Heald
Executive Director, Centre for Learning and Competitiveness and Lecturer in the Public-Private Enterprise Programme, School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland

Ms Beth Lief
Executive Director, Fund for New York City Public Education

Dr Bruno V Manno
Assistant Secretary of Education for Policy and Planning

Professor Ruth E Randall
Professor, Department of Educational Administration, Teachers College, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

The Hon Roger D Semerad
Senior Vice President, RJR Nabisco and President, RJR Nabisco Foundation

Ms Vivien Stewart
Sociologist; Chair, programme of education and health of children and youth, Carnegie Corporation, New York

Professor Michael Timpane
President, (previously Dean), Teachers College, Columbia University, New York

Mr Jon Westling
Executive Vice President and Provost, Boston University