Tesco's take on British education

Tesco's Chief Executive, Sir Terry Leahy, has attacked the "woefully low" standards in British state education. Despite all the money that has been spent, he said, employers were being left to "pick up the pieces".

Fulfilling his role as one of Gordon Brown's 'Education Advisors', the Tesco boss gave his diagnosis of what was now wrong with the country's schools:

"One thing that government could do is to simplify the structure of our
education system. From my perspective there are too many agencies and
bodies, often issuing reams of instructions to teachers, who then get
distracted from the task at hand: teaching children."
(BBC News, Guardian)

John Cridland, Director of the CBI (the business lobby group) was quick to echo Sir Terry's comments, telling journalists yesterday that this opinion was widespread within business. Money has gone in, but the product is just not coming out.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families, as always artfully sidestepping the real issue, rejected Sir Terry's comments. "Standards have never been higher", they insisted, and most people in education work on the front-line. As for having too many bodies, DSCF claimed: "There are several non-departmental bodies, but it's clearly right and
proper that issues such as exam standards are regulated by an
independent body." 

As Tesco is the biggest corporate employer of school leavers in the UK, Sir Terry is not just making idle speculation. He's no enemy of the Government either, so this isn't ideological myopia. Add in the simple truth that people just feel in their gut that his comments ring true, and the public would be right to think this is a damning criticism from someone who both knows and matters. Critically, he doesn't point the finger at pupils or teachers, but at the education bureaucracy that holds schools and children back.

Despite what the DCSF might really wish to believe, it's not the proportion of education staff that work in the bureaucracy that matters, it's the power that these (relatively) few people have over the UK education system. Power which should be with schools and teachers.

But let's start with the basics, and deal with the numbers. The total 'schools' workforce, in England, at January 2009 was 788,600. Teachers made up well over half of this, with 442,700. Of the remaining 346,000 people working in schools who aren't teachers, 183,700 are teaching assistants, and 162,200 are 'other support staff' (lab assistants, admin, etc). At the actual coalface then, over 626,000 people are on the 'educational' front-line. (Source for the figures is the ONS/DCSF statistical release from September, School Workforce in England.)

In back rooms of the educational system, we start off with the 100,000 or so non-teaching school staff, many of whom are, like teachers, essential. Whether there are too many of them is not clear, but their numbers have more than doubled in ten years, and the number of schools certainly hasn't. That aside, these 100,000 or so are joined by the unidentified hundreds who work in the education departments of Local Education Authorities. LEAs (to use their old but still widely used name) still have a considerable role in the schools system, and these local government employees must be factored in. Above them is the DCSF itself, not all of which deals with schools, but a significant part - at least 493 of the 2,693 total staff (DCSF Resource Accounts 2007-08). And alongside the central department, are the 'non-departmental' bodies.

As a CPS report recently noted (see here), 11 'quangos' currently have some significant role in the English education system. With a combined budget of £1.2 billion last year, and over 2000 staff, these organisations play a massive part in British education. What schools can teach is laid out by one, how well they teach it is assessed by another, how well the pupils have learnt it, assessed by yet another (or will be in very near future). A school needs to renovate its gym, the giant Building Schools for the Future programme gets involved, with all the madness that sometimes entails. ICT is now a priority, so schools need new computers; BECTA is there to help. Dinner ladies have the assistance of the Schools Food Trust. Teachers, the key group, are being 'guided' by the General Teaching Council, the Department's regular 'non-statutory-but-you-better-use-it' instructions, Ofsted and the Training and Development Agency for Schools. All very well intentioned, but ultimately a very damaging over prescription of 'assistance'. Until schools take responsibility for their own budgets and their own outcomes, they will continue to just tread water; not perhaps sinking, but not steaming ahead either.

But of course the most important part of all this is  'standards', those things that Sir Terry believes are now "woefully low", and the Government claims have never been higher. The obvious thing to point out is that standards are in fact a subjective measure. Exam results are an objective measure, but 'standards' depend on what one considers to be 'the standard'. The objective measure, exam results, is what the Government and DCSF call 'standards'. Employers, such as Sir Terry Leahy, think 'standards' are actual educational capabilities, such as the ability to write English cogently and calculate basic mathematical problems fairly quickly. Unfortunately, the DCSF has found it very hard to push up the latter kind of standards. It has tried; the billions are testament to that. But faced with the fact that money alone was not working, that the system itself was preventing progress, they took to working on the measure of standards they can change. Exams. In both content and assessment, the Government and its agencies can still affect 'standards' in this way. Problem is, real 'standards' just continue to slip.

Hopefully this will change. Pupils are overwhelmingly bright and committed, most teachers able and dedicated. The only thing now standing in their way is Government.

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