The assumption that there is consensus about what makes a good school runs like an invisible thread through education policy and debate. The Government’s recent consultation on creating more ‘good school places’, Ofsted reports and the ‘Good Schools Guide’ all suggest that beneath the rhetoric of school choice and ‘what’s right for one child may not be right for another’, there’s a fundamental agreement about what makes a school good. So what is it?
Given the emphasis within the education system on testing and measuring academic progress, a good school is presumably one with high academic standards that helps pupils to reach their potential and then sends them on to university. Right? Evidence from the recent NatCen Panel survey suggests that the general public see things differently. When asked about the characteristics of a good secondary school, the emphasis was less on making the grade and much more about preparing young people for life and work.
Topping the list of important school characteristics was the ability to produce pupils who are confident and self-assured young adults (rated as very important by 84% of adults), closely followed by pupils going on to find fulfilling employment (80%). Academic outcomes were less important than might be expected. Although making good academic progress ‘no matter what standard they started at’ rated fairly highly (with 68% thinking this was very important), achieving good GCSEs was only rated as very important by 57% and accessing university was much lower at 22%.
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With these views in mind, is the Government right to focus on grammar school expansion as a way to create more good school places? It’s clear that in the eyes of general public, grammar schools are academically strong, but do not measure up to ideals of a good school. Only 45% of adults think that grammar schools help pupils to find fulfilling employment (much lower than the 80% who consider this very important) and 61% think that grammar schools produce confident and self-assured adults (compared to 84% who consider this very important).
If we are interested in developing education policy that responds to the views of the public, then we need to pay attention to work readiness and the personal qualities that support this. The implementation and effectiveness of the Government’s 16-19 study programmes guidance will be important to monitor to find out whether embedding work experience and work placements in academic as well as technical routes changes perceptions. But will this be enough? Public attitudes suggest that increasing ‘good school places’ requires a stronger focus on what schools can do to help young people find fulfilling employment. Grammar school expansion is unlikely to help here.
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