Sunday, December 27, 2009

As Congress Ends D.C. Voucher Program, Qatar Moves Toward Universal School Choice

As regular readers of the Foundry know, Congress has recently moved to end the popular and effective D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, denying low-income families the chance to attend a school of their parents’ choice. Meanwhile, other countries are pushing forward with plans to give all parents school choice.

In September, Heritage’s Stuart Butler looked at the Sweden’s popular universal school voucher that began in 1992. Now, Lance Izumi of the Pacific Research Institute explains that Qatar, the small Persian Gulf nation, is planning to move forward with a universal school voucher program:
Qatar’s voucher program, which is just being implemented this year, is part of the country’s comprehensive reform effort called “Education for a New Era.” The voucher amount will be equivalent to the per-pupil funding allotment for government-run schools. It is envisioned that this amount will pay for the majority of private-school fees, with parents paying the rest. Initially, the number of private schools will be limited, but over time that number should increase until the system is universal, with vouchers available to all Qatari parents.

“Parents will have options to select a school of their choice that suits the needs of their children,” says Adel al-Sayed, a top-ranking official at the Supreme Education Council (SEC), Qatar’s national education agency. The voucher program was adopted because it meets the principles that the SEC says inform Qatar’s education policies: schools should be autonomous, schools should be held accountable for student learning, and parents should exercise increasing levels of choice in selecting the best school for their children from a growing number of alternatives.

Parental options are a key element of internationally competitive education in the 21st century, as more countries are recognizing.


Why Britain should scrap GSCEs and return to the leaving certificates of the 1950s

The abolition of GCSEs and a return to the leaving certificate of the 1950s would stop the academic rot, writes Ken Boston (Ken Boston was chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority from 2002 to 2009)

Core Business, the recent report from the Conservative think-tank Reform, is absolutely correct in calling for all 16 year-olds to undertake a broad core of academic study as part of their school programme. It errs, however, in attributing the absence of such a core to the replacement of O-levels by GCSEs in 1986, and to the introduction of vocational qualifications. The rot set in much earlier. The error matters, because it leads Core Business into proposing an inadequate solution to a very real problem.

The genesis of the problem goes back to 1951, when O-level and A-level examinations replaced the School and Higher School Certificates. The latter were single qualifications comprising a number of subjects, all of which had to be completed, and some of which – such as English and mathematics – were mandatory. The new, replacement qualifications were single-subject qualifications (for example, O-level history).

The change was highly controversial; some people argued that by dropping their weak subjects, students would be better able to demonstrate their achievements; others claimed that a qualification would only have public currency if it contained passes in five or six subjects, including English, mathematics and a foreign language.

The chickens then came home to roost. The steady transition to mass secondary education in the following half-century was accompanied by the rapid growth of new single-subject qualifications (mainly in academic rather than vocational areas), by greatly increased choice between those qualifications, and by a decline in the percentage of students taking the traditional hard-core disciplines.

In competitor countries with which Core Business compares England so unfavourably, each of the qualifications at age 16 is comprised of groups of subjects, some of which are mandatory. In the main, the qualifications are not awarded unless a pass is achieved in the compulsory subjects and in the required number of additional subjects. Although most students in England take English and mathematics at GCSE level, a pass in the two subjects is not in fact mandatory. Surprisingly, the report does not propose to make these or any other subjects compulsory.

Instead, it turns its angst on vocational qualifications, which it sees as diverting youngsters from the true path of academic study. But the reality is that the use of industry-derived curriculum for growing the minds and imaginations of 16 year-olds as part of their general secondary education has been a critical factor in raising school performance in many of the international competitor countries cited in the report.

In England, we have never understood the role of vocational curriculum in cognitive development, nor reaped its benefits: at best, vocational education is seen by many as catering for the dummies in the hope of doing something about skills shortages.

Core Business shies away from its logical conclusion: that England needs to return to a single age-16 qualification encompassing a range of subjects, some of which are mandatory, and all of which must be passed if the qualification is to be awarded.

The purpose of the qualification must be to guarantee completion of a full, well-rounded secondary education, including achieving the required level of performance in specified compulsory academic subjects. The International Baccalaureate provides a model; so does the recently announced Harrow Diploma; so too do the qualifications offered in countries far ahead of us in the international league tables.

Five years ago, in its response to the Tomlinson Report, the Government had the opportunity to introduce a single overarching qualification embracing the current GCSE and GCE qualifications, and requiring a mandatory standard of achievement in English, mathematics and other core subjects. It prevaricated, equivocated and eventually copped out. Let's hope the next Government has a clearer vision and more resolve.


New bureaucratic controls drive thousands of British childminders to quit

More than 4,000 childminders have left the profession since the Government introduced the so-called "nappy curriculum", figures show. An analysis of Ofsted figures carried out for the Conservatives found that there were 59,323 registered childminders in England at the end of September, compared to 63,600 at the end of August last year. This drop of 4,277 is equivalent to around 12 childminders leaving the job each day of the year, the Tories said.

They blamed the loss on the new Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), nicknamed the "nappy curriculum", which was introduced in September last year. Under the EYFS reforms, every nursery, childminder and reception class in England has to monitor children's progress towards 69 Government-set "early learning goals". But the curriculum has led to bureaucracy, excessive form filling and unnecessary red tape for schools and early years workers, the Tories said.

Maria Miller, the shadow families minister, said: "At a time when thousands of families are struggling to find affordable childcare, it is deeply worrying to learn that thousands of experienced childminders are being forced out of the profession. "The Government's new early years curriculum was supposed to improve the provision of quality childcare, but the evidence shows it is having the opposite effect. "Childminders would rather quit than deal with the reams of bureaucracy and red tape which ministers have introduced."

Dawn Primarolo, the Children's Minister, said: "Childminders have a vital role to play and we know they are valued by many parents for the unique type of childcare they provide. "We are aware that the overall number of registered childminders has declined recently. There are many possible causes, including changes in demand as a result of the recession and rising demand for other types of childcare."

A spokeswoman for Ofsted said: "Our inspection evidence shows that most childminders are implementing the EYFS successfully, with 65% judged good or outstanding in helping children to learn and develop in line with the new requirements in 2008/09. "Ofsted has seen no evidence which links the reduction in the number of providers with the introduction of the EYFS."

Catherine Farrell, Joint Chief Executive of the National Childminding Association (NCMA), added: "NCMA is disappointed that the number of registered childminders is continuing to decline, albeit at a slower rate. "We know that there are a number of reasons for this, most notably changes to policy and regulatory frameworks and the challenging economic environment. "The decline is, however, partly offset by an increase in the number of 'childcare on domestic premises' settings, where childminders are choosing to work collectively."


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