Thursday, January 31, 2013

Failing schools 'hampering economy': Britain will not prosper unless education is overhauled, report warns

Britain’s economy will not prosper unless its ‘mediocre’ education system is overhauled, a hard-hitting report says today.  Failing schools and poorly performing teachers lead to a ‘waste of human resources on a grand scale,’ causing long-term damage to the UK, the scathing document says.

Local councils which do not let failing schools close must see their wings clipped, and the system for assessing teachers must be revamped, it argues.

Written by a Nobel Prize-winning economist as well as former members of the Bank of England, the report from the London School of Economics calls for radical change to get the UK growing again.

It says ‘short-termist’ banks that refuse to lend to small businesses are suffocating innovation.

It also blames ‘years of inadequate investment’ and ‘political procrastination’ over the UK’s ageing transport and energy infrastructure for holding back growth.

The symposium has spent the last year looking at ways to help the UK’s moribund economy, which is now teetering on the edge of a triple-dip recession, grow in the long term.

The report says: ‘After years of inadequate investment in skills, infrastructure and innovation, there are longstanding structural weaknesses in the economy, all rooted in a failure to achieve stable planning, strategic vision and a political consensus on the right policy framework to support growth.’

The potential of thousands of children from poorer backgrounds are being squandered by underperforming schools, it says.

‘Our failure to provide adequate education to children from disadvantaged backgrounds constitutes a waste of human resources on a grand scale.

‘It holds back economic opportunities and is detrimental to growth,’ the report states.

Co-author Professor Tim Besley, a former member of the Bank of England’s influential rate-setting body, said: ‘Rarely are skills thought of as a growth issue. But catching up with Australia or Finland would lead to very significant increase in income for the UK.’

He suggested doubling teachers’ probation periods from two to four years, and assessing them more on the job rather than intensely at the start of their career.

‘We need to focus more on how schools are dealing with disadvantaged children – such as those on free school meals. That is where the big gains in growth will come from,’ he added.

It should be easier for underperforming schools to shrink in size, meaning fewer children join them each year, the report also says.

It wants local councils to allow failing schools to shrink and successful schools to take on more pupils.  Vocational skills are ‘particularly poorly developed’ and should be made more available through more apprenticeships, it adds.


Brute force open-access

The fact that governments intervene in one area gives them an excuse to intervene in another. The demand [in Britain] that all car passengers, including those in the rear seats, should be compelled to wear seat-belts was justified by the observation that taxpayers supported the National Health Service, so if a passenger was injured in an accident, it would be a cost on us all. Laws banning smoking, and this week's proposal to put a tax on sugary drinks, are other examples that use the same justification.

Now the universities minister David Willetts is causing a stir in academe with his plans to force through open access. At present, academics do their research and try to get it printed in various academic journals. The more prestigious the journal, the more the paper is scrutinised through peer review, so getting printed in a good journal is some indication of quality. It is a costly process, and the leading journals can be quite expensive for libraries to buy, but at least the research that does get published is reasonably reliable.

However, Willetts takes the view that, since since we have a taxpayer-funded university system and a taxpayer-funded set of research councils, anything the academics produce rightly belongs to the public and should be made immediately and freely available – what is called 'open access'. The universities will not have to pay to get articles processed, and their libraries will not have to pay for the expensive journals, but they will have to pay to make the research available.

So it is quite probable that many of today's journals, and the learned societies that sponsor them, will simply disappear – which may help explain why a dozen of them have written to the government to complain about the idea.

Many academics have already opted for an open access policy (a policy practiced by the Adam Smith Institute too), since they want to get their work and ideas out to a wide audience. But often, papers are put online without proper editing – because the authors are not professional editors – which means that mistakes creep in (something that can be potentially dangerous in, say, medical or engineering research papers online). And the research goes up without proper peer review that might expose fundamental errors.

Academics will find that it is their university colleagues, not anonymous expert peers in the field from all over the world, who decide what goes online – but university jealousies can be very bitter.  If there is no effective peer review, it will be hard to know which research is reckoned to be reliable and which is not.

All papers that go public will have to be treated as potentially suspect. Mind you, in economics, some of us came to that conclusion many years ago. Perhaps David Willetts would be better employed making sure that research projects were a proper use of taxpayers' money, rather than bullying his university employees about how they present it.


British Minister tightens up nursery staff qualifications slightly  in bid to raise standards

Good to see some cost consciousness here  -- with a relaxation of staff ratios

Childcare workers need fewer qualifications than those working with animals, a minister will warn today as she unveils plans to raise standards.  Elizabeth Truss will express concern at the ‘hair or care’ stereotype of underqualified girls going into  hairdressing or childminding.

In a bid to drive up standards, the Tory education minister will insist nursery staff must have at least a C in GCSE English and maths.

The minister will say: ‘Staff in this country earn about £6.60 an hour on average, only a little above the minimum wage.  ‘This speaks volumes for how much those working in the early years have hitherto been valued.’

She has designed radical reform to improve the quality of personnel. But in a bid to drive down costs so better staff can be attracted by better pay, adult/child ratios will be relaxed.

 Each nursery worker will be able to look after four under-two-year-olds, rather than three as now. The number of under-fives goes up from four to six.  Childminders will be able to have two babies in their care rather than one, and four under-fives, not three.

Miss Truss will also announce new graduate level ‘early years teachers’ specifically trained to teach young children.

In a speech in London, Miss Truss will say that ‘too many people who work with young children are under-qualified’.

‘Given what we know about early years development, it is no longer acceptable that childcare professionals are not required to have a GCSE grade C or above in English and maths,’ she will say.

Highlighting the contrast with abroad, she will say: ‘In France, at least 40 per cent of staff in crèches must hold a diploma, which demands a three-year, post-16 course. In the Netherlands, certified childcare workers must train for two years post-18.’

Expert Government advisers, she will add, have expressed concern at ‘the hair or care stereotype’, in which often students with ‘the poorest academic records’ are  steered towards childcare.

She will quote Helen Perkins, head of early years and childhood studies at Solihull College, who said: ‘We demand that students need a relevant qualification before they are able to handle animals independently on our animal care courses. Nobody demands the same level of qualification before you can be left alone with a baby.’

Older pre-school children do best in ‘teacher-led settings’ with ‘structured activities’, which will be favoured by Ofsted, she will say. However, Labour’s shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg said the plans threatened child safety.

‘This Government has created an affordability crisis by cutting support and pushing up costs for parents. Watering down quality is the wrong way to try to deal with the problem they’ve caused,’ he said.

‘Experts are warning this could threaten child safety and won’t reduce costs. Parents will be worried.’

Ministers are also finalising plans for £1.5billion in tax breaks for working families with young children, expected to be worth at least £1,000 a year to help pay for spiralling costs of childcare.

Details are expected to be announced in the Budget in March.


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