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English education system “Victorian”, says leading education expert

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The incoherent “patchwork” state of English state education is “Victorian” both in its diversity and inequality, according to education policy expert and Fellow of the British Academy Professor Stephen Ball.

In a lecture yesterday at the British Academy, Professor Ball argued that the state has interfered in English education both too much and not enough, and has perpetuated huge inequalities in provision and quality.

“Rather than a [education] system, we have – and have had since its inception – a rickety, divided, unstable and unfair but nonetheless overbearing educational apparatus,” said Professor Ball.

At least nine different types of state schools currently operate in England, from academies and free schools to community schools and grammars.

“The sort of school your child may attend, and their experience of education, depends on where you live”, Professor Ball said.

As a result, he said, the current system is looking increasingly similar to the way schools were organised before the introduction of local school boards in 1870.

Before this time, schools were run by a mixture of church societies, voluntary organisations and philanthropists. Professor Ball argued that this mirrors the “patchwork” of providers running state schools today, and the growing number of academies which do not fall under local authority control.

The state education system that developed in the 19th century was segregated along class lines. Today the “relation between performance and poverty…is far stronger than the relation between schooling and performance”, despite the introduction of new schools supposedly targeted at areas of disadvantage, said Professor Ball.

Professor Ball also argued that the “performance by results” culture of education puts undue pressure on teachers and children.

More teachers are leaving the profession than are being recruited, with most of those leaving being of working age.

“Education policy has little to do with education”, he said.

“We need to start again, not tinker and reform, add and complicate, but start somewhere else”.

Drawing on a different aspect of 19th-century education, he suggested that “we might want to seriously consider a return to directly elected local school boards.”

The lecture was sponsored by Sir John Cass’s Foundation and was chaired by Professor Maggie Snowling FBA, President of St John’s College, Oxford.

Professor Stephen Ball is a Fellow of the British Academy and Distinguished Service Professor of Sociology of Education at the Institute of Education at University College London. He has 40 years’ experience in education policy research.

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