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Charlotte  Holloway

Free to succeed? School reform and the new economy

Authors: Charlotte Holloway Charlotte Holloway

01 October 2010

The scene was set. A buffet served. The hour nigh. And so it began: The Work Foundation’s first fringe at Labour Party Conference 2010.

It commenced with an air of trepidation, and as delegates marvelled over the serving of chips, there was a curious question circulating the room: Was it really true that a giant and, as yet, unidentified animal had purposefully blocked the train delivering Will Hutton to Manchester Town Hall? Large animal or no, the show must go on, and under the masterly chairmanship of Stephen Overell we were off…

First up was Professor Dylan Wiliam, Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at the Institute of Education, who began by asking the compelling question: why do we need to raise achievement in our schools? The stats were dazzling: people with longer education live longer; they have more wealth, and are healthier. The benefits for society that arise from education were compelling in themselves – the better educated a society’s population is, they’ll have lower criminal justice costs, lower healthcare costs, their economy grows faster. The crucial thing here, argued Dylan, is that we must be ready to evidence whether schools policy reform is actually increasing educational attainment.

Next in line was Anders Hultin, architect of the Swedish government's voucher system, drawing on his experiences from Scandinavian ventures and the role of profit in the education system. Initiatives such as free schools, argued Anders, provided an opportunity for parents in poor areas to opt out from bad schools.

Rod Bristow from Pearson UK added his thoughtful insights to the panel, outlining the role of new resources and tools in new forms of learning. Dylan responded by making the case that the role of technology in learning should be to support teachers, not to replace them, and input from the audience seemed to agree with this position.

Vernon Coaker MP, the former schools minister, provided a feisty political contribution drawing on his experiences from his personal life and time in government. He celebrated Labour’s achievements in education, and mourned the end of the Building Schools for the Future Programme. Parity of esteem – the value placed on vocational versus academic subjects – was a big talking point, evoking ardent responses from the audience and panel, and it was broadly agreed that there were challenges in changing perspectives about subjects themselves.

Noel Gallagher once said, "The thing about Manchester is...it all comes from here," pointing to his heart. Judging by the amount of passion from the audience, I think he might have had a point. Nevertheless, the quest for policy solutions continues…

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