Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Exmination of Witnesses (Questions 20-28)




  20. I want to get you onto the diversity front, Professor. You have said how important imagination is and letting imagination flower. You have also said you visited a specialist school for languages and you were very impressed by some aspects of it. What is your feeling in terms of what this current fashion for diversity is for specialist schools and foundation schools and city academies? Start with specialist schools. Many of us have been to specialist schools and been impressed not only by the buzz it gives the schools generally but also the achievements in that particular specialty. What is your feeling about specialist schools and diversity as applied to Birmingham?
  (Professor Wragg) I am in favour of them. I wrote a report for David Blunkett before the 1997 election because I was looking at some specialist schools in other countries. One school in Austria had been a specialist sports school for 25 years. It is not new in some countries. I was in favour of it with some provisos. I did a radio series and I went to quite a few specialist schools and I thought pretty well all of them were very impressive places. That is partly because they are not typical. In the first wave or two of specialist schools you would expect to have perhaps teachers who have bright ideas, energy and are proud of what they are doing, so they are not the same as the others. Whether that means that every single school becoming a specialist school would automatically do the same thing I do not think one can say. I am not in favour of schools being asked to raise money as a pot, like a poker game: here's our 50,000; we will see your 50 and raise you 50. I went to one school that raised 50,000 from one sponsor. I went to another school that raised it from umpteen donations from 50 to 500 and I have been to schools where they gave up when they got about 4,000 or 5,000 because in a poor area they are very unsexy from a business point of view. I do not think that should matter. It seems to me like Robin Hood in reverse to give most to those who have it. The other point I would make is that there are many ways of becoming diverse. I have never believed that there was a bog standard school because I have never seen two schools the same. I have been to schools that in theory have the same number of free school meals or whatever. They are totally different from each other. The teachers are different; the children are different; their families are different; the history is different. I think there is a fair amount of diversity already. I do not mind diversity. I think it is a very refreshing thing.

Mr Pollard

  21. Have you considered the Steiner model as being part of that diversity? They are trying very hard to become part of mainstream schools and get recognised by the Secretary of State and get funding.
  (Professor Wragg) The sad thing was that at one time it looked as if Ofsted might crush diversity because some of the schools that were different might have come off badly. I am glad that common sense prevailed in the end but Montessori type schools, Steiner type schools—I would not say the more the merrier, but the thing about education is the lifeblood of education is those who are willing to innovate and have a go at something. For me, diversity has to come within the school, not just between schools. It may be that if you have a secondary school where the science teachers are trying out something and they are pretty excited about it; meanwhile, the maths teachers are trying something quite different that they are pretty keen on, that kind of diversity is just as important as that school being different from the one down the road. In a sense, the Steiner school, because they put a premium on imagination, the least they could do is improvise themselves.

  22. You mentioned a ten per cent gap between boys and girls and that had grown and is likely to carry on growing. What ought we to do about that?
  (Professor Wragg) It is not just a GCSE problem. If you look at the whole story right the way through, three to five year old boys in nursery schools specialise in formula one noises. Meanwhile, three to five year old girls are discussing Wittgenstein. Well, they are not. Girls talk to each other and get encouraged to talk. Boys make sound effects and probably get told off for being a bit too boisterous and yet boys love talking about their fantasy play. I have interviewed loads of three to five year olds and asked them about their games. They talk quite happily but they tend not to be encouraged to talk so much. In primary schools we found that things like, for example, fathers, grandfathers, uncles, elder brothers, other male parts of a family reading with children, particularly with boys, was very helpful. We found also teachers trying to relate children's reading to their interests. I interviewed one boy who said he hated reading. The only thing he read was his Liverpool Football Club comic. At the end of the year, he said he loved reading. A nine year old boy, by the time he is ten, loves reading. Why? Because his teacher gave him adventure books, sport books and humour books, which he loves. That particular boy benefited from having something tailored to his interests. Going to secondary schools, by then you have 50 per cent or so of boys getting GCSE in English and 68 per cent of girls. There is a huge difference there. Five GCSEs; it is now 55/56; 45/46. Back in 1984, it was 27.1 and 26.2, 0.9 difference between them. I do not go along with the idea that boys do not have the course work gene. Back in the 1970s, people used to say that girls just wanted to leave school. They are airheads. They all want to be secretaries, get out and get a family. It was absolute rubbish and fortunately people put on programmes like Girls into Science and Technology, Women into Science and Engineering. Girls were encouraged to use their brains and that worked. Now we say that boys are incapable of course work. They just want to kick around with their mates. Right through from pre-school, through secondary, I think there are lots of things that need doing. Each of them might help two or three per cent but as a cluster of things between them they could make a real impact. This may not be the single biggest problem facing us but it is certainly one of the biggest.

Jonathan Shaw

  23. How should Birmingham respond to pressure on faith schools?
  (Professor Wragg) It is a very important issue in Birmingham. It is very hard to know now because Northern Ireland is complicated. I have just done a 40 minute BBC Northern Ireland programme on integrated schools. I had not been to Northern Ireland for a bit and I was quite shocked by some of the things I saw when I was there. In the integrated schools in Northern Ireland there are five per cent of children and yet 85 per cent of people in opinion polls say they want more integrated education. After what happened at Holy Cross School, I think that was a setback for faith schools. There was quite a strong belief that there was nothing wrong with having, say, Moslem schools and so on. I want to be sympathetic to that but I went to the Holy Cross area. I did not see the actual event but I saw where it happened and it tore me to pieces to think that that could happen. I interviewed people who said things like, "I never met a Catholic when I was a child." You are just forced to think again. I am quite confused about faith schools at the moment.

  24. You were well disposed to them prior to going to Northern Ireland?
  (Professor Wragg) I could not find an argument, if someone said that you have a Catholic school and Protestant school, why can you not have a Moslem school.

  25. Would an argument be we would not start here?
  (Professor Wragg) But we did and that is the irrefutable bit of the argument. I would now feel uneasy if schools simply carried on segregating because Lord Londonderry, who was the first Minister for Education in Northern Ireland, did not want separate schools. He did not want segregated schools. He said, "This is storing trouble" and he was right. It did. It was the Catholic and Protestant churches that wanted it and got it. Now it is very hard to change it.


  26. I went to an early excellence centre which Professor Chris Pascal runs here in Birmingham. I was most impressed by the way that is innovative and a tremendous group of people, working across the disciplines, working across so many facets of early years and across education, health and social services. There is a bit of a conundrum in Birmingham. Here we are, celebrating coming here because what an interesting education authority this is, but it is cheek by jowl with a social services department with an appalling reputation. This has been emphasised by some of the evidence we have heard today. Usually, local authorities, if they are good, are good across the piece. What is the explanation?
  (Professor Wragg) It is the history again. These things have evolved sometimes around personalities, sometimes around ways of working, sometimes with a strong sense of territory. Although everybody's buzz words nowadays are interprofessional partnerships and so on, in reality it is not as easy as people think. It came out in the Exeter Education Commission. The police, for example, have a very strong tradition in Devon and Cornwall of community policing so you would think there was a natural fit with schools and yet the police find it frustrating because in some secondary schools they have a clearly named person that they liaise with, the deputy head or whoever. In other schools, they have absolutely no idea and nor has the school. At that time, when we looked at it, they had 17 clusters of primary schools but they had a north, central and south health region for the city. If one grows up that side and does rather well and the other does less well, it does not seem easy to integrate them to share best practice because of their separate histories.

  27. Your commission seems to have achieved a great deal. How many places do you think have copied the commission idea? I know you are doing it in Exeter but would you recommend it for a large number of education authorities? Indeed, you might recommend it for social services here in Birmingham.
  (Professor Wragg) I think it is a very healthy process but it is only a kick start. The awful thing would be if there is a report that gets put in a drawer, which is what can happen. People feel the report was the Act itself and you have done it. I would want to disarm completely what we did in the commission. Okay, we had a good time. We talked to lots of people, we produced a report and lots of recommendations but frankly, if the politicians and the officers had ignored it, it would have been a waste of time. What has happened in Birmingham happened because of the work of people like Tim Brighouse and the political leaders who got behind it and the key people in schools, the heads and teachers. Without them, it is totally lost. A commission is a good idea provided someone sees it as being serious and a blueprint, not just a cosmetic exercise. Do not waste anybody's time if it is that.

  28. That is a very good note on which to end. I was very pleased when I read your material on the commission modelled on the select committee. What you have ended on is exactly what this Committee believes. It is all right having a good investigation and doing a good report but if you cannot sell it to government departments or to anyone else and it does not make anything happen, you add no value and you might as well not have done it. We can agree on that.
  (Professor Wragg) Thank you and the best of luck with it because, having seen a select committee from the inside I think it is an extremely important part of our democracy. Do not be put off when the DfES gives you a list of 25 reasons why none of these things can be done. When we did our report, we recommended day release for all and we felt very strongly about it. At that time, the DES as it was said, "No, it would be far too expensive." Then along came things like high unemployment and youth training schemes so then the will and the money were found. Much power to your elbow.

  Chairman: Thank you.


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