Bring the lowest standards up, not vice versa
Promote equal educational opportunities
Recognise the community value of schools
The political system itself has failed our children recently, with uncertainty continuing while we wait for yet another States report detailing yet another set of options.
It’s clear that our schools serve many of our children very well, and I understand the concern that any change will result in a fall in educational standards.
It is also clear, however, that our schools do not yet provide equal opportunities for all children to achieve their potential. We should strive for an improvement in both academic and social outcomes, with an education system that is fair for all our students across the full range of their abilities and interests.
During the last political term, the States of Guernsey approved the universal provision of free preschool for up to 15 hours per week, although the question of how to fund it caused delays. It will start this September.
The States of Guernsey also approved the closure of St. Andrew's Primary School as part of its effort to save money. This had a significant impact not only on St. Andrew's as a parish but also St. Martin's, whose school numbers rose by about 15% as a result. The schools themselves handled the transition admirably.
The redevelopment of Les Beaucamps High School was completed in March 2014. La Mare de Carteret's much-needed rebuild was stalled by Treasury & Resources to enable the States of Guernsey to decide on the future direction of secondary education first. The stall continues.
I went to see Les Beaucamps High School for myself and met with the headteacher, Sophie Roughsedge. She explained the changes she has made over the past 18 months that have contributed to their recent successes. I have also met with Kieran James, the Head of Sixth Form and Deputy Headteacher at the Grammar School, who was equally helpful.
The political ping pong that has characterised the education debate has been at best unsettling for the many families and school communities affected. It is an emotive issue, of course, but that's all the more reason for the process itself to be efficient, and for the public to be confident that decisions and details have been worked out and thought through.
The Education Department launched an extensive consultation exercise called Your Schools Your Choice (a title they later admitted was a mistake). Their resulting proposal centred on a one school, four sites model that removed the need for the 11 plus. Although the States voted to end the 11 plus, they rejected Education's proposed model. We are now in limbo while a three school model is drawn up in detail for consideration.
I took part in the Your Schools Your Choice consultation exercise. To prepare for this I did a lot of research, reading not only the supporting documentation provided by the department but also material I sourced independently.
After reading the proposals I talked them through in some detail with the Education Department. I attended one of the public meetings, grilling a board member afterwards, and also took part in a parents' forum which discussed the issue.
I've been interested in hearing the views of as many parents, teachers, students and young people as possible from as many different circumstances as possible. Those who have recent experience of more than one school on-island, or educational systems outside Guernsey and the UK, are often able to offer opinions that are particularly insightful.
The 11 plus
Listening to the many arguments over the fate of the 11 plus and the Grammar School, it seems to me that there are two key concerns at the heart of the prospect of losing them: the fear that our top educational standards might drop to a lower common denominator, and the fear that disruptive students will negatively influence a wider sphere of students than they currently do. We need to address these fears up front if we are to shift successfully to an all-ability model of secondary education.
On balance - and there are a lot of factors on these scales - I think the disadvantages of the 11 plus outweigh the benefits.
In my opinion, the 11 plus should be replaced by a system that is better tailored to all children's academic needs, more reflective of the percentages that go on to post-16 education, more responsive to different rates of academic development, and more equitable in terms of educational opportunity.
St. Martin's Primary School has fully embraced a methodology called Kagan co-operative learning, which has produced really good results both academically and in terms of the children's social skills. Used in some top academic institutions such as the Harvard Business School, it's a system that seems to get the most out of mixed ability groups - which is something worth noting.
The first question for any society redesigning its education system is this: 'What do we want to get out of it?' Do we simply want the best exam results, or are we more concerned with producing balanced and rounded individuals? Should we be focusing on subjects and skills that give students the best chance of future employment, or should we be focusing on the areas where their interests lie, or on the sectors that we want to expand in our own economy? If we have a clear idea of what we're trying to achieve, we can design a system to achieve it.
I was really impressed by Les Beaucamps High School when I visited it: the students were friendly and polite, the building and grounds were immaculate and the atmosphere felt positive. I wasn't surprised to hear how much their attendance rates and results had improved, but I was really interested to hear the details of, for example, their approach to discipline and their experience of changing their setting policy. I was only disappointed to hear that hardly any deputies visited the school ahead of the debate on the future of secondary education - and in fact this appears to be true of other schools too. I'd have thought it would be important to deputies to have an accurate and up-to-date understanding of what our high schools are like at the moment before deciding what's to happen in the future.
Having looked into a few different educational models when researching the topic, I believe that many of the most successful systems - even systems that are very different - share a common factor: they invest in and trust in their teachers to do a good job. I know we have many great teachers in Guernsey but there are a few things the States can do to help them, for example removing some of the barriers to effective recruitment, focusing more on their professional development and reducing the amount of bureaucracy they have to deal with.
I'm delighted that the provision of free preschool education will finally go ahead in September this year, as I believe it will have several positive effects. It will help prepare more children for a good start at school and it will help both individual families and the wider economy by enabling more people to get back into paid employment.
As our population gets older and the traditional model of retirement and pension provision changes, lifelong learning becomes increasingly important. If the States wants people to work longer then it must seriously focus on equipping the middle and older generations with the skills they need to thrive in the workforce - now and in the future.
No decision on our secondary education should be taken without first deciding on the model for post-16 education as well. Again, at this stage there are too many variables to take a firm position on it, but so far my research has uncovered nothing particularly good to say about tertiary colleges, and even with just three schools they wouldn't each have the numbers to support a sixth form of their own. So, at the moment I believe that the best remaining option is probably a sixth form attached to one of the schools and federated with the College of Further Education (as is currently the case.)
Three School vs Four School arguments
Without the detail on either model as yet having been drawn and costed up, it is impossible to take a properly informed position on either side. That said, I have been actively researching this complex issue. In a nutshell, there is:
an economic argument in favour of a three school model - especially if the option of not rebuilding La Mare de Carteret is chosen. Any savings, however, must take into account any likely compensatory costs involved in modifying an existing school/schools to increase its/their capacity;
an educational argument in favour of a three school model - based on more efficient allocation of teaching resources that can only be achieved with higher student numbers;
a different educational argument in favour of a four school model - based on evidence that, in areas with higher social deprivation, smaller schools achieve better results;
social arguments in favour of a four school model, for example that smaller schools have stronger community bonds, and that it is counterproductive to take a school out of the centre of its community, especially when you factor in the impact of transportation;
a moral argument regarding the longstanding and oft-repeated promise to rebuild La Mare de Carteret. This is a standalone element: it doesn't necessarily lend itself to a four school model, but it does have ramifications on the three school model if the promise is upheld.