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MPs to launch inquiry into why UK schools lag behind other countries: ‘We want to be the cutting edge of education’

MPs are to launch a major inquiry into school “productivity” to determine why the UK lags so far behind other countries in developing the skills its pupils need to take their place in the workforce.

Details of the inquiry were revealed by Neil Carmichael, the newly elected chair of the Commons Education Committee, in an interview with The Independent on Sunday.

CBI director-general John Cridland has complained that schools are operating too much like “exam factories”, failing to produce the “rounded and grounded” young people with the necessary self-confidence to succeed in the world of work. A CBI report published last year found that 61 per cent of 291 companies surveyed were concerned about the resilience and self-management skills of school leavers, while a third were concerned about their attitude to work. An overwhelming majority of firms (85 per cent) wanted primary schools to focus on literacy and numeracy, with around a third dissatisfied with these skills among school leavers.

Neil Carmichael, keen to tackle long-standing problems (Charlie Forgham Bailey)

Neil Carmichael, keen to tackle long-standing problems (Charlie Forgham Bailey)

Describing the failure to teach workplace skills as “a very long-standing problem”, Mr Carmichael pointed out that Germany had introduced universal secondary education in the 1870s, while the UK had waited until the 1944 Education Act.

“We have been a bit too complacent about taking the necessary action to tackle the problem,” said Mr Carmichael. He said that the inquiry would look at how productive the education system had been compared with countries such as France and Germany.

Acknowledging that the issue was unlikely to be solved by one department, Mr Carmichael said the inquiry would be a joint investigation with the Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee.

The focus on workplace skills is likely to receive a warm welcome from business leaders, many of whom believe that the last administration – particularly during the period when Michael Gove was education secretary – emphasised the importance of ensuring that every child had access to a first-class academic curriculum at the expense of vocational skills.

“Don’t get me wrong – academic education is important,” Mr Carmichael, Conservative MP for Stroud in Gloucestershire, said. “But whenever we’ve reformed education we haven’t quite delivered what we expected. The 1944 Education Act saw three types of schools – grammar, secondary modern and technical schools – but by 1959, only 2 to 3 per cent of any year group could get a technical education.”

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One recent innovation that appeals to him is the introduction of university technical colleges, one of which is to be established in his constituency, and studio schools. The studio schools are often smaller than the UTCs but concentrate on giving pupils the skills they need to enter the job market in their area. He believes there may be scope to expand the project further.

The first issue that the new Education Committee will tackle when the Commons returns in the autumn, however, is to examine the role of regional commissioners. These were appointed by the Government to monitor the performance of academies after complaints that the Department for Education had failed on this score.

Recent legislation will give them extra powers to determine whether “coasting” schools – those who might seem to have decent results but should be doing better because of the areas they serve – should be forced to become academies and be provided with private sponsors.

“We want to look at what their role will be and what sort of resources they need or have,” Mr Carmichael said. “We’ve been thinking about going into one of the regions and seeing how they operate on the ground.”

The committee also plans to look at social mobility and to assess the impact of the Children and Families Act 2014, with particular reference to measures to tackle mental illness among school-age children.

Mr Carmichael’s constituency includes two grammar schools, one for girls and the other for boys. Both want to expand. He is in favour of allowing them to do so – as would be the case for any good school under current legislation. He is adamant, though, that “the priority must be to create 26,000 good schools”.

“We shouldn’t just be going around merrily opening new grammar schools,” he said.  “I want us to be at the cutting edge of producing new ideas in education.”


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