The Government should establish an independent body to monitor school performance, recommends a report commissioned by the Sutton Trust.

The proposal comes in a review of the UK’s record in education under Tony Blair compared with other countries during the last 10 years.

 While the findings suggest a gradual improvement in school results, the report concludes that it is hard to say whether there has been any real progress because “monitoring is under government control and government has a vested interest in the outcomes.”
The report documents how the Government has become increasingly embroiled in detailed debate about the interpretation of exam and test statistics as it seeks to defend and promote its policies for schools.

The review also argues that schools in England would perform better if they had more freedom of control over their activities.
But it adds that greater autonomy for schools must be accompanied by stronger safeguards to ensure fair admissions within the school system.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said:

“English schools perform a little above average compared with other countries, while English independent schools are at the top of the international league table. However, there is no other advanced country where the gap in performance between independent and state schools is as large as in the UK which is why it is important that they are opened up the 90 per cent of families who can not afford them.

“These school statistics have become so politicized that it is time to consider an independent watchdog which among other things would assess the educational performance of schools. Such a body would serve the interests of the public at large, not the vested interests of a particular government, with particular educational policies at stake.”

Professor Alan Smithers, Director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, who carried out the research, said:

 “The Blair government, more than any previous government, took explicit responsibility for the ‘delivery’ of better performance in education and other public services.
“But it became very difficult for ministers and policy makers to look at the results of national and international tests dispassionately. Favourable results tended to become part of the government’s presentation of itself to the electorate and unfavourable ones tended to be sidelined.”

“The international studies show that schools with greater autonomy tend to do better. But school freedom over ethos, teaching and recruitment needs to be exercised within a framework that ensures fair admissions.”
The report Blair’s Education – An International Perspective was commissioned by the Sutton Trust, set up by Sir Peter Lampl in 1997 to improve social mobility through education.

The report reviews the international and national data on exam and test scores across 33 countries and finds that international comparisons do not fully bear out the government’s claims. It also refers to the disturbing findings from the Unicef study on children’s well-being which placed the UK bottom out of 21 countries.

It concludes: “If there is a genuine desire to improve the education system on the basis of evidence then the monitoring of progress must be tackled in another way… it must be carried out by a body that is genuinely independent. The Bank of England’s Monetary Committee comes to mind as an example. The prime functions of the body would be to ensure authentic assessment and to apply rigorous analysis of the results.

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