As I tread gently here into the realm of the heretical, I need to confess first that I have not met anyone in English education yet who would answer these two questions in the negative. The reason for that is obvious. Improvement and progress are part of what makes us human, building on what has gone before, striving to make conditions better for ourselves. This is not evolutionary change, or adaptation, or any of that sort of nonsense. It is the creative urge within us that reflects the fact that we are made in God’s image and bear his likeness. We are co-creators with God of the world he has given us access to and birthed us into.
So the questions above – if rephrased to say “Will schools improve? Will pupils always progress?” – will actually always be true. As Keeley Hawes says in her recent Fiesta ad, we never stop “heading…that way.” It is the creative urge that drives us, an internal motor of desire and fulfilment into the life that God has planned for us.
The other day I was talking to all of our children in Collective Worship that since they had been born, God has been at work in them already to make them into the person he longs for each of them to be. That is the incipient discipleship that we nurture at Christ the Sower, that will one day flower into the choice that all of us have of whether we choose to follow Jesus or turn our backs on him. I accept all this, and daily support and water it in the encouragement of teachers and children.
However, there is another aspect of the first question (should schools improve?) which is less easy to be sure about. Schools serve the public by providing an educational foundation for a life to be lived in that society: that is why we accept that the society or its government has a say in what the school should provide (remember, even this has only really been accepted since Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech in 1976). If we mean that schools serve more and more children effectively to enable them to have access to that life to live, and call this improving, then yes, that is desirable for the health of our society. But if what we choose as the metrics to demonstrate that improvement, without ever calling into question the content and purpose of the life we want children to live, then that is no improvement at all. That is just more children reaching a particular – and badly defined – standard in English and maths, and if that is your vision for English primary education, then you are in a sorry place indeed. Robin Alexander said this ten years ago in the Summary and Recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review:
As for primary education, what we must emphatically report is that primary schools appear to be under intense pressure but in good heart. They are highly valued by children and parents and in general are doing a good job. They do not neglect and have never neglected the 3Rs, and those at Westminster and in the media who regularly make this claim are either careless with the facts or knowingly fostering a calumny. The debates about starting ages, aims, curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, standards, expertise and staffing remain open, as they should, but the condition of the system is sound. Indeed, as was noted by many witnesses, primary schools may be the one point of stability and positive values in a world where everything else is changing and uncertain. For many, schools are the centre that holds when things fall apart”. (R Alexander, Ed.  Children, their World, their Education, Routledge, London, p.486)
I believe that this remains substantially the case ten years on, despite the impact of market forces (an interesting analysis of market forces by Fiona Millar, previewing her new book, can be found here). If it were not the case, fewer and fewer people would sign up to be primary teachers (I mean fewer than the numbers that actually do!) so that the system would eventually ossify.
However, what has happened in the intervening years, and what has damaged secondary schools in particular, has been the narrowing emphasis in the curriculum. The introduction of the EBACC (the English Baccalaureate) and the increasing focus in primary schools on teaching English and maths has been an economically and ideologically-driven force that does not make us happier, nor, as far as we know yet, more economically productive. It certainly has done nothing to contribute to the cohesion of the society for which schools exist.
Should schools improve? Should pupils always progress? Yes, in love and affection, in the skills of contributing to the life of their families and communities, and in learning and the integration of learning. However, whether the percentages of children reaching an arbitrary standard in reading, writing and maths is an adequate proxy for that, is highly debatable and intellectually quite difficult to defend. Note, this does not make these subjects anything less than vitally important – it just renders them susceptible to being used as targets rather than measures, with all the distortion that Goodhart’s law imputes to that. Therefore the requirement of ensuring a broad curriculum is in constant battle with the need to meet ever more challenging targets in three specific areas (primary schools: KS2 SATs) or six specific areas (secondary schools: EBACC). That those subjects that sit outside the EBACC will suffer is a statistical certainty. Physical education is one of these – so the government has poured a lot of money into the school system to balance this up, via the School Sports Premium. Arts are another – but there has been no commensurate investment by the DfE into this, something that has been pointed out by over 100 artists in a letter to the Guardian today, a belated response by some in the arts community to the travesty of art, music, drama and dance not being included as an EBACC subject. And finally, those subjects which really do the work of community cohesion – PSHE, RE, philosophy and ethics, and which give children a voice in the world – these are increasingly regarded either with suspicion or as subjects to be colonised by the liberal-secular agenda which runs the DfE.
So yes, schools should always improve, and children always progress, and they do, everywhere. But not necessarily in the way that the inspectorate, the RSCs or the DfE want them to. And a good thing too. It is not school or pupil progress that should be called into question, but the faulty ideological metrics used to measure that progress.