Education Nov 27 2011

How Labour could respond to the Coalition’s education reforms

Some months ago I was asked to deliver a lecture to Labour Party members, and others, in David Cameron’s constituency of West Oxfordshire about how Labour should respond to the Coalition’s education reforms.

The lecture was part of a series and in memory of  local activist, campaigner and educationalist Brian Hodgson. It was chaired by former London Schools Commissioner Tim Brighouse.

The threat to our education system: How Labour can respond to the coalition’s legacy

I am delighted and honoured to have been asked to speak today in memory of Brian Hodgson and also with Tim in the chair.

Want to divide my talk into three sections; first a bit about myself and why I am here

A bit about Labour’s time in office – essential to our understanding of where we are now

Finally what is happening now then a perspective on the future.

Not a professional. A journalist by profession now see myself as much as an education campaigner – less lucrative but infinitely more satisfying

Came to this role as a pupil, parent and a school governor. Nearly all my campaigning has its roots in those experiences.

Also a member of the Labour Party – that affiliation started in early childhood in a very political household where constituency campaigning, socialising and fund raising in a hopelessly Tory seat, were a substitute for religion.

However at times that has taken second place on key campaigning issues and I have felt at odds with my party.

Once heard Melvyn Bragg being quizzed on the radio in the run up to one of the many elections that we lost in the 80s/ early 90s.

He was asked how he could vote for a party with which he had serious disagreements like defence and Europe. His reply: “I have only every agreed with 60% of the policies of the party I vote for”

Feel rather than same

In spite of reservations about some areas of policy I am still sure Labour that still has the deepest commitment to social justice and equality, the things I care about most.

In this unfortunate period of opposition we need to be thinking about how best we can match our policies for education with those  noble aims.

Here in rural Oxfordshire –  bit different from my own experience. Always lived on the same page of the London A-Z

Was educated in my local primary school in North London. Tail end of what is now seen as the era of traditional teaching.

Sitting in rows, spelling tests and long division. Much lamented now but not sure it was as the rosy tinted hindsight suggests.

My brother -2 years behind me- was the first year to be schooled in what my mother used to call “egg box” education

By that I think she meant child centred, children sitting round tables lots of making things out of egg boxes.

Interesting that the discussion about what is the best way to educate our children is still a challenging one today.

I moved on to an unusually progressive but selective girls school – Camden School for Girls  Not the usual girls grammar. We voted to get rid of our school uniform in 1972 (and the school still hasn’t brought it back I am pleased to say)  since giving young people the choice of what they wear seems to be one freedom too far for most politicians.

There were wonderful teachers and a strong sense that young women could go onto do anything.

There was also possibly a lack of the type of rigour that is present in most schools today. I had a good rounded education but didn’t work particularly hard. Certainly much less hard than my own children have done at the local secondary schools today.

However the school played a huge part in my social and emotional development – it was a wonderful, rich , creative institution and many of the girls of who left there went on to do extraordinary things – not always academic.

Think we spend too little time today thinking about the wider purposes and benefits of schooling.

My school also existed in a highly stratified system. Other children who failed the 11 plus were consigned to schools considered second rate and this was usually linked to social class.

I felt that very keenly even then and knew it not something I would have wanted for my own children.

In the past ten years much of the campaigning I have been involved with has been focussed on the continuing use of academic selection in the English system.

164 grammars

25% local authorities

thousands of children still branded failures at 10 or 11

test unreliable

coaching linked to family income

System didn’t work then for most children and doesn’t work now

In 1968 – the year I started secondary school only 18% of 16 year olds got five O levels. Today that figure is around 70%.

I got to university with pretty mediocre A level grades – part of the 10% that did. Today that figure is around 40%.

I don’t make those points lightly but to illustrate a very serious point. Comprehensive schools have opened up opportunities for many young people that didn’t exist before.

Wonder whether the term comprehensive has had its day – too contaminated by right wing columnists and sceptical politicians

And there is still room for improvement in many schools

But all ability schools offering a broad balanced curriculum must be confidently at the heart of a future Labour vision for education.

That won’t happen while a significant amount of selection still exists.

Successive governments, including Labour, have turned a blind eye to this, even encouraged methods of back door selection.

One of the current and very real threats to our education system now is that this problem will only get worse with more academies and free schools able to manage their own admissons. Will say a bit more about that later

My own interest in education waned a bit as I made my way in journalism but in 1992 I was elected as a parent governor at my children’s primary school.

Anyone with long experience of being a governor in the audience may recognise the picture I will now paint of the school

It was run poorly but deviously by a weak head teacher who colluded with a small group of colleagues to let the governing body know as little as possible about what was going on in the school.

He had a considerable degree of autonomy even back then in the early 90s. Most teachers did what they wanted – one senior member of staff ‘didn’t believe in teaching maths’

Always remember this when I hear politicians talking about ‘freedom’.

Freedom is a great weapon in the hands of a good head a disaster in the hands of a poor one.

Eventually Ofsted came in – and we were one of the first schools ever to be inspected in 1993 – and found out what many of us had suspected.

The school was badly run, most of the teaching was unsatisfactory and a significant proportion of the children failed to achieve or thrive.

The then head teacher left and started on what was a long arduous improvement journey.When the first league tables were published we were second from bottom –only 37% of children achieved level 4 in Maths (required level)

So our school improvement journey was compounded by the effects of the then fledgling schools market – expansion of parent choice that had opened up post 1988.

Most of the middle class parents bailed out, the school became demonised in the local community and our intake changed dramatically

Eventually became chair of governors. Found the right head – school now popular and flourishing.

Then went on to become a governor at my son’s secondary school, which had some similar issues. Chaired the governing bodies of both those schools for  two years.

Tell the story of Gospel Oak for a reason

Firstly we do know a lot about what makes a good or outstanding school.

And don’t believe anyone who says turning a school around isn’t a slow process.

There are quick fixes – you can change the intake or the curriculum – which is what some schools that ‘improve rapidly’ do.

Or there is the real deal – slowly changing the culture, improving leadership, high expectations, good teaching and professional development, rigourous tracking of pupils and performance management of staff, good governance, a clear vision and ethos.

Sadly none of these make great headlines so they tend to be sidelined by politicians in favour of the more seductive but secondary notions of choice diversity and freedom.

Secondly the Gospel Oak improvement story took place against a backdrop of the Labour Government

There is a tendency for Labour Party supporters, and I have fallen into this trap myself at times, to be so angry about some things Labour did or didn’t do in office, that we over look the very many good things that happened

And one of those things is that schools got better

All the objective evidence is fairly clear

There are far fewer failing schools

1997 around 63% of pupils reached the required standard at KS 2. That figure is 80% today

45%  of pupils got five good GCSEs to almost 70% today

There was investment in school buildings and in other non academic areas; extended schools, music, sport

Focus on teaching and leadership

Better governance – more data available to evaluate school performance

Investment in early years

Every Child Matters

Support for families and parents

More young people than even going to HE

It has become fashionable to rubbish the overly bureaucratic, centrally directed initiatives of the Blair /Brown governments, but on balance they were right for schools like ours.

New buildings, extra resources and extended services were rightly matched by a focus on better teaching, leadership, higher expectations, more rigour, accountability and transparency.

Maybe only those of us who remember the late eighties and early nineties fully appreciate what has been done.

It is possible that the price we have paid for success in results and school improvement is a more soul -less education system,

One in which children and young people are simply processed through tests and exams

In which teachers are overly judged on their ability to manage that process rather than for their ability to impart a love of learning and knowledge.

My own children now out the other end of that process would probably agree with that that.

There is a yearning for something more creative and inspiring.

And re-dressing that imbalance is a challenge for all policy makers and schools.

But we mustn’t lose sight of the good initiatives that worked when we look to the future

Initiatives like London Challenge. Look at the GCSE results for 2011 most the most deprived inner London boroughs and you will see they outperform rural Oxfordshire

As we focus on future policy we must build our success story into the narrative and the detail.

Take forward the things that work, change or jettison the rest

Before I move on to the Coalition (Tory lead) want to say a little bit about what didn’t work so well and what I think of as our lethal inheritances

There was good Labour and bad Labour

We failed to tackle the fundamental toxic problem in the English school system – what Tim once memorably described as the ‘dizzyingly steep hierarchy of schools”

Our school system has always been diverse but also divisive and, in many areas increasingly segregates pupils by race, faith, social class and background.

We allowed choice, not necessarily a bad thing in itself, to coexist with selection and we didn’t do anything to tackle the independent sector.

Point in 2004 at which the Charities Act could have been used to bind private schools into a much more meaningful relationship with the state sector. We bottled it.

We tightened up the Code of Practice on Admissions but also created many more autonomous schools with the power to manage and change the way they chose their pupils

We were also riddled with contradictions

Never quite sure whether we were about competition or collaboration

For local authorities for against them

Wanted to move away from local authorities running schools  – in fact they  hadn’t done this for years – towards a commissioning/quality control function

Yet we were hell bent on creating schools that sat outside any local authority structures

We followed the Conservative league table/Ofsted approach to accountability for individual institutions

That was the right decision at the time

At my children’s failing primary school scraping ourselves off the bottom of the league tables was a strong incentive to succeed.

But the system is no longer fit for purpose

Too many perverse incentives

To enter pupils for easier qualifications

To not admit or get rid of those who don’t make the grade

To focus on borderline students at the expense of the rest

Also basic unfairness of comparing schools with vastly different intakes

The pressure on individual students and teachers has led to creativity, individuality, personal and social development,t love of learning being squeezed out.

We can’t go back from a position where we tell parents and the wider community how their schools are doing.

The Coalition not really tackling it – just introducing new perverse incentives like the EBacc

We need to be thinking about new forms of accountability, information to parents to represent what schools do well in the broadest sense.

Recently took part in a research project which involved polling and interviewing parents all over the country about what information they want from schools.

There was a remarkable degree of unaniminty. A  strong desire for a more rounded picture in individual pupil progress, including social and emotional development and pupil wellbeing.

pupil wellbeing. Also interested in the views of other parents and pupils

But the most  lethal inheritances which Labour must address now in its policy review were

1.The failure to accept the recommendations of the Tomlinson report; for a single qualification to wrap around vocational /practical and academic learning.

We now have a hierarchy in qualifications to match the hierarchy in schools

GCSEs,, IGCSEs, A levels, diplomas, IBs, Pre-Us, GNVQs, BTECs, all with differing status and value,  contributing to the ‘us and them’ world that parents have to navigate.

That have left some schools using not very good GCSE qualifications to boost results at the expense of a broad and balanced curriculum

2.Introduction of  top up fees,

3.Creation of a new type of ‘independent state School’ the City Academy

Finally – and this may be the most toxic legacy o of all

4.We raised standards but failed to significantly close the gaps between the children of the most and least affluent families significantly

However still the case that if you are born into an affluent family with two graduate parents, your educational chances are lower.

Not good for a Labour government.

Allowed the Coalition to do two things

attack our record which they do ferociously

Put rocket boosters under some of our worse initiatives

Our HE funding reforms have lead to the market in universities we are seeing now

Rapid expansion of academies ( via conversion process) and free schools

So – to move on to the Coalition

Much of what they say is superficially seductive

Take this from an article in Thursday’s Guardian about how government is working at the top

Another instance of the Osborne-Hilton axis working well is schools. There has been a statecrafty emphasis on the content of education, especially the way in which maths, English and history are taught. ( I can’t say I have noticed that)

Yet at the same time a revolution is under way in the structures of education, with  free schools and academies sprouting like mushrooms.

Government sets the curriculum – the big, comprehensive act, imparting non-negotiable values – while communities are free to run their own schools, and to create new ones: a conservative anchor in a revolutionary system.

Note the clever use of words  – comprehensive, freedom, community

In fact what they are doing is quite the opposite and is a threat to much of what we believe in

So lets just examine it in more detail

All these “free” schools will be contracted to the Secretary of State via their funding agreements.

Everything will be run from Whitehall with the Minister having extraordinary power at the expense of local community.

In fact this is a process of mass centralisation and emasculation of local democracy.

doubtful that government or any of the quangos they set up will have the capacity to manage it.

And the devil is in the detail – particularly in the Funding Agreements that contract the providers of these schools to the state

Independent state school are not covered by the body of law that covers all maintained schools – in areas like admissions, curriculum SEN exclusions – only covered by these funding agreements

These funding agreements are treated like commercial contracts . They are negotiated between the Sec of State and the schools founders and kept secret until it is too late.

By the time Labour left office there were “model” funding agreements

These agreements attempted to enshrine the law as it stands for maintained schools into the contracts governing the independent state schools which did beg the question of why they needed to be independent in the first place

Several discussions with Ed Balls about this. He would argue that the FA model not a worry because he would ensure all new independent schools were obliged to follow the model. The trouble is that future Secretary of State may not take that view.

But the problem is  – and this is one reason why I have always opposed independent state schools – is that they might be a worry in the hands of different Secretary of State. M Gove for example. And there may be worse to come.

Because one of the ways the minister can exercise that power he or she is accumulating is by varying the funding agreements to suit the proposers.

So in the past few weeks it has emerged that free schools have freedom over their admissions that other schools ( even academies) don’t have.

Their model funding agreements state that they can exempt themselves from the Code of Practice on Admissions.

Three of the free schools that opened this year have already taken advantage of this, almost certainly to give priority in admissions to the children of the founders although we can’t know this for sure because their funding agreements ( for schools that we are paying for) are not made publicly available.

Meanwhile the new Admissions Code makes it clear that the Secretary of State can vary the admissions arrangements of any independent state school and no-one can complain about that.

There is no reason why partial or even total selection should not be re-introduced in this way.

This is the thin end of a very long wedge and almost certainly won’t benefit the least well off children.

Looking at schools in this area I noticed that Burford School is considering academy status. In a letter from the head teacher, she states that the school would remain a “community comprehensive” then she goes on to list the additional freedoms the school could take advantage of in terms of curriculum and admissions.

So while she may intend the school to remain as a community comprehensive, there is no reason why a future head, or governing body, couldn’t change that prospectus by altering the intake or the subjects the school offers.

Then there is the way that new schools are being set up and existing schools being allowed to expand.

The Education Bill that just received Royal Assent effectively means all new school must be academies and free schools.

Free schools are being funded using money that should be spent replacing the lost BSF and primary capital projects which Gove jettisoned.

Many of these schools are being parachuted into local communities, often without consultation with local people or other schools.  The DFE won’t even tell local parents if there are free school bids in their area.

Unless the proposers want it, local authorities have no say over how these schools are set up and run.

In some areas they are being used to deliberately create surplus capacity which may mean other schools cease to be viable as a result of this experiment.

Moreover judging by the first two waves, they are not necessarily being set up in response to local parent demand but because faith groups or edu- chains are bidding to run them.

Where there is parental demand, it is often already advantaged groups who are behind them, who want private schools on the rates.

Recent figures released under FOI show that of the first 23 free schools had around 9% of pupils on FSM – half the national average and much lower than many of their neighbouring schools.

One had no children with SEN – in an online spat one of the founders admitted that they had no SENCO – not a very subtle way of deterring children with SEN.

The new free school in Bristol, situated in a poor post code where there are already surplus places, has been given permission by Gove to select ONLY from a neighbouring advantaged post code.

One of the founders said: “Being a free school gives me the right to choose my catchment area”. The poorer children who live near the school are excluded.

Add to this the multiple academy conversions. This takes different forms depending on where you live.

Some schools opting out en masse. Others (like my local area) sitting tight with the LA for now. Other areas have more of a patchwork.

I think everyone now recognises that there is something adrift in the calculations of the funding handed over to the first wave of schools that have converted.

They are getting more money than they should and this is being funded by a top slice of all local authority funding, even applicable in areas where there are no academies or free schools.

So that is unfair and reduces the resources those LA s have to provide other services for disadvantaged families

Even the government knows this is not sustainable so is now consulting on a new funding formula for all schools, including academies and free schools.

Presumably this will level the playing field again but it may leave some stand alone converters in difficulties.

Then there is the slow drift back into academic and non academic schools

Labour academies – many of which built success on changing the curriculum. Focus on maths and English and GCSE equivalent qualifications has pushed them up the league tables

In some ways though they are more like shiny new secondary moderns,

The Tory converters are already successful schools

Some free schools now make a virtue of their narrow tradition curriculum, even boasting that it will not be suitable for all pupils inviting self selection

Introduction of technical schools

The Act also permits schools to expand without consultation if there is demand and several grammar schools are already planning to use this freedom to expand and establish satellite ‘clone ‘schools in their communities.

This will lead to more secondary moderns.

So we are in danger of slowly recreating a new form of the pre comp landscape which is really what the Tory Party has always wanted

Different types of schools for different types of children

ushered in by the market and speeded up by new forms of covert selection.

Division along class lines again – with a select few ‘poorer’ children being plucked out for the higher status institutions

Finally we have got the edu –chains, running multiple academies and free schools

Some of these organisations are open about their long term aspiration to make a profit – inevitably Gove’s long term plan once they dump the Lib Dems.

These chains are effectively small privatised versions of the local education authorities that have been so derided by successive governments.

They  retain a proportion of their schools budgets to run central services and often pay their executives huge sums although their accounts not easy to scrutinise as they are now exempt charities.

Bruce Liddington, Chief Executive of E-Act is paying himself almost £300000 a year for running 14 schools. Almost twice the salary of the secretary of state and more than many much maligned LA Chief Executives.

Quite likely that it is these organisations, not plucky little groups of parents and teachers that will end up running a significant number of free schools and academies.

Strong parallels with health.

Long game is to usher as many schools as possible into private hands and out of the public sector. Once schools/chains have an ability to make a profit, they will be prepared to invest their own capital and a considerable burden will be lifted off the state.

The million dollar question is – will it work?

Will this raise standards and give most pupils and parents what they want?

My hunch is it won’t

This experiment – a market based approach  of different providers is not based on evidence.

In the two countries where this experiment has been tried, Sweden and the USA, results have been mixed.

Sweden has fallen behind in international performance tables and it is widely accepted that the school system is now more segregated.

Many of the free school providers in fact provide a sub standard education.

In America the picture has been similarly mixed. Some charter schools have done very well; although they are funded very generously by philanthropic bankers so are often offering a cradle to grave package including parenting support, health care etc.

Others rely on preferential admissions, weeding out the more aspirant poor, mainly black and Hispanic families leaving the rest behind.

Adam Swift and Harry Brighouse, who have studied the US charters, call this ‘dregs sifting’

Academy performance –either in terms of exams results and Ofsted gradings still mixed and broadly similar to the picture for maintained schools.

Secondly as far as I can see the government appears to have no school improvement strategy beyond using league tables and Ofsted to flush out failure and then handing those institutions over to new providers – some of whom will not be up to the job.

Secretary of State recently issued a video of himself saying he will “pull all the levers to improve schools”

But the truth is that he hasn’t got many levers beyond his funding agreements. Very hard to see how national government quangos will have the capacity to manage either failure or school improvement at a local level.

And the capacity left in local authorities will be much reduced either through cuts to their government grants or because so many schools have opted out that they don’t even have the resources to manage the rump group that is left.

I note that Michael Gove is already admitting there will need to be a middle tier between him and the schools.

Finally I predict a mood of resigned sullenness descending on schools, already manifesting itself in actions like strikes. Schools becoming like disengaged pupils.

Constant public message from the government is that schools,  heads and teachers are useless (unless in academies or free schools and one or two of those in particular)

Cuts – we will feel these starting to bite this year.

Meanwhile some families – children of free school proposers will benefit in the new breed of elite selective and semi selective academies or free schools but they probably won’t be the very poorest

And the majority will either be faced with an confusing landscape -an extreme version of the existing hierarchy; selective, semi selective schools, faith, high status academes, shiny new secondary moderns, free schools, the remaining comprehensive community schools, poorly resourced in struggling LAs that have been drained of resources,

There will be increasingly complicated admissions systems at a local level and schools with different curricula and qualifications

Incidentally this will be quite the reverse of what most parents say they want.

There is ample polling evidence about this( including the research  I was involved with in the summer).

All of which points to:

Good local schools

Balanced intake/support of the local community

Broad curriculum/choices for all students

Good environment and buildings

Strong leadership and good teaching.

Much of what the Coalition is dong will make that harder to achieve

So back to Labour

Party has three significant problems in my view

We don’t defend our record robustly enough

In deed we are in danger of falling into the trap Gove cleverly lays of marginalising all schools that aren’t part of “the revolution”

By doing this we implicitly trash our own record as many schools that weren’t academies also improved under Labour.

This will seep into the public consciousness in the way the deficit mythology has.

Secondly we can’t challenge their narrative because we fired the gun on the policies that they are now ruthlessly exploiting for their own ends

Thirdly we are operating in very hostile territory. We have a media that accepts Tory sound bites without any serious scrutiny and is predisposed to the argument that state schools are failing.

This makes most of the editors and columnists feel better about their own decisions to opt out and into private schools.

\Finally we have no narrative of our own.

But we could do

And because I am an optimist – I believe the legacy of the Coalition may make that narrative clear

And it should not be about being against current Coalition policy

It should be for the following

For aspiration and high expectations for all

For new schools, where they are needed and set up as part of an open local process

For choice and diversity but against a background of fairness, in admissions, funding, and the sharing out of pupils with SEN, exclusions.

For school improvement, for  good teaching , excellent comprehensive schools and narrowing gaps

For fair admissions .Must come out fairly and squarely for all ability non selective schools and that does mean confronting the continuing use of the 11 plus

For a broad curriculum entitlement to all pupils – choice of pathways up to 16 for all pupils

For a fairer and simpler qualification system – Revert to the Tomlinson idea of a single diploma qualification to replace all the rest.

For schools that are part of their communities and offer wider support to families

For bringing order to this fragmented possibly chaotic landscape we might inherit

All these important principles will be undermined by what the Coalition is doing

If  new schools are needed but that should happen within a locally managed planning process in which all parents get a say, not just the articulate few, and in which all schools are subject to the same rules, but are not necessarily the same in terms of ethos and outlook.

If new schools aren’t needed and existing provision isn’t satisfactory or meeting parents demands, Labour should be encouraging an open local discussion about that in the way that my own local authority  (Camden ) has done with its Education Commission.

Existing schools can change and the context can be changed and improving existing schools is a much more cost effective policy for the times we live in than setting up  new institutions as part of a costly and divisive experiment.

It would be naive to suggest we can ignore the Tory free schools and academies.

But the independent status/funding agreement model is a bad one and eventually I believe Labour will have to acknowledge this, particularly once the impact on admissions becomes clear.

In many cases the horse will have bolted but that doesn’t mean we should allow more .

We could encourage a new generation of  autonomous maintained schools with more freedom over what and how they teach but no freedom in areas like admissions SEN etc– like trust foundation and VA schools which have some

But there must some role for the local authority, or AN other locally constituted body, which local people can hold to account and which holds the ring to protect the most vulnerable,  planning places ensuring that the distribution of  revenue and capital is fair so some schools don’t benefit at the expense of others.

Finally all this needs to be framed in a bigger political argument about the type of society we want and the part schools can play in that.

We are in unprecedented times. There is huge public resentment about the disproportionate rewards being reaped by those who are already rich

The last thing we need is a school system that increasingly divides children from a very young age and reinforces existing privilege and advantage.

We need a school system that brings children together, regardless of their faith, race and social class.

Schools can create powerful bonds and overcome prejudice. There is no more powerful sight than children from all backgrounds walking through the same gate in the morning.

They can contribute to a society where everyone has an  equal chance to  improve their life chances.

Tories like to paint themselves as the party of aspiration.

And part of the current subtext in education is that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is about low standards and low aspirations.

But as Neil Kinnock said last year  Labour “wrote the book” on aspiration Started by working people who wanted to better their own lives.

We also wrote the book on school improvement – and there are clearly blueprints like the London Challenge and the work pioneered by Tim  and others – that future Labour Ministers can get back down of the shelf.

All the international evidence shows that the most successful countries are those where children are not segregated into different school types by selection of one sort of another, or self selection.

Under the Coalition we are moving in the opposite direction. Gove, Cameron , Clegg and Osborne  will be judged on their record, and it probably won’t be very good, but a lot of children’s lives may have been affected in the process.

The Brian Hodgson Memorial Lecture Charlbury November 2011

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