Out and About May 15 2013

Talk at the Cambridge Fabian Society

Last night I went to speak at the Cambridge Fabian Society about alternatives to the current education policy. Details of the meeting are here. These are some notes on which my talk was based.

1.Education policy matters. One of the best ways to judge a society is by its education system.

Does it offer equal opportunities – not just to HE and careers but also to enrichment, culture, and extra curricular activities?

Does it divide young people, families or bring them together

Does it confirm existing privilege and deprivation? Offer more to those who already have

Not easy questions to answer – contrary to what you believe in the press, state schools and comprehensive schools in particular have opened up avenues to many young people that didn’t exist 50 years ago.

However we still have a steep hierarchy of schools.

Private schools, state selective schools, faith schools. The most successful of which tend to be monopolised by the better off children, who then monopolise places at the best universities.

Still the case that a very small number of independent schools hog the lion’s share of places at universities like Oxford and Cambridge.

So rising tides have lifted all the boats but the gaps in outcomes between children from different social and ethnic backgrounds haven’t been narrowed significantly.

Labour did start to narrow these gaps but not enough.

2. All the main political parties claim now that this mission to narrow gaps and increase social mobility is their main priority.

And so it should be. It is a disgrace that where you were born, parental education and income and which school you go to should still play such a large part in where you end up in life.

The trouble is that all main political parties have endorsed the hierarchy – i.e. not done enough about the independent sector, selective schools, massive inequalities in society – particularly income inequality poverty, poor housing.

And kept the two tier qualifications – vocational and academic with different status.

The consensus have been that it is better to tinker with the hierarchy and to superimpose more market forces in the hope that somehow this will automatically right a wrong situation.

So the prevailing educational philosophy of the last 25 years has been choice, diversity and competition. And the tools of the market – league tables, Ofsted inspections and so on.

We have seen endless new types of school, new governance arrangements, variable admissions and funding.

In fact this has led to more segregation between schools.

3. Added problem with education is that it is very difficult to have a rational public debate. Media coverage of education is hopelessly biased.

My friend and fellow campaigner Melissa Benn, in her book “School Wars’ writes

“State education has never commanded the same loyalty or sense of affection from the British public as the NHS”

Many senior journalists and commentators, majority in fact, use fee paying schools, Have a vested interest in talking down a system they have rejected for their own children.

The story this week about Michael Gove making a speech about the quality of history teaching in schools based on a newspaper story that was in turn based on a PR survey undertaken by the Premier Inn gives you an indication the level of public debate.

5. To be a bit more specific about where we are now.

Choice and diversity has reigned supreme since 1988 when Thatcher brought in the idea of “open enrolment” – parents could choose any school for their child. She also created new types of autonomous school; grant maintained schools then City Technology Colleges. And that was on top of significant existing diversity – faith, selective, community and VA schools.

Labour then pursued this idea with the city academies that became the academies.

Coalition/ Michael Gove then put rocket boosters under this with the 2010 academy conversion act, which allowed schools to convert rapidly to academy status.

Academies and free schools are wholly independent schools, NOT maintained, funded via a commercial contract with the Secretary of State.

Free schools, which are really academies by another name, are being parachuted into local communities by the DFE

However contrary to the government spin, every school in the country probably won’t be an academy by the time of the next election. Even if the current rate of conversion is maintained there will be at best around 5000 academies so the majority of schools will still be maintained.

Consequences of this:

  • The legacy will be a mish mash of academies and free schools, maintained schools and semi private chains.
  • Concerns arising, not least from the Chief Inspector of Schools, about how who holds schools to account if they start to fail. Not feasible for central government to manage 23000 schools.
  • And those 5000 independent state schools will provide a fast track for the introduction of for profit providers – DFE would simply need to change the procurement process for new schools. Private companies are waiting in the wings.
  • Centralisation of powers. Before 1988 the Secretary of State had three powers of direction; the removal of wartime air-raid shelters from school playgrounds; the determination of the numbers in teacher training and where they should be taught; the approval of the opening and closure of schools and the size of the school building programme In 1988 he gained 250 powers. Now he has 2000 powers and growing. Secretary of State powers over the curriculum, qualifications, planning of places, teacher training as well as thousands of individual schools.
  • So under the rhetoric of autonomy and localism what you really have is a massive power grab by central government
  • Removal of schools from the public and local realm. Schools handed over to large chains/charitable trusts. Often based a long way from the community. They have exempt charity status so accounts not freely available.
  • Varied governance arrangements, admissions, SEN exclusions rights of parents and pupils not equal.

6. Curriculum and Qualifications

Prescriptive . Narrowing of the curriculum, qualifications changes mean assessment will be primarily exam based (rather than other forms of assessment) EBacc subjects. Little interest in vocational.

Accountability measures again determined from the centre – League tables and Ofsted effectively co-determine how schools behave

Forced academies. League tables and inspections used for political ends – to move schools out of the maintained sector. There is little conclusive evidence that academy status is a golden bullet. Research b the Local Schools Network shows that similar maintained schools have improved just as quickly.

It isn’t necessary to become an academy to improve.

Labour meanwhile is caught like rabbits in the headlights.

Not sure where to go.

Gove trashed the record (misuse of international data) when we weren’t looking

Added to which it is a bit embarrassing that started the academies programme, which is now being abused.

And there has always been a conflict between other Labour policies like London Challenge, Every Child Matters, interdependence rather than independence and competition.

7. So is there another way?

What would it look like?

Two questions

  1. Pragmatic one –how do you deal with the legacy of the last 25 years

2. Vision thing. What would we do if we weren’t starting from here?

The two are inter related.

We need a bigger vision that goes beyond market forces as the driver for improvement but must watch that we don’t forced too much more rapid and unnecessary change on an already demoralized and weary profession.

Vision should be quality and equality

Finland – now the most successful school system in the world. High performance and equity.

Investment in teacher quality, real autonomy over curriculum neighbourhood comprehensive schools, local accountability, no testing or league tables. The Finnish revolution started with the abolition of selection and private schools!

In fact most of the international evidence points to successful systems being those that don’t segregate/stream children into different institutions.

End the 11 plus

Re calibrate charitable status so that the obligation is to give much more back to other local schools than is currently the case.

i. Structures

Investment in early years and particularly in workforce.

Excellent neighbourhood comprehensive schools. Rigour, leadership

teaching quality – probably most important factors.

Strong links to the wider community. Family interventions Sure Start

Anti poverty policies

Fund state schools at the level of independent schools?

How to guarantee excellence, given the rapid fragmentation of the system in many areas.

Put a fair regulatory structure around all schools fair funding so ‘type” doesn’t matter. If a freedom is right give it to all schools. If it is not don’t give it to any.

Absurd that we are being consulted on a new national curriculum that won’t apply to a quarter of the schools in the country. Or that some schools can opt out of nutritional standards. If it is the right reform, it should apply equally to everyone.

There must be a role for the local authority in admissions SEN care of vulnerable and excluded children and in school improvement but equally government needs to genuinely devolve power from the centre to local communities.

Maybe new school boards with representatives of the community and LA are the answer.

Schools rightly want a high degree of autonomy but that could and should be allied, especially in a time of austerity when we need to do more for less, to more collaboration, school-to-school support, light touch local accountability, the strong supporting the weak and a relentless focus on teacher quality and morale.

The London Challenge provides a good role model.

But alongside that, we need fair funding and a consistent regulatory framework that makes the issue of school ‘type’ irrelevant.

Two London boroughs I know well make an interesting comparison. Camden, where I live, has just one recently opened new academy left over from the last Labour government, and no converters. Strong local family of maintained VA and community schools. Yet nearly every school is good or outstanding. More good or outstanding primaries than in any other part of the country.

Hackney embraced the academy model yet within a strong local structure provided first by the Learning Trust and now by Hackney Council.

Both authorities have schools that are popular and successful. Proves there is no right way to do it but that a local framework matters. I believe that in time other areas, where the local authority education responsibilities have been worn down, will come to understand this.

ii. What do we mean by a good education

What would go on in that local school? What is the wider purpose of education?

I always revert back to Professor Richard Pring’s question, which prefaced the Nuffield Review into 14-19 education: What makes an educated 19 year old?

Indeed asked this question when I recently carried out research for the Pearson Centre for Policy and Learning into what parents want from schools.

The answer was that of course qualifications matter – English and Maths in particular – but education is about more than that. The parents we spoke to wanted their children to be literate, numerate but also with well developed personal and interpersonal skills.

The CBI recently called our education system a conveyor belt of exams and came up with some quite radical proposals for different forms of accountability.

So not just what the Tories call the “mad lefties” who want a different approach.

Big vision must have the development and well being of ALL children at its heart, guaranteeing every pupil a curriculum AND qualifications that are rigorous and inclusive.

Exams at 16 are increasingly irrelevant as young people stay on into education and training.

We should be moving towards a final qualification at 18, which measures academic and vocational achievement and an accountability system that values the creative arts, practical and technical education, personal development and citizenship and allows education to become a more stimulating, liberating process than is currently the case

The Tory press will be waiting of course, with accusations of dumbing down. But with the support of the professionals we can turn the tables on them.

Michael Gove claims that our qualifications system doesn’t match the best in the developed world but most of the developed world doesn’t use excessive high stakes testing to measure pupil achievement at 16, preferring graduation at 18 instead.

Respected international qualifications like the International Baccalaureate (IB) provide powerful role models. No one accuses the IB of dumbing down yet it boasts of promoting the education of the whole person – “emphasizing intellectual, personal, emotional and social growth”.

And there are still lessons to be drawn from Sir Mike Tomlinson’s proposed single diploma of 2004. Casually tossed aside at the time, it could provide another blueprint for the future

Michael Gove likes to quote Tawney: “What a wise parent would wish for their children, so the state must wish for all its children.”

Luckily poll after poll tells us what it is that most parents want for their children; good local schools, with a balanced intake, excellent teaching, leadership and behaviour and the chance for their children to make the most of their talents and do their best in the subjects that interest and engage them.

I believe there is convergence between the progressive bigger vision, what parents want and how the international evidence suggests we can best narrow the gaps.

It means moving away from the market model and towards something more collaborative, with real devolved local power, comprehensive intakes and curriculum.

I want to finish with a quote from Robin Pedley one of the great pioneers of comprehensive education:

“Comprehensive Education does more than open the doors of opportunity to all children.

It represents a different, a larger and more generous attitude of mind…the forging of a communal culture by the pursuit of quality with equality.”







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