This post was first published on TMP Online, a great left-wing, internationalist blog that hosts contributors with a range of interests and viewpoints.
In the spirit of open-mindedness and understanding the people who, according to my Labour friends, are my colleagues now, I picked up a copy of The Spectator recently, mainly to read the cover feature on academies and free schools. With some relish, this somewhat paranoid piece of writing described the ‘guerrilla tactics’ being used by the ‘enemies of school reform’ and made several big errors along the way.
Firstly there is an attack on the NUT’s campaign against academies, implying that a letter from its General Secretary Christine Blower to head teachers considering applying for academy status is somehow equivalent to a witch hunt. I’m not always the biggest fan of union tactics – sometimes, arguably, they’re so spectacularly out of tune with public opinion that they shoot themselves in the foot, as my pleasant but quite long walk to work in London on Tuesday will testify. But demanding ‘a ‘summary of the consultation responses’ and ‘details of figures of those in favour, those against and those unsure’ isn’t quite the same as taking names of dissidents and sending the boys round, no? The article notes that, in the Academies Act, the need for ‘consultation’ on such a change ‘was not defined further, meaning that the opponents of academies have been able to exploit it easily’. I’d say that had consultation been defined more clearly – which would in fact have been quite unusual in such a piece of primary legislation – it would also have been a safeguard against a head teacher, say, hand picking ten parents, holding a public meeting in the full knowledge that barely anyone else would come, and stating that a majority of people agreed. Sound paranoid? Takes one to know one.
Having dismissed such anti-reforming dinosaurs, the article ends in praising ‘the extraordinary improvements in the schools granted academy status under Labour. Under new management, for example, pass rates in Peterborough’s Ormiston Bushfield Academy more than doubled in the space of a year — and there are several other examples.’ The hasty judgement that ‘Seldom has a social policy been so quickly vindicated’ is somewhat undermined by the well-established fact that exclusion rates are far higher in academies than in conventional state schools. This recent example from Westminster is an extreme case, with exclusion rates from Westminster Academy running at more than twenty times the local average, and the news story quotes the head of the Anti Academies Alliance as saying that such a policy is merely ‘passing the buck’, effectively retaining only those children that are easiest to educate. I feel that there is definitely a debate to be had about how to ensure that children who don’t disrupt others can learn, without writing the more difficult children off – but quoting spurious statistics about pass rates without acknowledging the controversial realities behind them is not a great opening to this necessary discussion.
The point I’d make above all, though, is that, in my experience, when teachers rail against top-down control, local authorities are rarely what they’re talking about. From the start, the Spectator article has an agenda of conflating the role of a council in coordinating education provision with ‘state control’ in order to further the image of Gove and his colleagues as iconoclastic heroes, charging across no man’s land and trampling red tape on their way to challenge the malign oppression of local education authorities.
But in my experience this just doesn’t reflect conditions on the ground at all. Certainly, at the school where I’m a governor – a high-performing local primary that would certainly have the parental, staff and community resources to go ‘free’ if it wished to – the local authority is regarded with occasional annoyance: a roll of the eyes during a Finance Commitee meeting as a problem with the new accounting system becomes apparent, or frustration at having to wait a couple of weeks longer than expected to hear about the arrangements for schools required to take on additional classes to cope with the ‘bulge’ in school-age children. At no point, however, does this translate to a feeling that that the coordination role of the local authority is unnecessary and should be further undermined.
The potential effects on more resource-intensive children, such as those with special educational needs, of rescinding local authority control over admissions policies has been well publicised, and the lack of significant government reassurance on this point is telling. One might think, given the large number of affected parents who are prepared to get pretty militant, pretty quickly – as shown by a father’s encounter with David Cameron during the election campaign – this might be an area where some substantial friendly noises would go down quite well.
This sort of specialist provision can’t be cordoned off as an exception, either. The ‘bulge’ class issue again provides an illustration. As flawed as the process may have been, it was easy to pick up the phone to the council and get an update on what was going on; and although schools were understandably competing to have as little disruption as possible, we were all definitely in it together and schools banded together to make their case. Local authorities certainly made mistakes in projecting the numbers of places that would be needed – but were crucially there to pick up the pieces, with the powers they needed to do so. In the new devolved scenario, either academies and free schools could refuse to engage with the issue at all – leaving other schools to provide the extra places needed in that locality, probably with reduced resources due to the skewing of budgets towards free schools, and with a detrimental effect on both existing pupils and new ones – or they could be ordered to cooperate by the government, making a mockery of the whole policy of more autonomy for schools. Or, of course, a laissez-faire approach could see some children without school places at all – though I don’t see any government, even one given to this much small-state rhetoric, letting that happen when the chips were down and the parents were rattling the gates of Number 10.
In this context, the local authority’s essential job doesn’t seem quite so oppressive – a word which I’ve mainly heard associated with OFSTED, the centralised, state agency that terrifies almost every teacher I know. Academies and free schools will remain subject to stringent external inspection – as indeed they should be, but which hardly bears out the vision of institutions ‘free from state control’.
Bigger even than OFSTED in the minds of the teachers I talk to, particularly at secondary level, is the intrusive and out-of-touch managerialism that has been instilled in schools. Head teachers cannot be contradicted when they need to be – which is often, since they and the expanding ‘senior leadership teams’ that surround them (who also have this aura of protection from criticism) barely do any actual teaching and so are often completely out of touch with the realities of the school. The picture that The Spectator paints, of crusading, innovative head teachers on the one hand and stick-in-the-mud, NUT-brainwashed, can’t-be-struck-off-even-if-they’re-incompetent normal teachers on the other, will do little to allow teachers get on and teach to give children the help they need – which I thought was the whole point of this exercise.
All this has far wider implications than just education policy, fundamental though that is to the health of the nation. The debate over schools is arguably the first test of the government’s localist agenda. It will be interesting, and hugely important, to see whether the decentralisation of power translates to further erosion of the role of the citizen in favour of the role of the consumer, where individual choice (‘I want to get my child into a good school’) is prized above all even when it disadvantages others. More optimistically, it will be interesting to see whether decentralisation involves the empowering of communities, through councils, to raise and spend money locally and work together to try to do the best for everyone (‘How can we make the schools in our area as good as they can be?’) – which I and many others hoped the Big Society would entail.