The Tory Education Revolution
As Richard Littlejohn at RightMinds asks 'So what have Dave's Tories done for you?', His Grace was reminded of a scene from The Life of Brian:
Reg: They've bled us white, the bastards. They've taken everything we had, not just from us, from our fathers and from our fathers' fathers.Dave's Tories have not bequeathed to us anywhere near as much as the Romans, but the revolution in education ranks almost as highly. Today, nearly 1.2 million children are now taught in academies: yesterday, the 1000th school converted to academy status - schools with the freedom to meet the needs of their pupils, rather than answering to local or national politicians and bureaucrats. This means one in three secondary pupils are taught in academies.
Stan: And from our fathers' fathers' fathers.
Stan: And from our fathers' fathers' fathers' fathers.
Reg: All right, Stan. Don't labour the point. And what have they ever given us in return? (he pauses smugly)
Xerxes: The aqueduct?
Xerxes: The aqueduct.
Reg: Oh yeah, yeah they gave us that. Yeah. That's true.
Masked Commando: And the sanitation!
Stan: Oh yes ... sanitation, Reg, you remember what the city used to be like.
Reg: All right, I'll grant you that the aqueduct and the sanitation are two things that the Romans have done ...
Matthias: And the roads ...
Reg: (sharply) Well yes obviously the roads ... the roads go without saying. But apart from the aqueduct, the sanitation and the roads ...
Another Masked Commando: Irrigation ...
Other Masked Voices: Medicine ... Education ... Health
Reg: Yes ... all right, fair enough ...
Commando Nearer The Front: And the wine ...
General Audience: Oh yes! True!
Francis: Yeah. That's something we'd really miss if the Romans left, Reg.
Masked Commando At Back: Public baths!
Stan: And it's safe to walk in the streets at night now.
Francis: Yes, they certainly know how to keep order ... (general nodding) ... let's face it, they're the only ones who could in a place like this. (more general murmurs of agreement)
Reg: All right ... all right ... but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order ... what have the Romans done for us?
Xerxes: Brought peace!
Reg: (very angry, he's not having a good meeting at all) What!? Oh ... (scornfully) Peace, yes ... shut up!
The Academies programme has expanded rapidly in the last twelve months. In July 2010 the Academies Act made it possible for any good school to apply to become an academy. Since then more than 1500 have applied with 1031 set to be open by the end of this week. In addition, there are 319 sponsored academies, turning around schools that were previously underperforming. The Government is increasing the number of sponsored academies with 116 opening since the election and will open more this year than ever before. More than 40 per cent of all secondary schools are now open or in the process of opening as academies.
As he addresses the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester today, Michael Gove will be able to remind us that under Labour there were just 200 academies across the country, despite them being a Blair-Adonis initiative:
3 opened in 2002
9 opened in 2003
5 opened in 2004
10 opened in 2005
19 opened in 2006
37 opened in 2007
47 opened in 2008
70 opened in 2009
3 opened in January 2010
Since June 2010 a further 1147 have opened.
Academies have the freedom to innovate and raise standards, including freedom from local and central government control; the ability to set their own pay and conditions for staff; freedoms around the delivery of the curriculum; and the freedom to change the lengths of terms and school days. As of today, 1,350 schools are now academies across England. By the end of this week 1,031 schools will have converted from local authority control since Dave's Tories came to power. 319 are sponsored Academies – of which 116 have opened since May 2010 and 45 more are expected to open later this academic year. There are 101 chains of converter academies with a total of 289 schools. On average there are around three schools working together to improve education for their pupils making up these chains. Nearly 1.2 million pupils are now attending academies – this means around one in seven pupils in state maintained schools are now attending Academies and one in three pupils in secondary schools.
Strong schools that convert to academy status are expected to support other local schools that could benefit from improvement and the Government is targeting the 200 worst primary schools in the country and turning them into academies next year. The government is also seeing a range of other academy models coming through – including schools that converted at the start of the programme who are now becoming academy sponsors and running a chain of schools. These schools recognise that, by working in partnership with good or outstanding schools, they will be able to gain the knowledge, teaching and leadership expertise they need to raise standards faster.
Under Labour, schools in England plummeted down the international league tables. The OECD found that between 2000 and 2009, England fell from 7th to 25th in reading, 8th to 28th in maths, and 4th to 16th in science. We have been overtaken by countries such as Poland, Iceland and Norway. This is despite England spending far more on education than comparable nations such as Germany. They say greater autonomy is a common feature of the world’s best schools systems: ‘in countries where schools have greater autonomy over what is taught and how students are assessed, students tend to perform better ...schools that enjoy greater autonomy in resource allocation tend to do better than those with less autonomy’. (OECD, Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009, 7 December 2010).
Just 40 pupils out of 80,000 on free school meals made it to Oxbridge in one year under Labour. In the last year for which figures are available, only 40 pupils made it to Oxbridge out of the 80,000 pupils eligible for free school meals when they were 16 years old. Six independent schools each have higher numbers of pupils admitted to Oxbridge than the 80,000 pupils on free school meals: Westminster, St Paul’s Girls School, Winchester College, St Paul’s School, Eton College and Manchester Grammar.
All of this is a cause of much rejoicing, for this revolution is irreversible: it would be a bold Labour Party (and one doomed to perpetual opposition) which ever sought to wrest this new-found liberty from millions of parents.
The problem for His Grace is that it is all missing a dimension...
Grammar schools have been the most dynamic and successful motor of social mobility ever conceived. Yet every major political party is dedicated either to their constriction or eradication: they are all intent on abolishing the meritocratic principle by which they were defined.
The rich have always sent their children to private schools, and the not-so-rich have scrimped and saved in traumatic attempts to spare their own children from the inadequacies and deficiencies of a system they half endured. When there was a grammar school in every town, entry was on merit, irrespective of parental income or social class. And the poorest could rise to attain the highest: the sons of miners could become a Nobel prize-winner and the daughters of grocers could become prime minister. Now, of course, entry to the grammars is as restricted as it is for private education: while the latter is dependent on the ability to pay the fees, the former is dependent on the ability to afford a house in the catchment area.
Social mobility has nothing to do with the fascist egalitarianism of Socialism – economic equality or equality of outcome. Sadly, there will always be those for whom aspiration causes social division and so must be abolished. But social mobility is inherent to meritocracy because it is dependent on equality of opportunity. And that opportunity must be available to all. In order for there to be ‘grammar school boys’ to compete fairly with the privileged Old Etonians, there simply needs to be more grammar schools to provide the bright working and lower middle class child with opportunities equal to those of private schools.
This is what Dave's Tories must now turn to. If Michael Gove wishes a true revolution, he must study the provisions of the 1944 Education Act. Two cohorts on from the passing of that act, the ‘best jobs’ were no longer the preserve of the privileged élite: they were open to everyone with the ability, irrespective of social class or economic circumstances.
Academic aspiration has historically been the preserve of the wealthier parents, but those from deprived backgrounds have rarely spurred their children to achieve beyond the confines of their context, principally for fear of them ‘getting above themselves’. Low aspiration begets low expectation; low expectation begets low achievement; low achievement begets low income; low income begets poverty; poverty begets crime...
The Conservative Party is on the right course in all but two respects:
1) There must be selection by ability and an end to mixed-ability teaching, which is ineffective and demoralising. Under existing plans, the red tape which hindered the creation of new schools has been eradicated: free schools are free indeed from local authority control, with central government paying an allowance of about £6,000 per pupil. But they are unable to select by ability: all academies are comprehensive schools.
Inequality is the natural order of things. Just as ugly people are barred by nature from beauty competitions, and the tone deaf from joining the choir, so those who are not academic must be separated from those who are and provided with an education tailored to their needs. Let us call it ‘personalised learning’. It is not possible to teach excellent bricklayers and outstanding poets at the same pace in the same group of 30, for the lowest common denominator will prevail, and this negates potential and undermines the country’s social and economic future.
2) Schools run by private companies must be able to make a profit. Under existing rules, only charities and non-profit-making bodies are allowed to create new free schools supported by the taxpayer. Even James Purnell, the former work and pensions secretary, has said: “If allowing state schools to be run by profit-making companies encourages equality of capability, we will have to allow it.”
His Grace is not sure what Mr Purnell meant by ‘equality of capability’, but it sounds as though he is on the right lines.
Even as Dave's Tories may yet consider permitting companies to profit in the provision of education, they are adamant that there is to be ‘no return to selection’. With 167 grammar schools still functioning, it is unclear why they talk about ‘return’. Selection has never entirely left us because the ‘pushy’ parents in some staunchly Conservative English counties (and Northern Ireland) demand it. And these schools lead the league tables: Northern Ireland leads the United Kingdom. And those counties where grammar schools exist will be given the right to create more grammar schools as populations expand, thereby perpetuating the school / house-price injustice.
The problem with the grammar / secondary-modern division is that it is too crude and simplistic for the postmodern area: it is just wrong to divide children into sheep and goats at the age of 11. The perception of success for the élite and failure for the rest is too unjust for this mollycoddled generation for whom appearance is all. And perhaps, like democracy, it always was imperfect. But with the return of access determined by wealth, it has become unjust.
And so His Grace has a solution. There needs to be a tripartite system of secondary education quite independent of the state. Those gifted with academic ability should be educated in accordance with the grammar philosophy; those gifted with practical ability should be educated in accordance with the needs of their vocation; and those gifted with the ability for either must be educated such that their learning permits them the liberty to choose. For ability is as diverse as nature, and there is more in the ‘centre’ than exists at the extremities. Parents should indeed be given vouchers to spend in the school of their choice, but the school must be able to assert its choice provided the selection criterion is academic ability alone. And, curricula permitting, children would be free to move between schools, ending the primacy and finality of the 11+. Free of state interference, these schools would be free to pay teachers as they wish (and therefore more in a challenging environment), specialise, innovate, personalise and develop a unique ethos. And they must also be free to expand, for why limit the model of success? Indeed, if they are not to expand, oversubscription makes unjust selection a necessity.
It beggars belief that the same questions once posed by the great Dr Thomas Arnold are still being asked two centuries on. Real progress can only come from irrevocable reform. The only solution to the present delinquent educational tyranny is the total removal of state control and the infuriating interference of the politicians, and the introduction of competition, selection and vouchers. And once parents get a taste of that, no democratic government would dare contemplate removing it.