Below a piece I have written for tomorrow’s Guardian – part of our official launch of the Local Schools Network. If you believe in non selective high quality state education and want to help us further improve it, to the benefit of all children, not just a few, then please join our campaign group or get involved in any way you think might help. The LSN website lists some of the several campaign organisations fighting to improve, not denigrate, state education.
Tomorrow’s whirlwind visit to London by Arne Duncan, Barack Obama’s education secretary, could not have come at a better time for Michael Gove. Last week the secretary of state was besieged by discomfiting revelations about £500,000 of public money granted to the New Schools Network, the charity and company set up by one of his former advisers, 25-year-old Rachel Wolf, during which it emerged that no other organisation was asked to tender for the job of advising groups who want to set up new and “free” schools.
This week, then, in place of answering questions about transparency and accountability, Gove will be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with one of Obama’s lieutenants – at Hackney’s Mossbourne Academy in London, no less; the jewel in the crown of New Labour’s education policy – and talk about the need to tackle educational inequalities, root out bad teachers, ill discipline and so on.
In fact the funding of the New Schools Network and the expected razzmatazz around Duncan’s visit are all part of the same strategy: central planks in the frequently disingenuous war now being fought over the future of our school system, in which a seductive language of cultural radicalism and a powerful invective against educational inequality will increasingly be used to promote a further fragmented and multi-tiered system of education. Existing state provision is in effect being undermined by a mix of instant celebrity critics, a growing number of private providers and behind-the-scenes lobbyists, with the full if not always fully publicised support of the government.
There are two crucial elements to this new schools agenda. The first is the relentless knocking of the comprehensive inheritance; the rational administrative reform introduced in this country from the 50s onwards that sought to end the pernicious and deeply unpopular grammar-secondary modern divide.
The New Schools Network website, for instance, features videos shot in close-up of agonised parents desperately seeking alternatives to their failing local school – although only a tiny percentage of the nation’s schools are now deemed to be failing. Many parents, particularly in urban areas, are being encouraged to panic unnecessarily – as David Woods, London’s chief schools adviser, pointed out so trenchantly earlier this year.
This scaremongering finds a ready echo in mainstream culture. From the tabloids to Waterloo Road to the bestselling fiction of Sebastian Faulks and Zoë Heller, local schools are too frequently portrayed as out-of-control hell holes, sustained by a jaded and self-interested teaching profession and a complacent liberal middle class.
Enter Katherine Birbalsingh, the teacher who became an overnight star at Tory party conference. Here is a fiery, attractive young teacher who invokes the spirit of Martin Luther King in order to declare that most local schools are in chaos. No wonder Gove rates her – like Toby Young, Birbalsingh, who has apparently been offered a free school headship, ticks every Tory box: blaming the liberal middle class, the trade unions and Ofsted for failings in the state system while praising private schools for their outstanding pupil quality rather than extraordinary material resources. She also made a recent appearance at the National Grammar Schools Association’s parliamentary bash at which Gove hinted that he is thinking of reintroducing academic selection.
All this plays into the second key element of the new agenda, which is the praise it heaps on its own, as yet unrealised and already highly contested, version of the local school, based on the Swedish free school or the US zero tolerance “Knowledge is Power” charter model. Duncan’s visit to Hackney will provide yet another bout of favourable publicity for the charter movement, but little for its critics – including those who argue convincingly that such schools do not always deliver and often intensify social and ethnic segregation.
Of course the people who really need regular and active support from Gove are the heads and teachers at the thousands of actually existing local schools that already do a good, and frequently outstanding, job, not just in educating our children but in holding together many disparate local communities.
That is why a group of us have now founded the Local Schools Network, a national campaign group that aims to gather testimonies from parents, teachers and students about the strengths of their local school, and to promote debate about the issues that affect them daily. On Thursday, once Duncan has departed, we will deliver a letter to Gove asking for a meeting to discuss how he and his government might wish to support us in our presumed common goal of further improving the nation’s schools.