A very English mess

Nice try, Nicky. Despite official efforts to bury the bad news of the  government’s major volte face on forced academisation under rolling election coverage, Morgan’s climbdown late last week has been widely publicised and celebrated by what had turned into a formidable array of opponents stretching right across the political spectrum.

In the end, Morgan dared not defy a handful of powerful Tory backbenchers or shire leaders – according to one, the government had simply ‘gone bonkers’ – implacably opposed to having their local power over education destroyed.

But there was a different sort of retreat, just as significant in its way, also at the end of the week.   Free school founder Toby Young, now stepping down as CEO of the West London Free School he set up in 2011,  has expressed regrets at his ‘arrogance’ on school reform in a Schools Week interview, in particular his criticism of other teachers, heads and local authorities. ‘I hadn’t grasped how difficult it is to do better.’

It appears that Young (who now claims that his remarks were taken out of context) has finally caught up with some of the more complex social and political reasons why so many local schools can’t keep pace with the rich, socially selective independent sector that he so admires.

For anyone who has crossed Young over the years, this was a bitter sweet moment ( my phone was buzzing all afternoon).  Let’s not forget the huge part he played in undermining public and parental confidence in state education, particularly non-selective schools,  during the early years of the Coalition which led some commentators seriously to suggest that critics of free schools were ‘actively evil.’

It all feels like another age now. Both Morgan and Young’s retreats signal one more important staging post in the fast diminishing credibility of the school reforms unleashed by the Tories after 2010. If Gove brought an intellectual energy and spurious coherence to a fundamentally flawed project, Morgan embodies the rabbit-caught-in-headlights nervousness of someone placed in charge of a convoy of rackety vehicles that now threatens to veer out of control.

Huge change has been forced through our system at all levels on scant evidence and even less meaningful consultation. There is no substantive proof that academisation is the answer to improved school performance and I don’t know anyone who still argues that  free schools remain a vehicle for meaningful parental involvement.Young himself, an exceptionally well -networked figure in Tory circles, was always an outlier.  Most new free schools are set up by existing chains or groups.

The once alluring mantra of choice and competition,  kick started by the Tories in the late 1980s rings hollow under a government characterised by a crass, heavy handed centralism on everything from school structures to refashioning the curriculum, but an administration not centralised (or merely efficient) enough to avert the continuing crisis in school places, teacher recruitment and workload, or sort out an increasingly rogue school admissions system.

We are left, for the moment, with a typical English mess. The government is still committed, in theory, to an all academy system by 2022 and pledged to force  immediate conversion on on those schools that don’t meet rigidly prescribed bench marks. Given that it’s largely schools in poorer areas serving poorer children that fail to make the often unrealistic grade,  look out for a return of partisan, and now revengeful, rhetoric about ‘under performing’ Labour local authorities.

English education will continue to be split, and run,  along parallel lines: those still working under the often loose aegis of the local authority ( still 74% of all schools),  and academies, most of these now in chains or herded into Multi Academy Trusts ( MATs), all under the notional supervision of the newly created somewhat mysterious and undemocratic figures, Regional School Commissioners.

Meanwhile, Morgan’s disastrous decision to agree an annex to a Kent grammar ( Gove turned the proposal down during his tenure in office) has, as predicted, let loose a flood of applications for expansion of grammars into previously non-selective areas, causing consternation within many communities, wanting further improvement in their local schools not a new, hugely divisive, tier of provision.

Morgan’s retreat on academisation will not, on the face of it, halt other reforms proposed in what some have suggested might be the ‘ most unpopular White Paper in living memory.’  According to a special report by the academic journal Forum, proposals in the paper amount to the ‘continued refashioning of the whole school system’ including the dangerous atomisation of teacher training, increasingly hierarchical schools and a continuing degrading of democratic accountability.

There remain, then, plenty of really important battles still to fight. And new ideas to develop.

All this poses an interesting dilemma for Labour. On the one hand, there is clearly widespread hunger, if not desperation, for an alternative vision in education. ‘High expectations’ yes , but within a pragmatically oriented, well resourced, well supported system, with light touch democratic accountability.  On the other hand, most school leaders and teachers are depleted and demoralised. Too much change,  too many changes of official mind.

Labour, who has scored some notable parliamentary successes in recent months,  is sensitive to this perceived need for politicians to press the pause button. But with four years still to go, the party would be wise to start widespread consultation on everything from reform of the curriculum, genuinely fair admissions and high quality teacher training.

After all, if politicians, past and present, had heeded educational professionals more and listened less to provocative and self-promoting figures like Toby Young, we might not have got into such a mess in the first place.

An edited version of this piece published in Guardian Comment on May 9 2016.