Great piece in today’s Guardian about exactly what’s wrong with the government’s education agenda. It is in fact part of a speech by Huntingdon headmaster Peter Downes, in favour of his anti free school motion that was carried overwhelmingly at yesterday’s Lib Dem conference. The argument is put with utter lucidity; hence its inclusion in my ongoing series……
The academies bill was rushed through parliament in July with a speed and urgency normally reserved for anti-terrorist legislation. In spite of that, the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords managed to bring about some helpful amendments and they deserve our thanks for that.
However, the substance of the act we now have on the statute book is potentially a very significant threat to the stability, fairness and viability of our educational system.
Before the election, Michael Gove was quite explicit: “My aim is to transform state education in this country irreversibly for the better.”
However laudable the intentions, I think it is hasty and misguided to promulgate an irreversible reform of education within 11 weeks of coming into power.
In any case, Gove’s educational vision is based on a number of fallacies. I want to concentrate on just five.
First, he is very keen to liberate schools from “local authority control”. Local authorities do not “control” schools. They used to. When I first became a secondary school head in 1975, the LA told me how many teachers I could employ and how many administrative staff. They organised the cleaning and the grounds maintenance. But the educational world has changed. LAs today do not control schools. It is the head and governors who make the vast majority of the decisions as to how the school functions. The LA is there to provide a whole range of services and support, including: curriculum advice and challenge;
coordination of admissions; and the cost-effective provision of enough school places for children coming through the system.
Clearly some LAs perform these functions more effectively than others but there is no justification for dismantling a structure that has an essential and invaluable role.
The greatest interference in schools today comes not from local authorities but from central government: a highly prescriptive national curriculum and shelf-loads of guidance; an oppressive inspection regime; an obsession with targets and putting schools into categories; and a never-ending stream of education acts and hundreds of regulations.
Gove’s accusatory finger of excessive control should be pointed at central not local government.
The second fallacy is that there needs to be a massive upheaval in the school system because of parental dissatisfaction with schools as they currently function. This is simply not true. The latest DCSF survey of parental views on the schools their children attend shows that 94% of parents are extremely satisfied, very satisfied or fairly satisfied with the school their children attend. A very small minority have serious reservations. These need to be addressed, but there is no widespread demand for schools to be revolutionised.
An Ipsos/Mori poll recently reported that 96% of parents want their children to go to a good local schools within the local authority family.
There is no popular support for a root and branch reform on the scale envisaged by the academies act.
But we do need to reduce the performance gap between the highest and the lowest achievers and so we all welcome the pupil premium as one way of tackling this.
Fallacy number three is that changing the structure of the school system raises standards. The idea is that you call schools by another name and re-organise them and standards will somehow rise. The academic research on pupil performance gives a different finding. Dylan Wiliam, from the London Institute of Education, says it’s not the school you’re in that matters, it’s the classroom. So our national efforts should be focused on improving teaching and learning rather than on an expensive and distracting administrative re-structuring.
Fallacy four is the idea that academies and free schools are part of the localism agenda. Nothing could be further from the truth. I quote from the DfE website: “The Young People’s Learning Agency will fund, monitor, regulate and handle complaints about academies.” This isn’t localism – it is a massive centralisation of our school system. Incidentally, this concern is shared by many Conservative councillors too.
The most dangerous fallacy of all is the idea that the principles of the market place can be applied to state-funded education. “Good” schools are expected to expand; “free schools” will provide competition so that under-performing or failing schools will have to improve their performance or wither and die.
Just as the supermarket drives the corner shop out of business, so it will be with schools.
When Sainsbury’s provides some new products to lure people away from their competitors, the unsold items in the failing shops can be returned to the wholesaler or sold off in a sale. But not so in schools. Pupils are human beings, not tins of beans.
My purpose in proposing this motion was to give Liberal Democrats the chance to make a clear and unequivocal statement – academies and free schools are incompatible with the basic principles of Liberal Democrat education policy.
I know that coalition isn’t easy. My younger son lives in Brussels and if you think coalition is difficult in Britain, you want to try Belgium.
I am not seeking to rock the coalition boat. I understand, as we all do, why the coalition had to be formed. We accept that; we trust Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and their colleagues to do the best they can to uphold Lib Dem principles in difficult and unforeseen circumstances. We rejoice in what they have been able to do to implement parts of our manifesto.
But being in coalition should not require us to abandon the basic values, principles and policies that our experience, knowledge and collective wisdom, have formulated over many years.
I am calling on Liberal Democrats to use their influence at local level. I am not asking for hysterical, placard-waving boycotts – just sensible, rational argument to alert people to the risks I have listed.
They don’t want us to campaign, however unflamboyantly, on an element of the coalition agreement, our new Bible.
The good news is that the coalition agreement makes absolutely no mention of converting existing schools to academies and the paragraphs on “new providers” does not specify that these will be outside strategic local authority oversight.
So the Academies Act is not a true reflection of the coalition agreement and therefore we must surely be free to point out its limitations and potential dangers.
Our message to our members, supporters and the wider public is simply this: Liberal Democrats believe in good local schools for all, supported and coordinated by democratically elected local bodies; we believe in fairness and our priority is to support those in greatest need.
Go back to the places where decisions are being made in the next few days, weeks and months. Talk to heads, governors, parents, teachers and councillors and help then to understand what is really happening. Explain to them calmly, cogently and persuasively, that academies and free schools are likely to be divisive, costly and unfair. They’re in the statute book, on the shelf, and that’s where they should stay.