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Toby Young helpfully clarifies ‘new school’ aims….

The media has been obsessed this week with what position Stephen Twigg, the new secretary of state for education, will take on free schools. While Twigg was probably unwise to give interviews on such a controversial policy within days of being appointed to the post, his latest, more considered, view on the matter seems largely sensible.

I would take issue with his sweeping claim that ‘parents know that the real difference to their child getting ahead is not what is painted on the sign outside the school, but what happens inside the classroom.’. Obviously, the issues of selection/admissions and funding are crucial to the success of a school and its pupils. But it was ever thus……

Meanwhile, in a fascinating exchange on the Local Schools Network concerning the example of the charter school/free school experiment in America, leading free school supporter and founder Toby Young, who had enjoyed taunting Twigg this week, came clean on the policy’s true objective: to allow schools to fail. It is only by letting schools open and close, Young claims, that we can truly learn what kind of innovation works.

Well, I can save Toby years of market based experimentation, with all the disappointment and failure it will bring to generations of students. We already know what makes schools successful. While the majority of the US’s charter schools do not improve on public (state) schools performance, those that do have millions of philanthropically sourced extra money poured into them. Fine, perhaps, if you are living and learning in the Harlem Children’s Zone where cradle to college investment is so impressive; too bad if you are at one of the rogue US charter schools where you will mainly learn about the perils of an unregulated, market based approach.

There’s nothing new in all this. Keith Joseph was singing the praises of bankruptcy in relation to the public services decades ago. For him too, human capital takes low priority in such a schema.

Still, we should be grateful to Toby for so baldly setting out the fundamental objectives of current education policy. The Coalition does not dare.

4 Responses to Toby Young helpfully clarifies ‘new school’ aims….

  1. I went to a Compass meeting to launch their new booklet on education. After reading a Guardian article by compass activists Neal Lawson and Ken Spours and then one by Stephen Twigg a few days later I am completely in the dark about Labour’s policy on free schools.

    Stephen Twigg’s Guardian article manages to say both that he is opposed to free schools in general (“we oppose the policy”) but not necessarily in particular (“where a free school is closing the attainment gap between children from rich and poor backgrounds, extending opportunities, and is based on a fair admissions policy and local demand, it should be able to carry on”).

    Am I alone in finding this evasive?

    Ken Spours and Neal Lawson went even further in there article suggesting that free schools could be the basis for democratic local participation (a participation that includes only parents, many of whom may not be local excludes local residents who are not parents of children at the school). As for the role of local government they say, in response to questions, that schools should remain within the framework of local government. This means that the “free schools” they are talking about are not the same as those of the Free Schools movement.

    The consequence of all this evasion and lack of clarity is that Labour would appear to be uncommitted to any clear ideas regarding inclusive education under local democratic control. On this basis I am afraid that we will go into the next election with Labour having no intentions beyond tinkering with whatever they have been left by the Conservatives. In other words they will continue to play second fiddle on educational matters.

    I really want this to change but I am still waiting for any signs of a change to educational policy basis on a clear vision of where Labour wants to take education. Does anyone have any reason to believe that this is likely?

    • Hello David,

      I have yet to read the Compass document but I did read their piece in The Guardian. This seemed to say that those of us – and yes, I do think they mean people like me – who defend the comprehensive principle, although there is no-one in mainstream politics who doesn’t, and who believe in some form of locally accountable inclusive school system are behind the times. Yet they say exactly that themselves, only without the clarity. I’m afraid that part of this is the obsessive need of political thinkers to appear innovative. Please check out local schools network for alternative vision on past, present and future.

      • Hello Melissa,

        What shocked me in the Compass document and in the articles by Spours/Lawson and Twigg is the complete failure to consider the history of comprehensive education from ’44 to today. That, plus their repeated insistence on starting out from moral principles and taking the moral high ground, gives their views more than a whiff of genteel Pol Potism. We are not starting from a blank sheet. We start from where we are and that includes the successes and failures of comprehensive education that you have detailed so well in your book School Wars.

        I am not sure that I agree that the problem is the desire to appear politically innovative. After all the Spours/Lawson/Twigg position appears to be ‘We cannot deviate all that much from the structures established by Gove’. Not much innovation there.

        No, I think that the problem is that, despite all the talk of moral positions/high ground/courage they are lacking in all three.

        This was illustrated for me when I went to the Compass meeting to launch their new booklet on education. When I asked about faith schools there was a shaking of heads. All Twigg could say was “It’s a difficult problem but it should not be ruled out of discussion”. I take that to mean ‘I have no intention of challenging the status quo but I will not deny you your right to go on about it for a bit’.

        Moral courage and any sort of long-term vision seems to me to be in short supply among leading Labour figures on education. I really want to see signs that this weak approach, which has always been dominant in Labour thinking, is going to change. I am still waiting for them.

        • Faith schools? Sorrowful shaking of heads. Private schools? Mournful shaking of heads. Grammar schools? Awkward shaking of heads Academies? Rueful nodding. Free Schools? Rueful nodding followed by a brisk shake of head. Comprehensives? Awkward, sorrowful, mournful, rueful shaking of heads.
          Sorry – got carried away!

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