The Sunday review: Education, education, education: reforming England’s schools by Andrew Adonis

by Anthony Painter

There are many peculiarities in our politics. Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of current political debates centres on education policy. The Conservatives, relying on a single international and heavily caveated measure of relative educational performance, seek to discredit Labour’s period in office. Simultaneously, they have basically adopted Labour’s approach to structural reform of secondary education. Academies and their close relative, free schools, university technical colleges (UTCs), studio schools, the Teach First initiative, are all initiatives supported by or initiated by the Labour government. It’s too easy to forget.

At the same time, Labour is almost embarrassed to be associated with this reform programme. While it ums and ahs, Michael Gove will take full credit for the improvements the academy movement is likely to bring. Shy reformers lose their voice. So Labour’s interventions in the education debate are suddenly sotto voce. Andrew Adonis, the architect of these reforms, is looking to raise the volume once more.

In Education, education, education – part memoir, part “how to do reform” manual, part education reform history, part ministerial diary, part manifesto – Adonis reminds us that Labour consistently drove reform in office. The end point of these reforms is inevitably “an academised system.” Quite why Labour should resist is perplexing.

Adonis is generous – rightly so – to Conservative reformers of the system and Lord Baker in particular. City Technology Colleges were the precursor of the academy programme as was local management of achools. The introduction of the GCSE is also identified as a key educational reform, opening pathways for the majority. Lord Baker is now the driving force behind the UTC movement. At the same time, a number of Labour figures are given a less than rosy assessment. Tony Crosland who set out on a mission to “destroy every fucking grammar school in England” is served particularly poorly by subsequent developments. As “secondary modern comprehensives” – Adonis’s phrase – resulted from educational reforms on the 1960s and 1970s, so the majority were ill-served. Margaret Thatcher, of course, went along with all this in the early 1970s.

So both parties have their heroes and villains. Adonis is clear about wanting to take the politics out of education so this is perhaps not surprising. If there is a default setting then the left has a tendency to support the status quo and producer interest over innovation and the consumer – kids and parents. The right too often sees educational advancement in a social Darwinian fashion – useful only for a minority beyond a certain level. Yet, despite the noise surrounding the debate, reform has been consistent for two decades or more now. There seems to be a critical mass of reformism; a radical centre of educational improvement.

Adonis is ambitious for our educational future. He wants 90 per cent to achieve five A*-C GCSEs including English and Maths. Fifty per cent should go to university. This will require strong governance, leadership, teaching, ethos, ambition, and commitment. Teachers should start on a higher salary. Academies will become the cornerstone of secondary education in England.

The two most common objections to this are arguments that this undermines local democracy and the status of the community school. Local authorities can still have a role and, indeed, an important one: as the voice of parents, maintaining quality, proving information, supplying services to schools and helping create partnerships between educational institutions. Their role in direct running of schools will be much diminished, however as it already has become. As for the community school objection, the notion of such schools is largely a myth other than in small towns and villages. When it comes to an urban setting the mix of school uniforms on display in the mornings and late afternoons is astonishing!

As a prospectus for the reform of secondary education it is difficult to fault Education, Education, Education. Moreover, as a reminder of just how difficult it is change the course of the ship of the British state for anyone other than the most determined and committed of reformers, it is a significant contribution much beyond the education field.

If the book has a weakness, it is when it comes to non-school 16+ education. One of the major features of the broader education debate in this country is the awkward silence that descends over the discussion when it comes to further education. When it is discussed, it tends to be dismissed. Adonis has some sensible thoughts on technical and vocational education generally: expansion of the UTC initiative, the introduction of a Technical Baccalaureate, and more involvement of business in schooling. It is slightly regretful though that he falls into the slightly easy criticisms of further education when what is required is more positive engagement with the sector by serious educational thinkers.

One of the major challenges over the next decade will be to work out how we can ensure that the 50 per cent or so who won’t go to university are better served in the system. At the moment, amongst many other things, FE picks up those many students who haven’t been well-served in the secondary sector so it faces significant initial challenges. What is desperately needed is greater engagement with the sector in a supportive manner – as a national strategic imperative.

A few months ago, I was sat next to the director of education for a major global company who had just contracted out the provision of elements of their apprenticeship programme. He hadn’t invited any publicly funded further education providers as he didn’t think they could be flexible enough. As it happens, this wasn’t right but such assumptions bedevil the sector.

It makes it very difficult for the sector to compete – build partnerships with business and universities, attract better governors, leaders and staff, more often be destinations of first choice – if leading educationalists don’t help platform much of the very good work that the sector does. This is work that no-one else is doing in the system. If FE didn’t exist, it would have to be invented so there needs to be a deeper engagement on the part of policy-makers if it is to contribute even more to our economic and social well-being. Too often it’s placed in the ‘too difficult’ box.

Overall though, Education, education, education is a brilliant vision for education and can’t be recommended highly enough. Adonis’s achievements are considerable. The passion and intelligence of this contribution shines a light on the embarrassing state of the debate in a political environment. There is a deep moral urgency that second best is not good enough for anyone. Hopefully, Adonis or someone similar can apply this creativity beyond the schools sector alone. It is of national importance.

Anthony Painter is an author and critic. He is chairman of Hackney UTC and vice chairman of Hackney Community College but writes here – as always! – in a completely personal capacity

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7 Responses to “The Sunday review: Education, education, education: reforming England’s schools by Andrew Adonis”

  1. paul barker says:

    An interesting article. I wonder if you have any thoughts on the incorporation of Art/Craft/Fashion into the university sector ? Most such degrees now involve essays, theses & viva voce elements with a downplaying of the manual .
    Could you see any way this might be reversed ?

  2. Yes, in fact I see it is as very important. Vocational/technical excellence – with business and public service direct involvement – is a very important in HE as well as FE. When we lost the Polytechnics we lost a lot of that focus also. There is an important conversation to be had about re-focusing on the practical alongside the theoretical in HE.

  3. Robin Thorpe says:

    Anthony, I don’t disagree with the overall sentiment of the piece particurlarly the emphasis placed on no-uninversity education; however I must take issue with the 2nd sentence of the second paragraph “While it ums and ahs, Michael Gove will take full credit for the improvements the academy movement is likely to bring”. The first few Academies did seem to result in significant improvement in levels of achievement, however there is no substantial basis for making a statistical prediction of mass improvements. In fact when any ojective assessment of the performane of academies is undertaken we can see that there is no evidence to suggest that academies result in enhanced achievement Some schools do well as academies, that is beyond question, but the extension of the academy program on the basis of academic achievement is a flawed one. Indeed this should come as no surprise to anyone who remembers Grant-Maintained schools; as a means of providing funding to disadvantaged schools it was no bad thing but did not produce significant academic change and was quietly dropped a decade ago.
    Most schools that changed to academy status in the last few years did so voluntarily and did so because they were offered the carrot of short-term increased funding. Personally I don’t have a problem with schools having direct access to funding; however I think that academy chains with an administrative centre that is remote from the locality will prove to create more problems than it solves. I also think that the extension of the academy status is done with the intention of destroying LEAs, which will certainly have a negative impact on the support services that are offered at County/Borough level. In addition I don’t think I am alone in stating my absolute opposition to the prospect of education providers being able to make profit from state-funded education; and not because I don’t want to see educators being adequatley rewarded for facilitating academic achievement, but because the creation of for-profit enterprise disturbs the balance of education as a means of transforming lives. I don’t want to see schools as factories for workers, I want to see schools as centres of individual growth and enlightenment; it is my opinion that offering financial reward for levels of academic achivement is not the best way to safeguard freedom of expression. This is why the Labour Party is right to distance itself from Gove’s education revolution. Adonis may seek to depoliticise education but whilst Tories believe that education is solely to provide the workers of tomorrow then it is political – a senior Tory said on Question Time last year (I forget whom exactly) that the Arts subjects are not worth supporting, as they don’t generate sufficient wealth for the economy.

  4. Mike Homfray says:

    This sounds like a book worth avoiding. Adonis was wrong in just about every view he had when a minister and it sounds like nothing has changed, I dearly wish he would join one of the Coalition parties as he clearly has ability, but he has nothing to contribute to Labour thinking and it is hard to move forward with people like him holding us back.

  5. BenM says:

    Robin Thorpe – Excellent.

    It is bonkers to believe a change in reporting structure will magically lead to academic success.

    The best thing Labour can do is to pledge to abolish Free Schools. It might be far fetched to imagine Labour trouncing its foolish dalliance with academies but a renunciation there would be welcome too.

    Gove and Tory propaganda outlets will froth. Let them.

    Gove is fast discrediting himself anyway.

  6. swatantra says:

    We should be following the German or French Model (population approx 70m) not the Swedish Model (pop approx 5m).

  7. Paul Tully says:

    Whilst this article is written 2 years ago, I wanted to say how relevant its evaluation still is to the FE sector, as someone who has worked (and is working) in the sector for the last 20 years. Inspired by my reading of this memoir, my company Newbubbles Ltd has invited Lord Adonis to be our headline speaker at the National Further Education conference, in London, on 24th October 2016. These conferences are lively, passionate affairs, and against a backdrop of austerity, Lord Adonis applies his intellectual talents to the ‘problems of FE’. If you are interested in more information please spread the work – more information is available at

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