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