Monday, April 12th

Where to start with Gordon Brown’s latest pronouncement on yet another round of schools reform? This was announced on the front page of today’s Guardian as the centrepiece of his party’s election manifesto.

“More than 1,000 mediocre or failing secondary schools will be taken over to drive up standards”, the paper’s coverage began. This is education policy-making-by-numbers: tired, recycled and somehow both depressing and damaging while at the same time being largely vacuous.

OK, I’ll say what I really think: I didn’t like it. Labour’s education manifesto may well have some good bits. It’s just a shame that this policy has grabbed the headlines.

First off, the “tired/recycled” bit. Well, we’ve had at least a decade, now, of stories saying that “failing” schools will be closed, that their heads will be sacked and/or that they will be turned into academies or taken over by other organisations.

The debate instantly gets framed in a negative way, obscuring the fact that surveys consistently show most parents are supportive of their child’s school. This contributes, probably, to an undermining of confidence in the state system if readers take these statements seriously. I wrote about this in 2008. (See:

If this is truly damaging, and happens just so politicians have another “reform” to announce…well, it’s not a great advert for the political process, is it?

To run through some of the policy initiatives with a similar theme: academies, first announced in 2000, have been billed mainly as a project to deal with underperformance/failure in traditional state secondaries; since 2006 the Government has had powers to increase the pressure on local authorities to “intervene” in schools where results are deemed not good enough, on any one of a handful of measures; and since 2008 the National Challenge has promoted a get-tough approach in which schools under a certain level of GCSE performance were effectively named and shamed and told to improve or be closed.

The new aspect now seems to be that parents, local authorities or schools themselves who are unhappy with the way things are going can trigger involvement from the provider of a “chain” of similar schools, who might change the school’s management. Even this is not completely new, Mr Brown and Ed Balls having announced the ability of parents to bring in federations weeks ago.

One can pull this apart in a number of ways. First, although the policy is billed as providing more power to parents, it has to be asked: how many families actually want these powers? Even if they do want them, why is Mr Brown suggesting his own target of more than 1,000 schools being changed in this way? Surely, if the policy is truly to be parent-driven, ministers should not be setting any kind of target: the number will simply follow from how many parents feel a need for this change. The policy raises other questions, such as whether the atmosphere of confrontation between parents and school leaders that these reforms suggest will really lead to improvement: should not the Government – and excuse me if I’m being naive, here – be urging families to support the places where their children are educated?

This policy, the article says, will help persuade the electorate that Mr Brown has the “energy and ideas for a fourth term” and that “his goal is to bring reform right into the mainstream of public services”.

But “reform” to what end?

If we trace the truly fundamental changes in education over the past 25 years, most of them at least had a clear rationale, whether one agreed with it or not. The national curriculum was introduced because it was argued that a framework was needed for what pupils should be taught wherever they were in the country. Local management of schools gave more autonomy to individual institutions. The national literacy and numeracy strategies came in, controversially, because it was said that teaching standards were too variable.

If federations or chains of schools are the next big thing in order to “drive up standards”, I have to ask, why? What will this change achieve?

At least one major study has shown that linking more successful secondaries to the less successful has improved results.

But the study, led by academics at Manchester University, offers no reasons why, as if the improved scores are all the evidence that is needed. In the absence of any explanation, the raised stats simply beg questions about how this improvement is being created.  Do federations improve the content of what is taught? If so, one wonders why we have a national curriculum. If they improve the “how” of teaching, were the national strategies not good enough? If it’s about better management, why do we have a National College for School Leadership (or whatever it’s called these days)? And if it’s about promoting co-operation, should not local authorities be doing this with their local schools?

Or are federations simply seen as a slightly more palatable, for schools, alternative to more drastic changes such as closing an institution?

I think what Mr Brown and his advisers are scratching around for – at least with their rhetoric – is a system which is seen to have parallels with how we behave as consumers buying products in the market. If we don’t like something, we as consumers (parents), can simply choose a rival’s product (different school chain). And the possibility of that choice forces companies (chains: federations of schools or academies) to improve their products (schools). It may also be, to borrow again from the commercial world, that a school’s association with a successful federation’s brand may improve its standing with parents.

It sounds a nice concept, but so often the policies fall down on the details. Yet politicians often seem uninterested in the detail – ie how parents and schools really interact and how the service actually works –  preferring instead to concentrate on ideological/theoretical and largely clichéd notions such as the rhetoric around choice.

As Gordon Brown says in his interview: “The important thing now is we are giving people voice and choice. Voice and choice determines how that service will be more accountable to the public, with  more rights for the individual citizen, with more guarantees for that individual person so that people will see the benefit of voice and choice in the years to come.”

Make any sense to you? Well, I struggled with it.

1 Comment

  1. Great analysis, Mr M. The idea that federations are, in themselves, a good thing is simplistic and misleading. As ever, it’s all about context, or – as you say – detail.

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