The Education Secretary Michael Gove gave a speech this morning to the London Academy of Excellence. After a reference to one of his “favourite history books”, George Dangerfield’s “The Strange Death of Liberal England’, he added:
I think we need a new Dangerfield today to write about another long-held consensus that has – with remarkable rapidity – been completely overturned.
This modern Dangerfield needs to write about the strange death of the sink school – and the strangely overlooked transformation of English state education.
For decades, the dominant consensus has been that state education in England was barely satisfactory; it was – if I may quote a distinguished former civil servant – “bog standard”.
For many years commentators have lamented poor discipline, low standards, entrenched illiteracy, widespread innumeracy, the flight from rigour, the embrace of soft subjects, the collapse of faith in liberal learning and the erosion of excellence in science and technology.
The widespread view has been that the only way to get a really good education for your children was to escape – either into a better postcode, or into the private sector – both, of course, extorting a hefty toll from your pocket.
But that pessimistic view is no longer tenable.
Because the facts show – beyond any reasonable doubt – that English state education is starting to show a sustained and significant improvement.
The number of pupils taught in under-performing secondary schools has fallen by nearly a quarter of a million since 2010. In that year there were 407 secondary schools falling below the standard of at least 40 per cent passing five or more good GCSEs including English and maths. That number has fallen to 154.
Mr Gove said that autonomy, accountability and a focus on quality were the reasons for this renaissance. He added that his aspirations for state schools were wider than academic standards. His vision was:
State schools where the vast majority of pupils have the grades and the skills to apply to university, if they want to; where a state pupil being accepted to Oxbridge is not a cause for celebration, but a matter of course; where it is the norm for state pupils to enjoy brilliant extra-curricular activities like sports, orchestras, cadets, choir, drama, debating, the Duke of Edinburgh scheme, and more.
All those things are par for the course in the private sector – why shouldn’t children in the state sector enjoy them?
We know England’s private schools are the best independent schools in the world. Why shouldn’t our state schools be the best state schools in the world?
My ambition for our education system is simple – when you visit a school in England standards are so high all round that you should not be able to tell whether it’s in the state sector or a fee paying independent.
There was, Mr Gove suggested, an irony that it was the Labour Party seeking to protect independent schools from competition.
Now, thanks to changes we’ve made to teacher training and recruitment, state schools can hire these outstanding people direct – and even poach great teachers from the private sector. Bizarrely, Labour oppose this move.
So we have a situation where Labour would make it illegal for state schools to hire the people who taught Tristram Hunt history. And Ed Balls’ father – a brilliant scientist who taught at Eton for a term – would be banned from state schools.
Instead of reinforcing the Berlin Wall between state and private, as the current Labour leadership appear to want, we should break it down.
Already schools have the freedom to remain open longer. But Mr Gove wishes to encourage more to do so – presumably by offering extra funding. He said:
A future Conservative Government would help state schools – just like independent schools – to offer a school day 9 or 10 hours long – allowing time for structured homework sessions, prep, which will be particularly helpful for those children who come from homes where it’s difficult to secure the peace and quiet necessary for hard study. A longer school day will also make time for after-school sports matches, orchestra rehearsals, debating competitions, coding clubs, cadet training, Duke of Edinburgh award schemes and inspirational careers talks from outside visitors, just like in independent schools.
He also spoke about clearer support for teachers regarding discipline and he proposes state school using the Common Entrance exam for 13-year-olds as a further way of testing the standards being achieved. He “wants” schools to do this but would not force them to do so.
So a serious speech fizzing with determination for our schools to achieve more. Meanwhile the Labour Party are preoccupied by their sense of entitlement over the Quangocracy. The former is the more important story – although the latter, I’m afraid, is getting more attention.