There is still much anxiety concerning our nation’s schools. That is reflected in this morning’s front pages. The Times reports(£) on two school girls being arrested on suspicion of planning to murder a teacher – prompting fears that the horrible murder of Ann Maguire might prompt copycat attempts. The Daily Telegraph has a disturbing account of attempts by Islamic extremists to subvert schools not only in Birmingham but also in Bradford, Manchester and east London.
Yet the “big picture” is very encouraging. Education is an area where the Government has achieved dramatic success in just four years. There have been several important reforms. Thousands of schools have chosen to become academies and enjoy greater independence. Hundreds of free schools are being set up. But the most important change is that schools in England with poor results are no longer able to drift along – either they must improve or they are put under new management as a “sponsored academy.”
The Education Secretary Michael Gove writes powerfully about his sense of mission in the Daily Mail this morning. He draws on his personal experience to show how he is convinced of the transformation that a good teacher can make.
Mr Gove says:
“It was Mike Duncan who stood out for me, and I know for many others. While I was at school, indeed while Mike was my form teacher, my dad’s small business collapsed.
He ran a fish processing firm, founded by my grandfather, which employed about 20 people, many of them lads who had been in trouble at some point in their lives, who my dad wanted to give a second chance.
My dad rose before dawn to go to Aberdeen fish market to buy the stock he would subsequently help gut and fillet himself alongside his workers. But the EU’s fisheries policy led to the slow strangulation of many businesses like my dad’s and he had to sell up just as I was facing my principal exams.
It was Mike who ensured I was able to win a scholarship, which enabled me to stay at Gordon’s, complete my exams and then, unbelievably for my family, become not just the first to go to University, but to go to Oxford.”
That illustrates that to claim independent schools are all bastions of privilege is a caricature. Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith (located in the ward I represent on the council) has nearly a hundred pupils on scholarships. The actor Mel Smith who died last year was a pupil at the school and raised a lot of money for scholarships. There are countless similar examples around the country. There are also independent schools which charge low fees – such as the excellent ones set up by the Civitas think tank.
So Mr Gove should broaden the school choice agenda by giving more children with parents on modest incomes the sort of chance he had. An obvious way would be to restore the Assisted Places Scheme, introduced by Margaret Thatcher but abolished by the Labour Government. Research for the Sutton Trust has found it has continued to have benefits decades later in the way its recipients flourished as adults.
New grammar schools should also be part of the mix. This week it was reported that most of them will give preference to children on free schools meals who pass the entrance exam. That makes objections to allowing new grammar schools to open harder to sustain.
Free schools have been a great boost to competition, innovation and variety. Let’s allow some of the new free schools the freedom to select on ability.
Increasing the affordability of independent schools would help drive up standards in the state sector too. After all it is not the good oversubscribed state schools that would need to worry about a shortage of pupils. It is the bad schools that would face even greater pressure. The easier it is for parents to exit the state system, the harder it would be for bad state schools to retain enough pupils to be viable.
Mr Gove has achieved great things despite being shackled by the Lib Dems. The Conservative manifesto should offer the prospect of completing the revolution.