John Bald, an independent educational consultant, a blogger on breaking the legacy of Antony Crossland
Antony Crossland’s infamous circular 10/65 was a classic exercise in the abuse of power. First, it did not legislate – Crossland would get his way by bullying and by cutting off funds from anyone who disagreed with him. Second, it allowed the advocates of mixed-ability teaching to claim that their way was part of “the comprehensive ideal”, and to promote it through back-door tactics of their own.
These included getting control of education committees, governing bodies and unions (which could nominate seats on all of these), and then using this influence to nominate sympathetic senior officers (who had control of many appointments within departments, and could turn them into leftist organisations even within Conservative councils), and in turn inspectors, heads, deputies, promoted teachers and professional associations, notoriously, the London and later National Association for the Teaching of English.
A leftist colleague of mine in Essex accurately described the result as a “hegemony”. It even got favourable trade press through The Times Educational Supplement, for which it provided most of the advertising. For all its faults, Ofsted in the nineties had the virtue of cutting through these layers and introducing an element of professionalism that breached the outer walls of Crossland’s castle. The Left learned, and began appointing Labour local authority officials as Chief Inspectors.
Paradoxically, much of the Left accepted the idea that children could be divided into “academic” and “non academic”, much as some grammar school heads did – they simply cloaked it in terms of social conditions, so that, in Inner London Education Authority speak, the “academics” were “advantaged” and the others “disadvantaged”. The disadvantaged were not deemed capable of intellectual work – see the late Professor Eric Hawkins on changes in language teaching for detail on this. In order to promote equality, the intellectual content of the curriculum therefore had to be reduced.
Sixties Conservatives made mistakes, and the worst was Sir Edward Boyle’s appointment of Lady Plowden to review primary education. The effect of her report, Children and their Primary Schools, was to give carte blanche to the complete removal of structure from primary education. Crossland had given local authorities power to inspect their own schools – another lever of power, and local authority inspectorates were flooded with Plowden men and women.
Anyone who disagreed with them could forget promotion. Lady Plowden had research showing that children grouped according to their learning needs tended to make better progress, but could say that, as with most educational research, it was “not conclusive”. So, mixed ability came to rule, often under the guise of “county policy”. Leftist officials took control of building, and would not build two-form entry schools, so that Headteachers could not use setting within a year group. New primary academies often have an intake of 60, which should be restored as the norm.
Crossland’s castle is intricately defended. By the nineties, even New Labour had seen the damage it was doing, and Campbell and Blair were describing many inner city comprehensives as “secondary modern schools”. David Cameron, Michael Gove and Nick Gibb have surveyed the fortress, and are intent on breaking it up. Mossbourne (see last week’s posting) has demolished its intellectual base, and Michael Gove’s interest in brain research is important, as this allows us to observe learning processes directly, rather than guess at them from external behaviour.
As a result, we can base our judgements on science and evidence. Nationally, and intellectually, we are winning. But locally? Across the country, Crossland’s children and grandchildren are holding their own by cutting services and keeping their hierarchies together – it was always clear that they would do this, and my first posting, on Cambridgeshire, shows that they are good at it (local authority management costs for a proposed local youth club were more than the youth worker’s salary).
Councillors have little power if they simply sit on councils and approve budgets – officials can bat them off. For example, most secondary schools have too many deputy heads. They should not have more than one each, with a small number of assistant heads. The effect of two or three deputies is commonly to leave Mr Inameeting or Ms Notavailableatthemoment with nothing to do but drink coffee and shuffle paper. (Note – Sir Michael Wilshaw gets about his school, and the staff appreciate it).
But most governors and councillors do not have the knowledge and skills they need to get into the detail of this waste and force schools to cut it out. They would be accused of exceeding their authority if they did so, even though they would be saving millions of public money at no detriment to children. Academies and new schools are an important part of the way forward, but we need also to manage existing schools better. A starting point might be to assess how far each authority has been taken over by our opponents’ ideologies, and develop local strategies to root these out. Don’t expect officials to help.