Mark Lehain is Director of Parents and Teachers for Excellence, and founder of the Bedford Free School.
It’s been four-and-a-half years and three Secretaries of State since Michael Gove ruled the roost at the Department for Education. Like all good teachers, he knew that telling a story is a great way to explain things – and he was a brilliant storyteller.
He explained that the purpose of education is to enable people to be the authors of their own lives, and that the best way to achieve this is to experience a broad academic curriculum to 16, in schools that have the most ambitious of expectations for them. He recognised that there was excellence in the system but that it wasn’t to be found everywhere. To raise the bar across the board thus required fundamental change. And boy, did we get it.
The National Curriculum, exam system, school funding mechanisms, school inspections, qualifications, teacher training, governance structures, free schools, behaviour regulations, accountability measures… All these and more were reformed in four short years.
Gove was always going to be a hard act to follow. He did much of the heavy lifting, and his successors have had to contend with tighter budgets and Brexit. Neither Nicky Morgan nor Justine Greening really had time to enact their plans. Damian Hinds has only been in the job for just over a year, and inherited some particular challenges, but he has managed to get some great stuff out of the door and bring more oomph to the flagship academies and free schools policies.
However, whilst Gove talked relentlessly about parents and pupils, it is fair to say that much of the focus since 2014 has shifted back to reassuring the “producers” – teachers and schools. Also, it’s pretty clear to me that the only education issue that gets most Tories excited is that of selective grammar schools, and that there is no organised or proactive group of Conservative MPs actively cheerleading for the post-2010 reforms.
This is unfortunate as it has left a vacuum that is being filled by some retrograde ideas. The Education Select Committee has been captured by a new blob of government-funded charities, edu-lobbyists, academics and others advocating a worldview that I hoped was long gone.
These people believe that violent or badly behaved children are just victims of trauma, “unmet needs”, or austerity; that a knowledge-rich curriculum is elitist, not empowering; that schools are exam factories (even though Gove and Nick Gibb slashed the number that children sit); and so on. The reports coming out from the committee are as misguided as anything from the bad old days.
Sadly, these ideas are gaining traction elsewhere. Fed anecdotes by this new blob, the media run stories about “the victims of exclusions” – ignoring the plight of staff and students traumatised by persistently disruptive children or aggressive and dysfunctional families. They call for government league tables to “take into account” the class or ethnicity of children – “contextualised value added” in the jargon – which is just a fancy way of embedding the soft bigotry of low expectations and ensuring that birth remains destiny for too many.
All of this puts at risk the growing excellence that we have our schools today. The ministerial team at Education is good, but they’re tied up grappling with some pretty big issues: sustainable university funding, the role of Further Education, creating a world-class set of technical qualifications, and so on. We can’t rely on just them to defend recent gains or develop policies for the next phase of government.
It is teachers working with families that unleash greatness in our schools, not politicians in the DfE; they should just create the framework and get out of the way. To hold the line whilst this happens, we need more Conservatives to celebrate the successes of recent years.
We also need to finish reforming three major parts of the system – to make it more coherent and pupil-focused – whilst resisting an old flame we’ve flirted with recently.
Full academisation is vital since, before long. we’ll have two-thirds of children (and so money) in academies, and so reach a point where councils literally don’t have enough maintained schools to fund their education departments. Now is the time to consider exactly how we move the final third into charitable control, and rethink the role of different players in the system such as local authorities, the Department for Education, multi-academy trusts, etc. This is a pragmatic, not ideological, move; even the Catholic Church has announced it will do this to all its schools.
We also have to revisit how schools are funded. The system inherited in 2010 was a right mess, with huge variations in the money different schools received, across the country and within local authoriries too. Gove brought in a “local funding formula” to deal with the latter, but historical differences persist across the country. If we’re going to address this, it’s going to take a big chunk of cash to minimise the number of losers in any transition. And if we don’t get this right we’ll struggle to be heard about anything else in education, as the “Schools Cuts” campaign showed in the 2017 general election.
Behaviour these days is better than it was, but there is still some way to go until it is as good as it should be in every case. Gove was clear that schools are first and foremost academic institutions of learning, not an extension of the justice or care system. He empowered Heads to do whatever it takes to keep schools safe and orderly. However, this is under attack from the Select Committee and the new blob. They want to restrict the power of schools to suspend or expel students – and they think they might gain support for this in the pending Timpson Review of exclusions.
Hopefully Timpson won’t propose that schools handle disruptive or violent children by themselves; this doesn’t help anyone, least of all the children concerned. A better approach is to grow more quality Alternative Providers and bring new organisations in, too. We already have a process for doing this: the free schools programme. Alongside this, make schools accountable for kids they exclude, and we’ll support everyone in both mainstream and alternative education – truly compassionate conservatism in action.
Finally, we must stop banging on about grammar schools. They add little to the system, switch off potential supporters, and undermine the other great things we’ve achieved by suggesting some kids are more “academic” than others. This simply isn’t true – this government has proved it.
Dixons Trinity Academy, Reach Academy Feltham, Michaela Community School, Tauheedul Islam Boys’ High School, Kings Leadership Academy – these and others prove that grammar school-style education can successfully be accessed by all kids. Selection at 11 is unnecessary, divisive, and counter-productive.
Overall then, when it comes to schools, standards, and choices, the Conservatives have achieved so much for parents and their children. We mustn’t be shy of explaining these successes to all-and-sundry, to enable us to finish this chapter of the story that Gove started.