Mark Lehain is Chair of Parents and Teachers for Excellence’s Networks, and was the Conservative candidate for Newcastle North in last year’s general election.
Yesterday morning, I made it to my daughter’s class assembly. The theme was science and included a number of experiments involving fire, gases, water, and static electricity. The entertainment was enhanced by the demonstrations being done by the Year Fives themselves. And the gasps of wonder from the audience of four-to-eleven year olds were an absolute pleasure to see, and the pride on the performers’ faces at eliciting such reactions was a joy.
In a school with many kids on free school meals and from challenging contexts, in a borough with the worst primary SATs results in the whole country, I saw an assembly that used academic rigour to induce awe and wonder and ambition in all of its 200 pupils.
Afterwards I read Ben Bradley’s article on this website, and the contrast between his take on schools today and what I’d just seen could not have been starker. The focus of his piece was absolutely spot on – how we level up standards for pupils and areas that haven’t yet benefitted from the last decade’s reforms is hugely important.
However, the article’s underpinning philosophy and proposals were as though the last decade of Tory-driven improvements had never happened:
- Curriculum flexibility for those who want it? Done.
- More ways of intervening in schools not performing? Yup.
- Incentives for better people to teach in struggling schools? On it.
- Powers to tackle bad teachers? Sorted.
- ‘Leadership teams who can crack the toughest challenges and students’? We’ve already empowered loads of them to run hundreds of schools – including some in Ben’s own constituency.
Much of the article’s policy prescription is good then, but it seems to have ignored that these things are already going on, and already making a huge difference where they’ve been applied.
For me, the real question that brilliant MPs like Ben should be asking is why these things are not already adopted by more schools in all parts of the country?
Many of the freedoms and powers that heads need to turbo-boost their pupils’ life chances are available if they leave council control and become an academy, yet a quarter of secondaries and two-thirds of primaries still refuse to take on these responsibilities.
Many of our MPs are now in areas where these proportions are actually much worse. They should be supporting and encouraging council schools in their patch to ignore the pleas of their LA overlords, take back control, and academise a.s.a.p.
However, these powers by themselves won’t raise standards unless they’re put to use for the right reasons. And while we have made great strides in tackling low expectations in the last decade, there are still many in our school system who, like Ben, cling to the idea that some kids are “academic” and some are not, and so the latter should be given alternative paths.
In practice, what this normally means is that schools decide which category kids go into, and the incentive to give every kid quality options regardless of background is removed. The destiny of those sent along the alternative or vocational paths – overwhelmingly poorer or harder to teach kids – are blunted, when they could have been sharpened with better quality and more ambitious schooling in the first place.
One might expect this kind of thinking from Labour or the Lib Dems. Their understanding of the things that make great schools – culture, leadership, autonomy, behaviour, cognitive science, curriculum – has gone backwards since 2010.
They’re also quite happy to deprive children of our common heritage, not least because it makes them more vulnerable to identity- and victimhood-ideologies.
However, it is a thoroughly Conservative ambition to want all children, regardless of background or destination, to be immersed in the best that has been thought, said, and done.
It was our reforms that stopped the decline in school standards, and started the improvements that we can see coming through now. School autonomy, better curriculums, qualifications, and regulation were all key – but these were to serve the belief that every single child had the right to a rigorous education, rich in academic and cultural capital.
Thanks to the Conservatives, schools like my daughters’, Dixons Trinity, Reach Feltham, Tauheedul Boys and Tauheedul Girls, Harris Battersea, and many more that show that it can be done really well for everyone, not just some.
So it’s vital that Conservative MPs and others don’t push for systems where we arbitrarily divide kids, but learn from, and spread even further, the successes we’ve enabled where all pupils are properly prepared for a fulfilling future.