Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She had co-charge of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership and was founding director of the New Schools Network.
A while ago my company did two in-depth projects looking at the attitude and understanding of parents with children at primary and secondary school. Most of the people we talked to were “C1 C2 D” – in other words, the people who just voted Conservative. These terms can seem a bit meaningless (and the difference between a C1 and a D is very large) so here are a a few examples: one of the men was a joiner and another drove a van; quite a few of the women had part-time administration jobs in local small businesses and a couple worked in shops.
(If this sounds sexist it is not meant to – it is just a fact that women with children from these backgrounds tend to work part time and get jobs to fit.)
I have been very involved in school reform for the past decade – including founding and running the main Free School organisation, New Schools Network. The conversations were an eye-opening measure of where we had succeeded and where, to date, we had failed.
Three discussions summed it up.
The first was with a group of enraged parents in Yorkshire. Their school was in special measures and there were no local alternatives. They had been told their school was a failure, that their children’s futures were probably blighted, but that they could do nothing. No one else seemed to be fixing the problem either. This is exactly what the academy programme was designed to address – it has worked brilliantly in some parts of the country, but we still struggle to get enough people to take over schools and turn them round in others – primarily outside of the South East and our major cities.
This is why Ofsted has just published a report on ‘stuck schools’ (those that have remained poor despite continued interventions and new leadership) with a proposal to do more to support them. Academies have not, at least yet, worked everywhere.
But it was noticeable that many of those stuck schools blamed parental disengagement (Ofsted made clear they couldn’t verify if this were true). I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with a school leader where the parents weren’t considered inadequate in some way – either too disengaged or too nagging.
Of course some schools must cope with suffering children with very troubled families. But most parents are not troubled, and in the case of the Yorkshire school they were neither disaffected or disengaged. They were impotent.
The second group was in London. It was a different world. Many of the parents fell over themselves to talk enthusiastically about particular schools. London schools have moved from being among the worst in my childhood to being the best in the country. A huge proportion of the schools that consistently get kids from very disadvantaged backgrounds (often from ethnic minorities) into elite universities are in London.
Free Schools, the project I was involved in during the coalition years, are one reason for this triumph, indeed what was striking about the London groups was how many parents could name individual free schools. Many of the best schools in the country are now Free Schools. But a lot of those – probably too many – are in London.
The third discussion was in the East Midlands. The parents we spoke to didn’t have children at terrible schools. But they weren’t particularly good either. All the schools were quite similar in standards and approach.
Those parents weren’t miserable – they didn’t know anyone who sent their kids to schools that were markedly different (private schools are another, foreign, world for these groups and are irrelevant in their mind). The primary parents dutifully did all the homework the school suggested. They were competent and loving – like almost every parent in the country. But we knew, looking at the data, that the children at these schools could be doing much, much, better.
These are the parents we have, in my view, most consistently failed in the last decade, and where we continue to have the least to say. We’ve done some important things – the children in those schools, for example, will be taught to read using better and more effective methods than a decade ago. But we haven’t empowered the parents to demand more for their children. The NHS has been on a ten year drive to help people take charge of their own health – including developing their own exercise programmes and detailed nutrition guides for children. We need the same in education. What should your children know? How do you hold your school to account? What is happening to pupils in other parts of the country?
Nor have we given them alternatives. The very original plan for Free Schools – which was to deliver new schools and therefore offer real choice– was supposed to help these areas and these parents. Instead, they focused on areas with population growth (mostly London and the South East).
In this next five years, I really hope that this quiet majority of parents and pupils are the focus of our new Conservative government. As I said in my last column, we have to remember – as we so often fail to do in education – that most people are neither part of the elite nor in troubled families. We should measure our success in the next five years not only on whether we help the most disadvantaged, but on how much better things are for most families in most areas of the country and opportunities that all children have to succeed.