Michael Gove has become the second Conservative MP in just under a week to take a pot-shot at their leadership and claim that the ranks of the elite are stuffed with public schoolboys. Speaking at a conference of headteachers in Brighton, Gove said that the dominance of the publicly educated in politics, the media, sport, business and the rest was “morally indefensible”.
While not quite as incendiary as Nadine Dorries referring to Cameron and Osborne as “two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk,” Gove’s comments still pack a punch. The Conservative has never overcome its upper class image. For a party containing an (un)healthy proportion of privately educated millionaires, they’re awfully sensitive to being called privately educated millionaires. It doesn’t help that all too often their policies look like a crude form of social engineering, stitching up the poor to give a certain kind of middle class social climber an easier ride.
Which is exactly what makes Michael Gove’s comments so incongruous. It’s not that the overabundance of publicly educated people in power isn’t a problem, but that Gove’s education reforms seem set to entrench exactly the kind of social segregation that began this inequality of representation. I don’t doubt that there will be many academies and their free-school cousins that do very well from unleashing themselves from local government, but by and large they will be the schools with the natural advantage of good catchment areas and good funding or a lucky break with a head teacher. The real test of the system will be what happens to the rest.
In essence an academy will no longer be responsible to the Local Education Authority and will be able to choose how they deliver the national curriculum, the length of the school day and term dates and the pay and conditions of staff. The basic message is that academies are free to do as they please in the pursuit of excellence. In return for investing a wadge of cash, usually around 10% of the school’s capital, an academy’s corporate, charity or faith sponsor gets to install its own governors and take some control of running the school. It turns out that a million or two or so can get you quite a lot of control. Overall, academies don’t get any more money per pupil from the government but that shot in the arm of investment capital has made converting an attractive option for over two in three secondary schools in the UK.
The academies will, in theory at least, promote creativity and innovation in teaching. The combination of freedom from local government, the fear of parents abandoning ship to set up their own free schools and the “radical” thinking of business is supposed to create a competitive environment where schools are driven to be at the top of their game and have to work to stay there. Even that weak theory begins to fall apart when academy chains running hundreds of schools take over all the schools in a local authority. Just like the NHS, the free market education system will end up owned by business conglomerates unwieldy and bureaucratic as the institutions they replaced. Only less accountable, and making a quick buck off your taxes.
My major issue with academy and free schools is that the criteria schools are competing on aren’t the ones that will actually improve education. If you start making league tables and exam results the be all and end all of a school’s success then it doesn’t take long before a school’s stated goal of “providing a comprehensive education to all comers” becomes “getting x number of A*-C grades this year”. Personally I’d want to go a school that taught me, rather than taught me how to pass exams. I think a lot of kids going through that particular torture at the moment would agree with me. Schoolchildren aren’t stupid, they know when they’re being fed BS and people are surprised when they don’t take it seriously.
It’s not just the teaching quality as a whole that suffers from the exam culture, but many academies are taking active steps to doctor their intake and fudge their statistics.
Free schools are notorious for being able to cherry pick the brightest students from outside their catchment areas, bumping their scores and leeching from others. We can also expect to see more indirect social engineering, as in: why bother having a woodwork class when the only kinds who want to do it are dreck? One school has permanently excluded five year seven pupils in a single year. That’s five 11 year olds whose careers are most likely ruined. Maybe they deserved it, but you can’t rule out that the school simply wasn’t going to risk a few bad apples pulling the rankings down. It is obvious that the good schools will end up oversubscribed, giving them a large pool of talent to pick from and the ones left over will mop up the rest. What was a two-tier system has had a third crammed onto the bottom.
The shame of it is that letting schools innovate for themselves is a cowardly policy. There may be some successes but there will be many more failures. I’d have thought it was the job of an education secretary to assess the differing models of education, of which hundreds around the world have been tried and tested, decide the best and lead us in that direction. Gove’s answer to the problem of our education system seems to be “Oh, god knows. You decide.” The horror of it is, as Mark Henderson henderson pointed out in The Observer, the lack of a scientific controls means we can’t even learn anything from this dangerous experiment. Even if academies do improve results we’ll never know if it would have been better to leave them alone.
This column is too short to list all the shortcomings of academy schools, but suffice to say that whichever schools do succeed they’ll do so at the expense of others. The plans do nothing to address the failings of the state education system, only open up a whole new spectrum of methods for failure. Its legacy will be a fractured system, with next to no national standard and another parasitic industry to feed. As the academy system implodes we’ll see an ever widening gulf between public and private schools, the only difference being that a select few public schools can catch them up.
If we’re really going to address the problem of class in this country rebranding our schools isn’t enough. The biggest barrier to educational attainment isn’t in school at all, it’s in the home. What really makes kids struggle is when their parents have to work and stress so hard that they don’t have the time to raise them. The fact that children see no rewards to work when they watch their parents grind themselves out every day. Or that poorer parents can’t afford to send their kids off for months of unpaid internship or years of university for the chance at success. The real problem is wealth, or rather its distribution.
To get a political system, or any power structure for that matter, that accurately represents society there are only two choices. We either ensure material equality for everyone to have an chance of success, or we have the structures in place to compensate for the natural advantage or wealth. If we want to educate every child their fairest chance of success, they need to be insulated from the grinding realities of poverty, illness and a dysfunctional home life. Creating this insane school system won’t change a thing.