Theresa May’s policy on grammar schools is a new phase in the class war

Chatterers on the left had a clear narrative on the class tensions running through British politics. The Conservatives were led by toffs, who went to elite private schools, had no idea about how ordinary people live, and feathered the nests of their rich friends. They shrugged as they heartlessly condemned people to food banks. The appointment of Theresa May as Prime Minister does not fit that narrative, and that will make the left uncomfortable.

Mrs May is not one of the toffs. She went to a state school, and she has promoted others who were similarly state-educated, such as Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary. She has tossed out many of the toffish types, such as George Osborne, who had been Chancellor of the Exchequer and Oliver Letwin, in charge of the Cabinet Office.  At first this drew some positive comments, to the effect that Mrs May was more "grounded". That honeymoon is now over. Mrs May wants to bring back grammar schools.

At face value, this is a throwback to the 1950s. The brightest children were selected by exam (the 11 plus) and sent to grammar schools, while the rest were sent to secondary moderns. The grammar schools were treated as the elite of the state system, and got the best teachers, and were run with an ethos close to private schools, for whom selection was at the core of their being. The grammars were the route to advancement for many a working class or lower middle class boy or girl - thanks in large part to the vast expansion of middle class jobs in the era. They were sold as an engine of social mobility, and quite popular right across the class spectrum, though the toffs trended to sneer at them. Secondary moderns, by contrast, were neglected. The powers that be did not consider that most people needed a good education - there were plenty of lower-skilled working class jobs to go round, and even the more skilled ones did not require much formal education.

There were plenty of weaknesses in this system, which was especially hard on late-developing children. The secondary moderns were inadequate for the way in which society was developing - which required ever increasing levels literacy and numeracy, to say nothing of other disciplines. In the 1960s the Labour government drove through a move to merge the two types of school into comprehensive schools. This had broad, cross-party support. Grammars were not so popular with those that did not get into them. But people taught at grammar schools retained a soft spot for them, and they remained popular with what might be called the aspirant classes. The system lived on in a number of areas, such as Kent. The middle classes, however, increasingly understood how to game the system, so that the remaining grammars lost any aspirant working class character they might have had, and became a sort of state substitute for private schools.

Conservatives did not reverse the Labour move away from grammars, though they did experiment with selective admissions for some schools. But the grammar school system retained support amongst middle-class families who disapproved of comprehensive schools, and those who were nostalgic for the 1950s. A recent poll showed that more of the public favour more grammar schools than those who either want the system to stay the same, or who want to abolish all grammar schools. It did not help that the country's school leaders and teachers were ill-prepared for the move to comprehensives, and, in general, made a hash of it. A new ethos is required to make a non-selective schools work. British educationalists have only learnt slowly how to do this - though by and large they are doing a good job now. But public memories are seldom up to date. And in any case the suburban middle classes are very wary of social mixing.

And into this situation has stepped Mrs May, whose secondary school was a grammar that converted to a comprehensive while she was there. She has picked up on the popularity of grammars across swathes of the middle class and now wants to increase their number, to the horror of the educational establishment. She does this amid much rhetoric about meritocracy, and insisting that, somehow, all schools will be good. As a (Labour) friend of mine recently remarked, this is a bit like Jeremy Corbyn saying that he is going to pay for his extravagant spending plans by making the economy grow faster. The fine words cover emptiness.

As a policy idea, grammars make no sense to me - I agree with Michael Wilshaw, the government's outgoing Chief Inspector of Schools on this. But the politics is interesting. We find the politicians characterised by the left as "toffs" were quite close to the metropolitan middle classes that are the backbone of the left - some of whom have rather toffish backgrounds themselves (disclosure: I went tot he same school as Mr Osborne, though not at the same time). Mrs May is speaking for what I will call the suburban middle class, who are much more conservative. If the toffs are The Times and the metropolitan middle class are The Guardian, Mrs May is speaking for The Daily Mail. Her gender merely reinforces the stereotype: the Mail has a strong female readership.

This is going to harder for the left. The toffs were a small minority, and the left could pile on the sneers with little cost. Alas the suburban middle classes are a wholly different matter. They are numerous, and they are often close in attitudes to aspirant or better-off working classes. The sneers will come at a political cost.

Indeed this group of middle class and working class voters are critical electorally. Whichever political party secures their loyalty is practically guaranteed a close grip on power. Margaret Thatcher made them her own in the 1980s for the Tories. So did Tony Blair for Labour in 1997. The desertion of these voters in Lib Dem seats in the 2015 election proved catastrophic for the party.

So this looks like sound political strategy by Mrs May. The left - Labour and the Lib Dems -will have to work out how to craft an appeal to these voters. Opposition to grammars, which both parties must sustain. won't help, though some lines of attack are better than others. They need to find ways of pointing out that they could damage many existing schools, knocking onto property prices and causing an influx of less desirable children...

Mrs May will be more worried about opposition from the metropolitan middle classes in her own party than anything from the left. Class could yet fracture the Tories.

 

Academies and charter schools show the flaws in modern policymaking

Last week's Economist carried a remarkable article about education policy. It looked at the idea of allowing independently managed but state-funded schools, called charter schools in the United States and academies here in Britain, an idea the newspaper has long supported. It reveals weaknesses in the policy. These weaknesses are very revealing.

Independent management of schools has always been more popular with policy wonks than with educationalists. Nevertheless studies were commissioned to show that charter schools and academies performed better than ordinary state-managed schools, usually based on exam results. This is referred to evidence-based policymaking. And it drives me mad. The effectiveness of such an approach depends on the questions you ask the evidence to answer - a process that always entails risks. Schools policy shows two major ones: looking at the wrong question, and making success criteria too narrow.

What's the problem? Research is now showing that, now that the policy is becoming more mainstream, these independent schools generally perform no better, and often worse, than state managed schools, especially in middle-ranking schools. Worse, there is some evidence from the US that where improved exam results have been achieved, they have not actually improved the life-chances of the pupils. This turn of events was entirely predictable. But whereas the Economist innocently suggests that the policy needs to be tweaked to address these weaknesses, the rest of us must ask whether it was ever a good idea to make the policy mainstream, rather than just applied to a few schools to ginger up innovation.

The first problem is that the policy, and the evidence used to support it, was addressing the wrong thing. Changing management arrangements does not change the way schools are actually run. You can set your school up as an academy and carry on just the same way as before. And indeed many schools in England have done just that, so it hardly surprising that their performance is unchanged. The government's current drive to make all schools into academies falls precisely into this trap.; schools do the minimum to comply, and so change nothing important. So what was the point?

And it is no secret what really does make a difference in schools, based on countless studies, often reported by the Economist. That is the quality of school leadership and the quality of teaching. This trumps, money, quality of facilities, and even class sizes. To be fair, policymakers advocate independent management because they think it is the quickest way to fix leadership and teaching (where it challenges the stranglehold of teachers' unions). But they won't necessarily do anything of the kind, and it is possible to replicate their changes to leadership and teaching in state-managed schools, once politicians understand what is to be done. This is what happened London, for example, before the academies programme got going. I could show you some truly wonderfully state-run schools near where I live - and others who are on their way there. It is really hard to see how turning them into academies is going to help.

The problem is that political structures are something that  politicians and policy wonks find it easy to talk about and comfortable to fiddle with. I have seen something similar in business management - senior managers playing with organisation structures before they have really understood what the real issues are and how they are best to be fixed. So school independence has now become the chief aim of political policy in English education, and the subject of huge amounts of political effort, which will have little direct effect on the quality of education - and could even harm it.

And public policy journalists, including those at the Economist, have egged the politicians on. They often wrote approvingly of Michael Gove, the British Education Secretary (whose remit is actually just England) from 2010 to 2014, who led the recent drive to academies obsessively, in spite of plenty of evidence that he was barking up the wrong tree. Economist articles are anonymous, but I am sure that Anne McElvoy is at the root of this. She seems to care more about her public media profile than the quality of her journalism.

The second issue I pointed to was that of narrow performance measures. This is secondary in the Economist article, but it has been a huge problem in education policy, and in many other areas too. In education the issue is a focus on test and exam results. The article reports concerns that better results achieved in charter schools do not feed through into the employment market (for example in how much pupils are paid in employment). Their focus has become too narrow on improving the scores, at the expense of life-skills. It is even reported that charter school advocates do not send their own children there. The same weakness has been alleged for English academies, though I am not sure how true this is. The system of Ofsted inspections makes England less vulnerable - the inspectors look at broader issues, especially when conferring the coveted "Outstanding" label. Now a broad education, done well, is not incompatible with excellent test results - the pupils use their improved life skills to improve their learning, and in a highly sustainable way - but it takes top-quality leadership to appreciate this and weather the short-term costs.  It remains tempting to short cut this hard road by narrowing the focus.

In fact policymakers should be thinking much harder about the best way of preparing young people for later life, and of recruiting and training top quality teachers and school leaders. And not engage in silly think-tanker debates, for example as to whether schools focus too much on teaching skills rather than knowledge, as Mr Gove was prone to engage in.

And as for school management, no doubt the old ways of state direction of state-funded schools will re-emerge in a new guise. But will politicians and their advisers ever learn the lessons for policymaking, evidence-based or otherwise? Aim directly at the key drivers of success, not just the management structures. And use numerical measures with extreme caution.

 

English education policy: battle looms between the think-tankers and the grassroots

Every so often I see a story that the British (or more correctly English - though she sits in the British cabinet) Education Secretary is pondering a bid for the Conservative Party leadership when David Cameron stands down. I find this entirely incredible. Her career to date (she is in the second year at this job) has been devoid of either vision or political nous. The Conservatives can elect lemons to their leadership, but surely not even they are that stupid?

The first reaction to Ms Morgan's appointment amongst the small section of the public that cares about these things was relief. Her predecessor, Michael Gove, had some good ideas, but was too full of himself, and was guided by a vision of Britishness and education that looked back rather than forwards. He annoyed teachers even more than his Labour predecessor, Ed Balls. But the transition was followed by a deafening silence; nobody knew what Ms Morgan was about.  They still don't, but two radical ideas are being put into play under her leadership - though it isn't clear whether she is promoting them because she really believes in them, or because she is responding to pressure from elsewhere. They are to force all schools out of local authority management to became "Academies", and to rationalise the financing of schools so that their public funding is based on a single, transparent formula. Both are classic Westminster-bubble policies, favoured by think-tankers and journalists little tainted by the practicalities of politics.

Most of the political heat so far is being taken by the Academies policy, which was announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, rather than Ms Morgan herself, very revealingly. Academies represent a new legal framework for running state schools, which do away with layers of accumulated regulations, and replace them with something more contractual, offering all concerned more freedom. That is the best bit about the idea. The politically important bit is that they are outside local authority management, and are instead run independently or as part of chains or localised groups. Many on the right, and not a few in the political centre, consider this way of running state schools to be a radical improvement, and project all sorts of benefits, such as empowering teachers or parents, onto it. I will not examine these claims in this article, though I have not changed my view that the issue is relatively unimportant, and not worth the political effort that has been put into promoting it. The question is whether the idea is practically feasible.

And here there is a basic problem. The idea, like so many neoliberal ones, is for a glorious welling up of initiative from the bottom up, from the schools who will take up the idea and follow it through. But in order to implement it across all schools, it requires a top-down process to make sure they all do it, and that it is done in an orderly way. Who is to do this top-down management? The Department for Education has not got the capacity. The academy chains are not geographically coherent, and in any case the current view is that big chains add no value. The obvious answer to this is that local authorities (LAs) will have to fill this gap. And yet the whole idea is to rubbish the role of LAs. This problem only now seems to be dawning on the government. It will require a lot of political skill to navigate, from a minister that has shown little of it to date. In the end the LAs will no doubt come to the rescue, but they will extract a price that will make the government look as if it backtracking.

Still, at least that problem looks soluble. I suspect the problems thrown up by the new funding formula will not be. "Fair Funding" as it is called is not a new idea, or even a bad one in theory. There are constant complaints that the current system, different in each LA area, favours some schools over more deserving ones. But the idea hasn't been implemented because it, too, comes with major political snags. The essence of the problem is that a system designed to remove political discretion is, by its nature, very hard to manage politically. There will be many winners and losers from the new arrangements, and these will not fall in way that is politically convenient. It will punish friends and reward enemies. The think-tankers no doubt think the formula will punish Labour supporting  city boroughs, especially in London, while rewarding Conservative shires. Alas it will not be so simple.

We have had a trial run of this idea in miniature, when the coalition government forced local authorities to adopt a standardised formula to fund their schools, including any Academies in their geographical remit. I had a ringside seat on this, as I was (and I still am) a member of a Schools Forum, the body comprising school representatives that oversees school finance in each LA area. The first pass produced an arbitrary series of winners and losers, including some major ones. The priority quickly became to flex the formula so that the number of losers, or big losers, was reduced, abandoning any idea of theoretical principle. Other LAs did the same thing, and each has ended up with a different way of doing it. The exercise was hard enough to run at LA level; it will be yet harder to handle at national scale. Extra money could make the process more manageable, but extra money is not available.

The government seems blithely unaware of the coming storm. It has put out a first phase consultation on the structure of the formula, with the idea that the impacts of it will be discussed in a second phase, once this has been agreed. But without knowing the impact the proposal looks like motherhood and common sense, and so has raised little controversy - no doubt lulling all concerned into a false sense of security, while cutting down political room for manoeuvre.

Behind this looms an important political conflict. English schools co-opt civic society co-opt civic society to a much greater extent than any other public service. A large number of civically-minded and politically influential individuals are drawn into running schools, from PTAs to school governors. I am a case in point; it is my only civic activity that is not directly political. These individuals form the political grassroots on whom the political "ground war", and most political careers, depends. These grassroots activists are being put in conflict with the young think-tankers for whom such low level civics is irksome, and want to change the world from the top with the sweep of a pen.

It will take real political skill to turn this conflict into a constructive tension rather than destructive warfare. My guess is that Ms Morgan and her aides lack that skill. Stand back for a political train-wreck

The truth about school choice is emerging. It doesn’t raise standards.

I read this article in last week's Economist. The implications are quite extraordinary for anybody follows the political debate about school provision. One of the central ideas of the right, school choice, is in collapse.

The article concerns school voucher schemes in the USA. In a number of areas vouchers are distributed to poor families, so that they can use them to get places for their children in private schools. The article takes a case study from a large scheme adopted in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina. One interesting feature for policy wonks was that the vouchers were distributed randomly, which is evidential gold dust. You can compare the children who got vouchers with those that didn't on a level playing field, as it were.

Voucher schemes are popular with the right, ever since the economist Milton Friedman advocated them back in 1955. Fans included the Economist newspaper. They were also quite popular with the poor families themselves - though, if I remember correctly, researchers felt that was more to do with a sense of empowerment than any educational benefit.

But in this study the children with the vouchers did worse than those allocated to their local state school. even after controlling for other explanations. Meanwhile dramatic improvements have been made in that state system in Louisiana through the use of good old-fashioned state management.

School choice has been a favourite idea of the right, who prefer market-mimicking solutions to state control. This is very much part of a fashion that the left refers to as "neoliberalism", on this occasion with some accuracy (they have a tendency to apply it to anti-state followers of Ayn Rand, who should be regarded as libertarians rather than liberals). Neoliberals think that state run systems are inefficient because of inadequate or dysfunctional incentives for those running them, while markets are more efficient processors of information. The fashion for school choice caught on in Britain under the last Labour government, promoted by Tony Blair in particular, and then turbocharged in the Conservative-led governments that followed. The British policy was to introduce state sponsored "academies", free of local authority control, to mimic private schools. Alas it is difficult to see this as anything other than a colossal distraction.

As it happened the Labour government had managed to raise school standards spectacularly, especially in London, through good old-fashioned management before they started messing with academies. Using a system of school inspections (by Ofsted, a state agency) to develop a broader idea of quality than mere test results, the British state has created a system that has delivered substantial improvements. According to last weekend's Guardian, private schools are worried by the climbing standards of state schools. To be fair some of that may be due to the propaganda buzz around academies.  Certainly they do have something to be said for them as a way of diverting attention from private schools - including tapping into latent demand for state schools that local authorities struggle to recognise.

Right wing think tankers would do well do examine the remarkable success of many British state schools, and try to think about the reasons for their success. Voucher schemes can be quietly dropped.

One school’s journey 3 of 3 – 5 lessons for public services

Telferscot 3Telferscot School, the primary school where I am Chair of Governors has been passed as Outstanding by Ofsted. In my previous two articles I have looked at how the school has achieved this, and the role of school governors. In this article I want to look at what lessons I have learned about how public services should be run. It shows that the grandstanding by commentators of both left and right is missing the point.

Lesson1: the public service ethic can work. Many on the right assume that no nationalised public service can work - that its workers are driven by instincts of self-preservation and personal advancement, and that the primary purpose soon gets lost. Many would like public schooling to be run on a voucher system, with the schools themselves being private businesses. And if not that, they want the state system to be contrived to be as close to that ideal as possible, with independently run schools competing for children. Telferscot is an ordinary state-run school, managed by the local authority. Its senior management are state employees on ordinary state-determined salaries with no special financial incentives for good performance. And yet it is as tightly managed as anything in the private sector, and clearly focused on its wider social goals. The driving motivation of managers and staff is to do public good. Without this motivation they would be tempted to cheat the system, and avoid the hard cases, so that the statistics look good while public services role is undermined. The professionalism that this implies is truly impressive.

Lesson 2: there must be a big bad wolf in the system. Trade unions try paint an opposite idea to the right-wing one. They want a public service run by publicly-spirited employees in a climate of collaboration for the public good. This idea might bring a tear to the eye, but I have seen no evidence that the public service ethic by itself is enough to drive improvement. The process of running any organisation well requires disruption and tension. There is always a big bad wolf that makes you do things that you don't like doing, or confront difficult problems you want to put off to another day. In private business that big bad wolf is the need to stay profitable in a competitive environment. What is it in English schools? Above all it is the Ofsted inspection system, coupled with public performance measurement. Ofsted inspections are arbitrary and often superficial. The teaching unions hate them. But the consequences of a poor inspection can be dire for the careers of senior managers - while good ones provide them with a public accolade. It works.

Lesson 3: combine local management with national standards. Most public services are vast bureaucracies, bound by publicly discussed policies and procedures. Schools do not escape this pattern. Polices on teachers' pay, for example, are negotiated nationally, and run to 115 pages, updated each year. But schools are run with a higher degree of local, discretionary management than almost any other branch of public services. Managers manage, rather than follow policies and procedures. Such discretion often ends badly in public services - but it works in schools because there is high public accountability. There is constant contact with the "customers" - the pupils and their parents. Ofsted inspections are a public process. Key performance data are publicly disclosed. But I think there needs to be something else: national standards. In schools this comprises the National Curriculum and basic assessment methods for results at key stages in a pupil's career. These standards focus on outcomes - what schools are meant to achieve, rather than how. They can be overdone - an overly prescriptive curriculum, or testing that is too frequent. But without them it is easy to lose comparability, and accountability is lost. The current coalition government's record on this is mixed. The last government tended to be over-prescriptive, adding in fashionable items according to the political priorities of the day - and the current government has done a decent job of paring this back. But some of its ideas on school curriculum are a bit "retro", apparently based on the ideals of the past, rather than looking it what is needed now (look at history, for example). But the real problem is that they are giving the Academy schools too much freedom, which carries the risk of them going in tangential directions with a conflicting agenda. Problems with some faith schools have reached public attention, but it could betoken a bigger problem. The government has also thrown chaos into primary school assessment techniques, by taking away state sponsorship of progress measurement standards.

Lesson 4: inclusion is for everybody. There is a tendency amongst those who think about public services to focus on the neediest cases. This is understandable - they are the most challenging, and yet often it is where the system is least effective. And if money is tight, the temptation is to reduce resources available to everybody else. But there is a problem. Services that focus exclusively on the needy cease to be truly public; they promote a separate "underclass" who use public services, against the majority that do not. The less needy, those whinging middle classes, must be carried along too.  Telferscot achieves a lot of what it does through a good social mix. That means that the middle class children must do well, and their parents must like the school. They are happy to go along with the social inclusion agenda provided that they think that the system works for them too. One of the few places where our Head Teacher agrees with Michael Gove, the Conservative former Education Secretary, is that state schools should emulate private ones. They can't do the small class sizes, but they can do an interesting and diverse curriculum. This is something both left and right are in danger of missing. The left tend to despise the middle classes and their needs (notwithstanding that most leftists are middle class themselves); the right want to economise by concentrating resources on the neediest. But social cohesion means that society must look after everybody's interests, not just the neediest.

Lesson 5. Consider the whole person. The bane of public services is that they focus on diseases rather than patients, to use a medical analogy. In schools left-wing teachers used to shrug at poor results for deprived pupils. "Not our problem" they would say. Instead it was housing, jobs or something else outside their job-description. But the most exciting thing in schools over the last decade, especially in London, is the way that this attitude has been broken down. In order to improve their results, schools have been muscling into areas that are way outside a narrow view of their remit. They reach out to families who are experiencing difficulties. They take a leadership role in helping to resolve family problems, bringing in other services as required. As a result they are helping to solve problems rather than passing them on to other agencies. Families are not allowed to lower their expectations; they learn how to help themselves and be less dependent.

To me these lessons are an endorsement of a liberal public services agenda. But most political debate seems to be on irrelevancies - like the government's programme of extending Academies.  The thinking on both left and right is stale. The right underestimates the need for public services to support social cohesion, and the commitment of taxpayer money needed to do this. The left would rather play the blame game than find constructive solutions to social problems. Both seem stuck in imagined past golden age. There is another way.

 

One school’s journey 2 of 3 – what should governors do? Examine effectiveness not policies

Telferscot 1Earlier this week I posted about the school where I am Chair of Governors, Telferscot Primary School in Balham. We are celebrating our recent acquisition of Outstanding status from Ofsted. That achievement mainly reflects on the school leadership, and in particular the Head Teacher, Jenny Martin. But what of the school's governors? I suspect hat quite a few of my readers are, or have been school governors. Our journey may be of particular interest.

What is a school's Governing Body supposed to do? Unfortunately you will not much practical help from officialdom, local or national, well-intentioned though they might be. For them the Governing Body conforms to a bureaucrat's dream: responsibility without power. They see the Governing Body as the corporate embodiment of the school itself. They even address Council Tax bills to it. All the power rests with the Governing Body, which then delegates it based on a many-paged document, mainly to school management.

And yet governors do not feel that they are in such a position of power. They find themselves constrained by conventions and regulations that leave them with almost no practical responsibility. The Governors can't pay those Council Tax bills; they can politely forward them to the school Bursar for due consideration. The Governing Body is not a day to day presence at a school, and deals with decisions referred to it, rather than being some kind of controlling presence. Many involved in education, especially teaching unions, just regard them as interfering amateurs that could easily be dispensed with altogether.

The bureaucrats (and legal advisers, come to that) try to reconcile the gap between responsibility and power through the idea of management by policy, and its cousin, procedure. They think of a well-run school having bulging files of policies and procedures that tell its management and staff what to do in any situation. These policies and procedures can be reviewed at regular intervals by governors, and they can politely suggest changes here and there, and therefore assert themselves to a degree, and be saddled with responsibility if anything goes wrong. But anybody that has run an effective organisation knows that management by policy is not a very good way of doing things. At best it is a waste of effort, as policies are ignored; at worst it leads to an over-cautious, defensive style of management that undervalues the role of leadership. Policies have their place in the best run organisations, but the more there are of them, the less value they have. Managers and staff should take decisions based on context and with a strong measure of common sense, things that are almost impossible to justice to in a detailed policy.

So what should a Governing Body do? This starts with the one area where they have undoubted power: the appointment of the Head Teacher. I was a governor when Telferscot appointed Ms Martin in 2001, but not on the recruitment panel - so I can't claim any credit for that decision. But my colleagues' approach was interesting. They did not pick the safest, best-qualified candidate. They picked a candidate that had little experience of headship, and showed every sign of causing trouble (as one of the members of the panel told me). They were inspired by Ms Martin's vision, and felt that the school could do with a shake-up.  It was an inspired decision, and a case of governors making a real difference. It also shows that governors must embrace risk.

But once your Head is in place, then what? The relationship between the Head and governors goes to the absolute heart of the governors' role. In a good relationship the governors provide a first level of accountability for the Head, and a sounding-board and support. This requires some imagination on both sides. The Head needs to appreciate that opening up to governors, bad news as well as good, is the only way to build a strong, supportive relationship. Ms Martin grasped this very early, and has welcomed governors into aspects of the school that other Heads would frown on. This includes having governors on staff recruitment panels, for example. It also means pushing the boundaries of confidentiality, especially with senior governors.

But governors have to earn this sort of confidence. That, of course, means being absolutely safe with confidential details. It also means being constructive and helpful - and not getting into oppositional role-plays for form's sake. Good humour is essential. Governors and Head (and, indeed, other senior school managers) should enjoy being together and talking about the school. Headship can be a lonely job, and the educational bureaucracy is not usually very interested in what individual schools are up to, so long as they stay of trouble. A good governing body can provide an appreciative audience. Through this openness and interaction, governors build up a picture of what is happening at the school and of its strengths and weaknesses. So when it comes to the big things, they are ready.

This softer side is at the heart of effective governance. But it needs to work within a disciplined framework. Public bodies like schools are subject to external scrutiny. Scrutinisers need to see evidence.  That means getting basic frameworks of documentation right and up to date, decisions properly documented, and for it to be clear that the governing body is informed about all relevant aspects of the school. It also means documenting challenge - something our inspectors like to see. When meetings are good-humoured and when management is open about weaknesses, then challenge can be a little difficult to document - even though the process itself is challenging. But that is a matter of learning how to frame minutes.

But the governing body does need direction and focus. Here we have been following advice from the Department of Education (DfE) to get away from some of the details that governors have in the past been interested in - when I first became governor we talked endlessly about school swimming. Instead we need to get to basics of pupil progress and quality of teaching. This means looking at and discussing data, and getting away from mountains of policy approvals.

It has been a learning curve. But this is what Ofsted reported:

Governors have a thorough understanding of the work of the school, of pupils’ performance and of the school’s finances. They bring a range of expertise, knowledge and commitment which they have shared to good effect. Since the time of the last inspection they have used these to build on the school’s strengths and success. They seek and undertake training to make sure they are clear about their roles, standards and keeping children safe. The governing body plays a rigorous role in managing the performance of their headteacher and receive information about the performance of teachers and how they are rewarded and helped to improve. This is demonstrated through the improvements in pupils’

This  gives us the confidence to move forward. We are in the process of reconstituting the governing body and changing its formal lines of operation. We will continue our move away from policy documents to understanding what the school is doing and how effective it is. We plan to reduce the  number of committees and structure governor visits differently. We do not have a vision of a small, tightly run executive board, as DfE advice suggests, but of a larger body of interested people who collectively can examine many areas of the school's activities, and provide school management with support as well as scrutiny. By and large these interested people will be parents. And meanwhile I am in the process of an orderly transfer of the role of Chair to putative successor (I'm in my eighth year - the recommended maximum).

As the school completes its move to two form entry, and takes on a second site, the future promises to be interesting. It has been a privilege to be involved in the school's success.

One school’s journey 1of 3 – characteristics of one outstanding school

Over a month ago now I, and four other Telferscot 2governors at Telferscot Primary School in Balham, were interviewed by the Ofsted inspector. As Chair I managed to show a good grip of our performance statistics and the general overview. But all the governors contributed knowledgeable answers . The highlight was when the inspector asked us about the curriculum - the parent governors burst into an enthusiastic description of what the school was doing - showing not just enthusiasm, but knowledge and understanding .

It was an impressive performance. And so went the rest of the inspection. Children, parents, teachers and staff, and above all the Head and management team, each delivered an impressive display. Ofsted's report rated the school at its top grade, Outstanding, in all categories: leadership and management; behaviour and safety of pupils; quality of teaching; achievement of pupils; and early years provision. The school had always been a good one, but at last we had caught up with the ever-rising bar to be considered Outstanding. This was thoroughly deserved. The school's journey was very much an individual one - but it still throws light on wider issues of public policy.

Back to the beginning. Ofsted, for the benefit of my non-English readers, is England's chief regulator and inspector of schools. Its rating system has become the benchmark by which schools, especially state schools, are judged. School managers and staff live in dread of its inspections. Telferscot is a state primary school, covering ages 4-11 (Reception to Year 6), and a pre-school nursery. It is in transition from being single form entry (with a standard class size of 30) to two form, which now goes up to Year 3. A further two forms of entry, and a second school site, are in prospect. This makes it a relatively small school (currently) by London standards, though still above the average for the country as a whole. Its children are from mixed social and ethnic backgrounds, with a solid core of middle class families, but plenty of families in more challenging circumstances. It is a bit of an "average school" in its mix of pupils, and a sort of microcosm of the challenges facing the country's school system as a whole - which ironically makes it rather unusual - most schools are more homogenous. I have been a governor since 1999, and Chair of Governors since 2007; the previous inspections by Ofsted that I experienced were in 2001 and 2009.

The school's operations are based on three key areas: a broad curriculum; inclusion; and hard management. These three things are driven by the Head Teacher, Jenny Martin, who took over in 2001 - but the first two, at least, had foundations that go back before that. I would like to say a little about each of these three.

The idea of a broad curriculum contrasts with the alternative of a curriculum that focuses on the basics of literacy and numeracy.  The tension between these ideas shapes much of the debate on education, which, of course, does not stop lots of people trying to advocate both sides at once. The idea of a broad curriculum in turn rests on two ideas. First is that a broad curriculum is required to prepare children for later life; children need much more than basic literacy and numeracy - they need to know how to be socially responsible individuals , how to work with other people  and to enjoy the process of learning itself. The second is that a broad curriculum provides the best context in which the "basics" can be taught. It provides the opportunity to make such learning both more memorable and enjoyable. Children shouldn't just know how to read; they should enjoy reading and be eager use their literacy to expand their horizons. At Telferscot the broad curriculum is focused on the idea of the "Creative Curriculum" - one that incorporates the arts. This means working with a number of arts groups, including London's South Bank.

Inclusion means drawing in children from all backgrounds and working to ensure that they all share the same experience of school and know how to be together. One aspect is the multi-ethnic, multi-national and multi-cultural side of the school, which celebrates its diversity. This is wonderful - but pretty routine for London. Much more challenging is bringing along those from difficult social backgrounds, where the children tend to lack support at home, and those with special learning needs or disabilities. The school has, in my memory, made no permanent exclusion of a pupil,  and only one temporary one. Inclusion is about knowing, and working with, the wider family, and about arranging for additional educational resources for those with additional needs. It also involves keeping the school open and active outside school hours, from 8am to 6pm. This aspect of the school's work is one its most challenging, but clearly motivates school leaders - and it is inspiring.

Broad curriculum and inclusion are lovely, liberal ideas that lots of people will agree are a good thing. But making them happen and delivering excellent results across the whole school is another matter. This requires what I have called hard management. There are no easy rides; all people who work at the school feel accountable and pushed to achieve more. The primary instigator of this is, of course, the Head Teacher, Ms Martin (or rather, Miss Martin, as she is known at the school). The Head has to be both hard on everybody (not least herself), and to provide help and support -as well as fostering a spirit of teamwork and good humour that means that people enjoy working together. There are two important things I want to add about this aspect of running the school.

The first is that the school's success really took off after it adopted a top-heavy approach to school management, with at first three and then four senior staff completely out of the classroom (not counting the non-teaching side), save for providing temporary cover for class teachers when absent. This gives the school's management to strength and depth to deal with all the extra things the school must do to sustain a broad curriculum, inclusion and deep accountability. It need hardly be added that these managers need to operate as a real team, so that the Head can feel completely confident of the Deputy holding the fort, and so that each member of the team can feel they are making a real contribution to the school's progress. Head teachers need to be strong personalities; not all find the transition to being team leaders easy.

The second thing is the use of data. The data here means test results and teacher assessments which show the progress each pupil is making in the core curriculum subjects of reading, writing and mathematics. This starts with publicised results for the "Key Stages" at the end of Years 2 and 6, including the Year 6 SATS tests. But while a lot of public attention is focused on these, school managers need something much more frequent to identify potential problems before it is too late to do something about them. Ofsted increasingly uses such data to understand progress, and the school management almost obsesses with it.

Many liberal minded observers of education worry about this emphasis on data. They worry that it undermines the idea of a broad curriculum and the real needs of children, and that it sucks the living soul out of education. But such criticism neglects two things. The first is that such a focus on data really is the only way of making sure that no child gets left behind, and true inclusion. In a class of 30 it is quite easy for teachers to focus on averages and miss the needs of a small number of quiet but underperforming children. Britain has a bad record on this - of leaving a neglected "tail". The second thing is that one of the outputs of a broad curriculum should be achievement in the basics. It really does hold the whole process to account. If the data shows weaknesses in literacy or numeracy, then this really isn't something to be glossed over. Telferscot's emphasis on creative curriculum has a bias towards literacy, which is easy to integrate with the arts, rather than numeracy. The focus on data exposed this vulnerability and the the development of its maths teaching has been one of the main areas of focus for the school's management, something that has heavily influenced recruitment, for example.

I could go on. I want to write two more articles. The next will cover the field of school governance - which is the bit where I personally can be said to have made a small contribution to the school's success, and claim a slither of actual professional expertise. And finally I want to draw out some wider issues for the development of public services.

 

 

The Economist’s disgraceful prejudice on education policy

economist coverSome people hate The Economist; to them it is a proselytiser of that despised creed "neoliberalism" or just plain capitalism. Not me. I have been reading the Economist weekly since 1974 (from between the two British General Elections of that year), when I was just 16 and still at school. I loved its cosmopolitanism and that that it did not lets its opinions obscure the reporting of facts. It was opinionated, yes, but not prejudiced. Much of my writing in this blog has been inspired by my 40 years of readership. No other journal has come close in winning my loyalty.

The Economist has annoyed me of course. I felt a deep sense of betrayal when in 2011 it backed a No vote in the referendum on the Alternative Vote. My own strong support for AV dates from when The Economist itself persuaded me that it would be an appropriate and sensible reform. The chattering classes had taken against AV, and the paper followed the crowd. A perverse election result in Canada under first-past-the-post, reported in the very same edition of the paper, illustrated the case for AV perfectly. The paper's support for the education reforms of the current government were built on similarly weak foundations, I thought, but these hadn't strayed beyond mistaken opinion. Until this week.

The top article in the UK section, The new school rules, presents itself as a serious examination of the government's education reforms. It reads like an article placed by a pro-government think tank, and not the original and critical journalism upon which the newspaper's reputation has been built.

A bit of background. Under its first Education Secretary, the Conservative Michael Gove, the coalition government has driven through an eye-catching programme of reforms to England's schools (in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland education is devolved). The centrepiece of this has been the establishment of autonomous "Academy" schools, independent of local council control. This built on the previous government's policy, where Academies often replaced failed schools, and had to secure external sponsors to provide extra finance. This government has made it much easier to set up new Academies (referred to as "Free Schools"), and allowed existing schools to convert to Academy status without a sponsor. The government has done many other things too: established a "pupil premium" to channel extra funding to schools with needier children; refocused the school inspectorate, Ofsted; changed secondary school qualifications towards more academic subjects; refashioned the primary curriculum to something a more prescriptive and more to its political taste; changed teachers' pay and conditions to give school managers more power; moved measurement of progress away from achieving arbitrary thresholds to measuring total progress. Given the general climate of government austerity, which has limited resources, these changes have been mainly to the good, though I fail to see the point of the changes to the primary curriculum, and the jury is out on the secondary reforms of qualifications.

But the Economist focuses almost entirely on the Academy programme, which it is claims is transforming schools and driving progress. It quotes evidence that secondary academies achieve more good GCSEs (the main secondary exam - "good" meaning achieving the grade C or above) than non-academies, even allowing for the number of pupils from poorer backgrounds. As it describes this progress it fails to mention two facts that throw an entirely different light on what is happening.

The first is that the most striking progress in recent times achieved by Britain's schools has been in London, in the years up to 2010. Schools in apparently hopeless boroughs like Tower Hamlets pulled ahead of schools in much wealthier areas. This has been much written about and commented on - but it was achieved under the previous Labour government's tutelage, working with councils of several political stripes. It was based on what I call "good old fashioned management". A lot of focus was put on school performance, and where results were poor, school management was changed. Some failing schools were converted to Academies, not always successfully, but otherwise existing governance structures were used. The coalition has not undermined this achievement, which has largely continued under its watch (at least in areas I know about). But it is awkward for the article's central thesis; the upward momentum in England's schools predates the government's reforms; it is far from clear whether greater autonomy has much to do with school progress.

The second awkward fact is that for ordinary schools that have converted to Academy status there is a bias towards better schools making the change. Schools who want to make the move on their own (i.e. without being folded into an externally run chain of schools) must achieve a high quality threshold. Rumour has it that one my local schools has been refused because standards aren't high enough. Conversely schools with good performance often want to convert, in case an unexpected hiccup means that they are forced into being part of a chain. The article quotes evidence that the performance of schools that have converted is better than non-converters. Well, that is hardly surprising, but cause and effect have not been disentangled.

The article discusses the rather awkward fact that academy chains have delivered disappointing performance - I must acknowledge that it does raise difficult evidence in this case. These chains have a reputation of being brutally managed and focusing on a narrow curriculum - one reason that so many schools are anxious not to be swept into one. A bit of brutality is required in order to lift badly managed schools up to the standards of the best, and the London experience confirms that - but a broader, less performance-focused curriculum is needed to deliver the wider set of skills that the world of work (and outside it) demands. Schools have to be soft and hard both at once. It is no surprise to many that aggressively managed chains deliver at best only short-term results.

But the Economist seems to think that the problem is that management of the chains is is not aggressive enough. It suggests that one way to "turbocharge" the reforms would be to open up management of schools to for-profit companies, rather than just charitable foundations as now. If I was a cynic, I would suggest that the article was prompted by private sector company lobbying to be allowed to take over state schools - but I don't believe that.

Unlike many I have no ideological objection to the use of the private sector in public services. But I do wonder whether the sort of aggressive performance-driven management that the private sector does well is what most state schools need. Private managers will be tempted to take two shortcuts. The first is to narrow the curriculum, which undermines the overall mission of education. At least competition might act as a check on this, as schools with too narrow a focus may be less popular. The second is more insidious: selecting the pupils by avoiding the neediest, through selective recruitment or exclusion. Whatever the formal controls against this, we can expect the private sector to find innovative ways around them, as this is the quickest way to improve margins. This then leaves a pool of needier pupils which will tend to be concentrated in other schools - when in almost all cases the best chances of meeting their needs is in schools with a good social mix. A vital social objective for state schools is to reduce the number of people who get into trouble of one kind or another later in life (crime, unemployment, poor mental and physical health). It is very important that schools handle the neediest cases well - and it is something that English schools have often been bad at. It is not something that private sector organisations have a strong enough incentive to deal with, and concentrating the problem into specialist schools is no way out.

When considering education policy in an international context, The Economist often says that teaching and management are the critical issues, and not other issues such as class sizes, money - or autonomy. English (and indeed British) education is nowhere near as good as it needs to be, and many schools and local authorities are complacent or defensive. Continued reform is needed. This needs to focus on getting good leaders in place, raising teaching standards, and ensuring that incentives and accountability are functional. No doubt academies, and even private sector expertise, has a role to play. It gives the politicians a few extra tools in the box. But to make autonomy the centrepiece of reform is a highly questionable approach, especially in a country, like Britain and unlike the US, where central government has such power over schools.

The author of the article was clearly inspired by visits made to well-run Academies. If he or she wants evidence that you don't have to be an Academy to be a very impressive school, I am happy to offer them a tour of the wonderful primary school where I am Chair of Governors. That at least may open theirs eyes to what is possible without being an Academy.

I must allow The Economist to hold firm opinions rather sit on the fence. What is so disappointing is that this time that opinion seems based on such shallow foundations. And its discussion of the evidence and wider debate lowers the papers standards to those of less distinguished papers.

 

 

Rethinking Liberalism 3: defeating intolerance

In my first two essays in this series about rethinking Liberalism, I kept to my comfort zone of economics. I concluded that we need to retain capitalism as part of a mixed economy, but that we need to develop the language of economics so that policymakers become less obsessed with crude productivity and growth. Now I want to step back and look at what troubles me most about our society, both in Britain and elsewhere: rising public intolerance.

In my personal bubble, as a white middle class citizen of British heritage, here in a smart inner London district, it is easy to ignore the problem, or even to deny that much of one exists. It just isn't visible directly. My neighbours are easy-going. The parents and staff that I meet at the local primary school where I am a governor are very positive about taking a tolerant society forward, notwithstanding its ethnic and social mix. I witness easy interactions between people of different ethnic and national groups everywhere. This is all much better than in my youth.

But venture beyond this and things soon get darker. Take this cry of pain from Asian Lib Dem activist Kavya Kaushik, on the relentless hostility and rudeness she has encountered while canvassing for the party, directed not just at Asians, but East Europeans. This is consistent with what other ethnic minority writers have said; things are getting worse not better. Ukip has done well by tapping into this angst, especially in working class communities. Britain First, an intolerant Facebook grouping, keeps coming up on my newsfeed, and has nearly half a million "likes". Jewish groups are under increasing fear of attack, exemplified by recent murders at a Jewish museum in Belgium. A recent opinion poll found a growing proportion of people admitting that they had racist views, although the Economist has tried to talk this down.

This phenomenon seems typical of the white working class. But it would be a mistake to think that it is only prevalent there. One of the nastiest media outlets is the very middle class and female-oriented Daily Mail. On a local forum this morning it was a nice middle class woman that drew a connection between a local rubbish dumping scam and the arrival of travellers locally (something that I am sure is baseless, judging by the person that tried it on us).

First a note of caution. I have been careful to use the word "intolerance" as being the primary issue, not "racism". Intolerant comments are typically introduced by the expression, "I'm not racist but...". Ukip, and the mainstream newspapers who also promote intolerance, are careful to avoid outright racism, without complete success in the case of Ukip. The flashpoints are cultural (Muslim dress code, for example) or over the impact of immigration on the availability of housing and jobs and the take-up of state benefits. And the intolerance is itself multi-ethnic. Some of the things that I have read an Islamic writer say on state primary education are totally inexcusable ("worse than a toilet, because at least after the toilet you can wash your hands..."). On being challenged by me, incidentally, this writer quoted the Daily Mail. But it all boils down to the same thing - and talking about racism obscures rather than clarifies the problem. And anyway ethnic intolerance is leading to intolerance of anybody who is different, such as benefit claimants, the upper or lower classes, gays and so on, and an orgy of scapegoating,  of politicians, bankers and anybody else you don't know personally.

There is an optimistic way to view this. It is like the anger stage in the seven phases of grief - just a phase that society must get through on the way to becoming more tolerant - and the product of temporary economic tensions. But behind that optimistic view there lurks a nightmare. In the 18th Century the Enlightenment ushered in period of rising tolerance, and especially the integration of Jews to mainstream society. But from the middle of the 19th Century there was a backlash. And this backlash was no temporary phase. It grew and grew until it burst out into mass murder and destruction with the Nazis.

What lies behind the current rise in intolerance? There are two big phenomena, at least here in Britain. The first what I might call a Muslim backlash. This is a complex thing; it is mostly a peaceful but angry battle between conservative Muslims and the rest of society over things like mosques and dress codes. But it also inspires terrorists - and since the 9/11 attack in New York, these have been elevated by our security services to being the greatest security threat the country faces. This backlash generates its own backlash. The second thing is the mass immigration of East European workers since the end of the Cold War, and especially the entry of former Communist Bloc countries to the European Union. This has visibly disrupted job and housing markets.

But I think there is an even more important driver: the insecurities generated by the world's headlong process of globalisation and technological advance, of which both of these are aspects. People are stirred by events in far-away places (such as Iraq and Israel); jobs are made less secure by the rise of developing world industries and automation; people are more inclined to change their country of residence for better economic prospects or a more conducive climate. This creates both physical and cultural insecurity, as well as economic advances. This is not unlike the situation that persisted in the 19th Century, which fuelled intolerance then.

So what should liberals do? Many mainstream politicians, Labour and Conservative alike, are seeking a middle path. They accept that immigration is a problem; they want to push minority groups to integrate better into the mainstream way of life. This includes promoting "British Values" in schools, which include "tolerance", as  away of promoting universal human values while at the same time nodding to the intolerant appeal to Britishness (see Britain First).

I don't think this is working. It just encourages intolerant attitudes. "We spoke up by voting Ukip," they might say "and now at last they are listening. Let me speak some more." The more politicians talk about immigration as being a problem, the more members of the public think it is OK to be intolerant. That may not be logical, but it does seem to be the way things work. And as for "British values", the trap is obvious. What the public thinks this means ("no foreign cultures here like Islam") is different from what the politicians think ("Accept Muslims as being fully British"). It's all a bit "I'm not racist but...".

Instead liberal, and Liberal, politicians should concentrate on three things: challenging intolerant attitudes, without the buts; developing broad-based community education; tackling the insecurities.

First is challenging intolerance. This means taking on people who say that immigration is destroying society, that Muslim communities are a threat, that benefit claimants are scroungers, and so on. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most mainstream politicians say the words, but destroy them with a "but". "This society could not survive without immigration, but it has disrupted communities," for example. Instead politicians should try and divert the blame for the society's stresses onto economic insecurity following technological and global development.

Next is community education. Schools, especially primary schools, should be celebrated as places where different communities meet. Pupils should be taught about different religions, world regions and so on. Of course Britain's own special story must be taught as part of this, but not in such a way as to promote narrow nationalism. And the school curriculum should embrace wide life-skills, such as dealing with people who disagree with you, and taking responsibility for you own fate, rather than always trying to blame somebody else. This is not rocket science. Many of our schools are already doing this. But it is difficult to see how this is compatible with the government's programme of fragmentation of school management, driven by parental choice - and focus on narrow skills such as literacy and numeracy.

Finally we must tackle the insecurity that drives intolerance. This brings me back to economics, and I will develop my ideas on this in future essays. But in essence I think we need to look for stronger local economies, with stronger local governance - to balance the global dimension with a local one, at the expense of our current national focus.

 

Birmingham exposes the hollow heart of Conservative education policy

Britain is ill-served by its news media. There has been a growing kerfuffle about Muslim-dominated schools in Birmingham. The issues dominating this in media coverage are the extremism of some Muslims, and the explosive relations between the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, and the Home Secretary, Theresa May, which they assume is all to do with Mrs May's leadership ambitions. This wantonly ignorant coverage is not only damaging community relations, but it failed to shine any light on the failure of the coalition's Conservative-led education policy. This matters because this policy has been given nearly a free run in the media, and supported by papers, such as The Economist, that really should know better.

We must start with Mr Gove, who has been in post since the government was formed in 2010, and is one of the Conservatives' big hitters. A journalist by profession, he has strong views on both education and extremism, which he has not hesitated to put into practice. Liberal Democrats have moderated some of his more extreme positions, but many suspect that the Lib Dem leadership (in contrast to its activists) sympathises with a lot of what Mr Gove is trying to do. Instead they have concentrated on their own pet policy, the Pupil Premium.

At the heart of Mr Gove's policy is the idea that education should be run as a quasi-market, driven by parental choice, and without the need for much in the way of government direction - rather in the way the private sector does. Schools are being progressively pushed into being "Academies" independent of local authority control, and new Academies, "Free Schools", are being established without much of the obstructive bureaucracy that would have strangled many of them at birth under the previous regime. These Academies were not subject to the National Curriculum, though they were subject to inspection by Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, which focuses on a narrow set of core subjects (literacy and numeracy - with "behaviour" thrown in to satisfy conservative prejudices). The idea was that bad schools would fail to attract pupils, and so they would end up being closed, or management changed. Competition would impose discipline on the schools, and the whole thing would be more democratic because parental choice would not be intermediated by busybody officials, elected and otherwise.

Two other themes ran alongside this. One was the idea that existing education was not based enough on factual learning, with too much emphasis on wishy-washy "skills" and mushy "values". Mr Gove recalled the curriculum of old-fashioned private schools and selective state grammar schools, which educated most off Britain's elite. A second was a distrust of educational experts and officials, who Mr Gove took to referring to as "The Blob", who watered down and undermined the reform process. The "Blob" was progressively dismantled.

In this mix we should mention faith schools. The Birmingham row does not involve faith schools directly, which has led a number of, excessively defensive, faith school supporters to claim that they are a irrelevant. But they are heavily bound up in the consequences of the row. Faith schools were not a strong element of Mr Gove's ideas. They were rather an enthusiasm of the previous Labour government, who, it must be added, started the whole process of setting up independent Academies. Britain's state schools have always included those run by religious foundations, in particular the Church of England in (rather obviously) England. These were joined by Catholic schools. Under Labour these were extended to Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and no doubt other foundations. The Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair (a Catholic convert) had the idea that such faith schools gave children a solid moral grounding. Labour generally found that it helped their clientalist relationship with ethnic minority communities. These schools have been given a great deal of freedom to run themselves along their chosen lines. So long as you keep giving us good test scores and exam results, the suggestion was, we don't care how you do it.

Finally in this background exposition, I need to mention Muslim extremism. Terrorist groups have successfully recruited a number of young British Muslims, and they have carried out a number of acts of violence both in this country and abroad, in such places as Syria. It is considered my many to be the biggest security threat the country faces. These extremists have very conservative instincts, such as believing in the veiling of women, but they tend to be converts and not very conversant with the actual teachings of Islam. Their extremism is fuelled by a general feeling of rejection and alienation.

In the public eye however, these young extremists have become tangled up with the conservative views of many Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities. These are horrified by what they see as the laxity of Western moral values, and do not want their children to be corrupted by them. They share many of the conservative instincts of their extremist co-religionists, along with an acute sense of injustice over the treatment of Muslims abroad, especially in Israel and Afghanistan; but there the similarity breaks down. Terrorism plays no part in their outlook, and certainly not in a domestic UK context - they may view Palestinian suicide bombers more sympathetically. But the extremists hover at the fringes of these communities, and that leaves the British state with a very tricky problem. They need intelligence from the established minority communities, and so to maintain good relations with them. But they are quite unsympathetic to many of their beliefs.

Into this delicate situation wade opportunistic journalists and careless politicians, Mr Gove among them. To them there is a direct line between the terrorist threat and conservative religious values. Most of the white community assume this to be the case, and happily lap up this message. Almost no politicians attempt to put a more realistic public gloss on this.

And so when allegations emerged that conservative Muslims had taken over a number of state schools in Birmingham (as part of a "Trojan Horse" plot), Mr Gove assumed that terrorism was at the heart of it, and so did most of the public. He steamed into a delicate situation, upsetting community relations and the Home Office, responsible for policing. The schools had been rated highly by Ofsted, who had focused on academic achievement, which was strong. The inspectors were sent in again with a different agenda, found evidence of  a conservative religious agenda, and, with a bit of ingenuity, ways in which these breached requirements of state-funded schools. The schools are in the process of being transferred to new management.

But the problems have only just begun:

  1. What has been alleged is that school governors, recruited from the local community, took the schools over and forced them into a conservative religious agenda. The school populations were almost entirely drawn from the local Muslim communities. But this is surely what school governors are supposed to do? They set the direction, ethos and strategy of the school. Their actions appear to have been perfectly popular with parents (though not staff). And though not faith schools, the widespread political support for faith schools would not have suggested to them that what they were doing was a bad thing. They were simply picking up the ball tossed by Westminster politicians and running with it.
  2. The actual alleged abuses are not so black and white. Segregation of the sexes? We still have 100% segregated schools. Allowing tradition Muslim dress? A lot of perfectly respectable schools do that already - and that is surely right. The same goes for making provision for prayer, which after all can be open to all faiths. A culture of intimidation? sounds a bit like my English private school education. And surely school management has a right to make the changes it wants, and this always leads to such allegations. The were, predictably, no demonstrable links to terrorist extremism.
  3. We are now told that Mr Gove wants "British Values" to be taught at all schools. Not only is defining this a minefield, but it is a step away from the "fact-based" principles that he had been so fond of espousing. And how will "real" faith schools, and not just Muslim ones, end up if judged to the same standards as those used in the second wave of Birmingham Ofsted inspections?
  4. Sorting out this mess is going to take a lot of work. Schools can't in fact be left just to get on with it. They are going to need help, guidance and correction from an intermediate level of officialdom. A newly recreated Blob, in fact.

And so we find that parents are free to choose, provided they conform Mr Gove's own version of political correctness. It is very easy to understand how the local Muslim community (and no so local ones) feel victimised - judged by double standards from a society that has lost its moral compass.

The government's reforms are barking up the wrong tree. Here in London we have an outstanding example of how seemingly hopeless schools in deprived areas can be turned round. This did not need the creation of Academies; the existing local authority structures were up to the task. What it is did need was strong and credible leadership. Politicians can lead from on high, but ultimately this leadership has to come from experts who live and breath schools. The country was lucky enough to have plenty of these. But they have been side-lined and pensioned off.

Coalition policy is hollow at its heart, and the last four years have been largely wasted. Even Labour could do a better job than this.