Tag Archives: education policy

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.



The remarkable politcal success of Michael Gove

Shortly before the British General Election in 2010 a headteacher at a local school told me: “Well, however is the new Education Secretary cannot be worse then Ed Balls.” Mr Balls, now Shadow Chancellor, was then Labour’s Education Secretary. He had built up a reputation for political posturing and bullying, while presiding over new Labour’s muddled education policies. I have not asked that headteacher how she thinks the new education Secretary, Michael Gove, compares to Mr Balls. I don’t have to; her prediction was spectacularly wrong. Mr Gove is even more loathed by education professionals than was Mr Balls. But Mr Gove, unlike Mr Balls, counts as a political success.

Mr Gove has been in the news recently. Yesterday he gave a speech spelling out his vision for state schools; over the weekend there was a fuss over his failure to reappoint the Chair of Ofsted, the schools’ inspectorate. His spin doctors have been pushing out a story of his reforming zeal against an educational establishment referred to as “the Blob” after a 1950s sci-fi movie. This has received a lot favourable coverage in the right-wing press. More neutral observers, such as the FT as well as the BBC, seem content to faithfully report Mr Gove’s spin while not openly taking sides.

All this is in stark contrast to the government’s attempts to reform the NHS, led by former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley. The government side of this argument hardly got a look in, as the picture of chaotic reforms took hold. This negative coverage stiffened opposition to the reforms, muddling them further, so that they have ended up being the biggest blot on the Coalition government’s record – though some good may yet come out of them. There has been little public support for opponents to Mr Gove’s education reforms, however. Mr Gove, an ex-journalist, is clearly a better communicator than Mr Lansley, an ex-doctor. The education system is also much simpler than the health service. But the political skills of Mr Gove’s “Blob” are totally lacking, unlike those of the doctors and nurses opposing Mr Lansley. The teaching unions have long been a bit of a comedy act, resisting basic workforce reforms, like performance appraisal, that non-teaching professionals have long since got themselves used to. Other educational professionals rarely raise themselves beyond the minutiae to give politicians and the public a clear vision of what they are trying to achieve.

Are and were British schools in a mess? Yes and no. International comparisons show a mixture of good and bad news. Overall performance is unspectacular but not awful. We have a long “tail” of under-achieving pupils that schools give up on too quickly. There is a lot of mediocrity, especially amongst rural schools, who “coast” by getting average performance from pupils capable of much more. But over the last two decades, the Blob has pulled off one of the most spectacular episodes in school improvement in the world: the transformation of London schools. This has given the lie to the standard line of the Left that the educational prospects of poor pupils will only be transformed once other social problems, like jobs and housing, have been fixed. The Borough of Tower Hamlets, one of the country’s poorest, regularly outperforms much wealthier districts outside London.

The transformation of London’s schools remains one of the last Labour government’s greatest achievements. But politically, it is problematic. It owes nothing to the various policies pushed by politicians and think tanks, such as creating semi-independent Academies. It was largely down to good old fashioned management: officials at national and council level holding school managements to account, and replacing heads of mediocre schools. As a result politicians are strangely reluctant to take the credit.

What of Mr Gove’s reforms? They are a mix of good, bad and ugly. On the good side, Ofsted’s remit has been sharpened up a lot. Previously it had expanded into such areas as “community cohesion”, which are highly sensitive to context, and inspectors did not show any great aptitude. Now they focus much more sharply on the quality of teaching. This gets to the core of what drives school performance. Some older teachers hate this – but it really isn’t any different to the pressures that accountants and lawyers find themselves under. Younger teachers seem accept the much greater level of accountability that is expected – and respond well to it. (My evidence on this is rather anecdotal though – based on my experience as a school governor in a London primary school).

Another good thing, though largely unremarked, is that Mr Gove’s Academy programme is putting private schools under real pressure. Many private schools outside the South East are now signing up to be state schools, run as academies. My local Free School is recruiting many middle class youngsters that would formerly have gone private. No doubt some on the left see this as a sinister subsidy to the middle classes – but a much higher level of social mixing occurs at these new state schools than would have occurred at private schools. And social mixing at schools helps the poorer children achieve more. It is worth noting that this policy works as well as it does thanks to two measures insisted on by the Liberal Democrats: a “pupil premium” giving extra funding for poorer pupils, and insisting on non-academic selection. Many Conservatives want to recreate academically selective Grammar Schools. These may once have been engines of social mobility, but now academic selection is simply used as a way of weeding out pupils from poorer backgrounds and reducing mixing.

The bad: there is a lot of wasted energy on changing things that don’t need changing. That particularly applies to changes to the curriculum. Mr Gove and his supporters seem to have an old-fashioned view on what should be taught in schools, to reflect a 1960s private education. Now it is true that the Blob has developed a lot of woolly curriculum ideas that don’t seem to be of lasting educational benefit (especially in “applied” qualifications), but they were gradually sorting out this mess by themselves. Mr Gove seems to have little idea as to what modern universities and employers actually want the product of a secondary education to be. A lot of the drive to turn state schools into academies seems a bit pointless, and will probably create problems of accountability in later years. It has a sinister aspect too: the Academy chains who are the main beneficiaries are politically well connected – and it is their political connections that seem to be critical in their success.

The ugly. We are getting more religiously founded state schools. Given religiously founded schools’ role in cementing toxic community relations between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland and Scotland, I am very nervous about this. But it could be that making these newer schools conform to modern educational norms, and forcing them to engage with a wider civil society, will bring benefits. But I really would prefer it if our children went to schools attended by children of many faiths and none. But the alienation of some religious communities is such that they would not engage in such arrangements, and for them a state religious school is a second-best.

My verdict on Mr Gove is that he is not quite as evil as he cracked up to be. But he is wasting a lot of time and energy. What should be absorbing energy is teaching standards, establishing a broad curriculum appropriate to modern life, and establishing better systems of accountability which don’t tempt schools to game the system by neglecting “hopeless” cases. Fix these and Britain’s state schools would be world class. But alas, we are distracted by political gimmickry.


London’s schools: awkward facts for both left and right

Last Friday I attended and seminar for school headteachers and chairs of governors addressed by Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, the body that inspects English schools. It was convened by the London Borough of Lambeth, for whom I am a primary school chair of governors, and where Sir Michael himself spent much of his school career (at least that is what he implied – though the secondary school he described sounded as if it was just over the border in Wandsworth, and very near where I live). He used the occasion to heap praise on the acheivements of Lambeth’s schools, and schools elsewhere in London too. He made his point by drawing a comparison to England’s second city, Birmingham, whose results, he implied, were mediocre. The progress that London’s state schools have made in the last decade is one of the most important facts about public services in Britain. But it is little talked about because it poses awkward questions for both left and right.

First the facts. My main source is a pamphlet produced by CentreForum in late 2011. The data may therefore be a little old, but the story hasn’t changed in the period since. London’s state school results, at both primary and secondary levels, are close to the English average. But the proportion of pupils attending school from the lowest income groups is much higher than in any other English region. About 70% (I’m a bit vague because I’m having to read off a graph without the exact numbers being in the text) of its pupils are in the lowest two income quintiles, compared to under 50% for most other regions (a bit over 50% for the North East). A lot of higher income parents send their children to private schools, especially in London, and this no doubt accounts for a lot of the skew to lower income levels. So London’s schools are achieving these results in spite of much higher levels of deprivation. The more you dig into the data, the more impressive this achievement looks. But London’s schools used to be awful.

When I have mentioned this achievement in various policy forums I get some rather strange reactions. People quickly dive in with data-less explanations which leave their basic world view intact. One economic liberal type started to lecture me on how much more aspirational London parents were. A more left-leaning type (with direct experience of London schools) attributed it to an influx of African immigrants displacing poorer performing white and Afro-Caribbean ethnic groups. Others have complained about preferential funding for London’s schools. But the data shows that, let us say, none of these explanations is anything like sufficient. But they did educate me in how selective many policy commentators are in their insistence on the use of proper evidence.

How have these results been attained? This is a lot less clear. No doubt the capital does have some inherent advantages in aspirational families and a better pool of potential teachers – which had not previously been exploited. But the main explanation seems to be strong political leadership. The boroughs led the way, but central government (under Labour) was bearing down on them, with initiatives such as the London Challenge (started in 2003, focusing on secondary schools). For Sir Michael, who was very much in the middle of it, the main point was that heads and governors were made more accountable for their results. Failure to achieve good results resulted in schools being hauled over the coals. The “Satisfactory” rating for an Ofsted inspection was in fact regarded as “Unsatisfactory”; Sir Michael has since changed that nomenclature. I have certainly seen how school leadership teams have focused more clearly on how to reach out to families from poorer backgrounds, with extended school facilities (handy for working parents) and family learning, as well as individually tailored interventions.

Why is this so awkward for mainstream politicos? The left, drawing support from the trade union movement, do not want to put schools and their staff under too much pressure. They would rather promote the fiction that England’s schools are generally good, but that they cannot overcome the social issues created by poverty – which need to be tackled through anti-poverty measures. And yet it seems that if you chivvy (and even bully) schools hard enough you can dramatically improve the results of pupils even from very challenging backgrounds. There is a very uncomfortable paradox here: leftist political activists get very worked up about deprivation, but this translates into low expectations of what deprived families can achieve, which in turn becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Things are just as bad on the right. They say that the problem is that parents lack choice, and that the state runs schools badly. So the focus is to reduce state control by converting schools to semi-independent Academies, and letting interest groups set up brand new schools. Choice and competition will drive up standards. And yet the London results show that this is at best irrelevant. The results have been achieved with existing political structures.

If London’s schools show anything, it is the effectiveness of the last Labour government’s methods – Tony Blair’s Third Way. And yet this has become deeply unfashionable in political circles. In fact there was plenty wrong in Labour’s education policies, including a very wasteful school building programme, which converted necessary school upgrades into prestige architectural projects. But the basic idea was sound: good old fashioned political leadership and accountability can transform public services – provided you are prepared to take on the vested interests of those working within it.

Or to put it another way, and to bring it into one of the main themes of this blog: effective commissioning is the secret to better public services, both at the level of whole communities and at the level of individual users. London got a lot better at both.