Andrew Adonis and his FriendsPosted: September 13, 2012
Andrew Adonis has just published a book (unoriginally called “Education, Education, Education”) in which he tells the story of New Labour’s education policy and set’s out his blueprint for the future. I’ll be honest – I’ve not read the book. But I have read the reviews and it’s the tone of many of them that this post is primarily about. The New Statesman, gave us Antony Seldon – so much for their left wing credentials – while Martin Kettle in the Guardian and John Rentoul in the Independent represent a certain familiar strand of London leftish (??) journalism that knows nothing about education but has very strong views about it.
The argument is that state education is basically rubbish. So Adonis hoped that “someone in power would do something about the jungle that passed for an education system from which few emerged with anything resembling an education.” Kettle talks of “overwhelming educational inadequacy, lack of expectations and discipline and the rigidity of the idea that every school had to be the same.”
Such a total trashing of state education is really such self-evident nonsense that it hardly needs further discussion. But for the record, this is 93% of the population. You can have a debate at the margins about whether outcomes are good enough and what the trends are. But this kind of wild assertion is ridiculous and says something deeply disturbing about how these people see most of their fellow citizens.
Much of the book seems to be the story of how our hero, single-handedly, pushed his policies through in the face of Gove’s “enemies of promise”. As one who was on the receiving end of the naked bullying that government in his day engaged in, I can testify to the nature of the battle. Local and professional opinion counted for nothing – the gentleman in Whitehall was sure he knew best.
To be fair, much that was done (like setting up the National College) was positive and parts of his programme for the future(like broadening the A level curriculum) have real merit. But academies are the heart of the matter, the magic bullet that will transform the system. Here we really start to run up against a narrative that has been bought into by most of the mainstream media but which has very little validity.
The first myth is that of “freedom” from the dead hand of the local authority. Actually, compared to most countries, English schools have had a remarkable level of independence since 1988. Academy freedoms are pretty small beer and have been ignored by most schools. Except for the money, which will turn out to be a very temporary bonus. And of course the freedom to sell junk food which seems to have become very popular.
The second myth is “success”. In Kettle’s words “the track record of academies is so clearly successful …”. His source for this is the impeccably neutral New Schools Network. Actually it is now pretty generally agreed that there is no noticeable academy effect on results – even the House of Commons Library agrees. Just saying “Mossbourne” proves nothing about the rest of the schools in the country. Outliers don’t constitute evidence. And anyway there are maintained schools that have done just as well.
Then there is “innovation”. No doubt there is some in academies but no one has demonstrated that academies are more innovative than maintained schools. The one obvious difference is the clearly documented use of dubious vocational qualifications to puff up their league table position. Without that, quite a few academies’ results would look a bit sick.
Finally, what about “tackling disadvantage”? What we know, without question, is that schools that are their own admission authorities take fewer disadvantaged kids than other schools. The first free schools were particularly bad in this respect. And the data shows that overall disadvantaged pupils do no better in academies than elsewhere.
The core belief is that a market approach driven by private sector sponsors will force up standards. This is an article of faith not grounded in evidence. Private sector = good. Public sector -= bad. Kettle condemns “the unthinking left” for opposing this kind of change. Actually it’s the proponents of marketization who persistently ignore evidence.
It may be worth speculating for a moment as to where this act of faith comes from. You can find it in many areas of policy but there is usually strong opposition. Marketizing healthcare is not much supported. Nor is the private railway system that well thought of. But in education it seems to be a given that state provision is much worse than the private sector. There’s an assumption that private schools are by definition high quality so it seems to follow that if state schools can ape private schools, it will make them better. That’s absolutely explicit in Seldon’s patronising enthusiasm for private schools to sponsor academies.
But the OECD has been clear for a long time that greater social segregation in schooling leads to lower standards. Where marketization has been tried, as in Sweden or in US charter schools, the impact has been at best neutral and often damaging. Academies are driving us down that road – it’s quite clear that schools will become more polarised as ambitious parents scramble for supposedly high status schools and the devil take the hindmost. That’s why there will indeed be a job to do in 2015 but it’s a very different job to that envisaged by the Kettle’s and Adonis’ of this world.