Andrew Adonis and his Friends

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.



2 Comments on “Andrew Adonis and his Friends”

  1. Richard Pring says:

    Dear John

    Thank you.

    I have only just read the Kettle article. I could not believe his uncritical acceptance of what Adonis claims. I shall write to the Guardian tomorrow and I hope many others will as well

    Richard ________________________________

  2. David Pavett says:

    I have read Adonis’ book as well as the reviews that John mentions. The book is as awful as he suspects just as the reviews are as wide of the mark as he argues. However, if the left is to have any purchase on this debate it needs to be very careful to make careful and precise criticisms.

    John writes “The argument is that state education is basically rubbish”. That is going to be easy for Adonis supporters to counter. The argument is rather that state education provided through local authorities is rubbish and needs to be replaced by non-selective independent state schools. I am not defending that view but merely repeating what their claim is. We need to get that right.

    John says “Such a total trashing of state education is really such self-evident nonsense that it hardly needs further discussion”. Unfortunately this is far from true. After years of negative reporting of local authority comprehensive education in the media the nonsense of this claim is only clear to those who have gone out of their way to inform themselves of the facts. That is a tiny minority of people. I guess that it is also a minority of the Labour Party. I am sure that it is a minority of the Shadow Cabinet.

    “But for the record, this is 93% of the population.” No, it isn’t. 93% of the population, or anything near to that, were never in local authority comprehensives. Had they been then most of the problems encountered by those schools would have been much more easily resolvable.

    “Much of the book seems to be the story of how our hero, single-handedly, pushed his policies through …”. That’s true.

    I agree with what John says about the myths of the dead hand of local authorities and that of the alleged relative success of Academies. Again, however, these myths are widely accepted even in Labour Party circles and probably the more so the higher one goes in Labour policy formation circles. Overcoming the misinformation will be a major task and some discussion as to how this might be done effectively within the Labour Party is probably required.

    On this the notable thing about Adonis’ book (not noticed by Martin Kettle) is a complete failure to weigh the arguments and the data. Adonis simply asserts in a hundred different ways that Academies are better and nearly always without references. When he gives references they are exclusively ones that suit his purpose. Serious studies that go against his views such as the Ofsted 2010 report on the London Challenge programme or the DFE study of the City Challenge programme (2012) are simply ignored. Similarly there is no attempt to deal with the criticisms from writers such as Melissa Benn (she is quoted twice but only for the purpose of rubbishing a single point and not to engage with her case). This is ideological grand-standing and not an attempt at a serious discussion of complex issues on which there are many serious points of view. Martin Kettle clearly cannot tell the difference.

    I suggest that in order to reject Adonis’ general argument we do not have to deny any achievements to the new Academies. Some of them have achieved impressive results and may well have developed innovative approaches. I believe that our case should not be that this does not happen but rather that it also happens in the local authority sector and that there is no reason to believe that Academy status will raise levels in general any more than they would have been raised anyway. That is the conclusion from the London Challenge and the City Challenge programmes.

    I am sure that John is right to question the “tackling disadvantage” claims, about which Adonis makes repeated claims in his book. The admissions regimes and their regulation (or not) will be crucial in this and we can expect the claims being made to be exposed as more and more data on this is revealed (if it can be obtained).

    I agree that the belief that market mechanisms will force up stands is an ideological stance and has only a very remote connection with the facts. I suggest however that Labour’s enthusiasm for market solutions not only in education but in health and other areas is rather stronger than John seems to think. A decade and a half of New Labour have brought us to the point where the difference between Labour’s position and that of the Conservatives is minimal, if it exists at all. Thus on tuition fees the Conservatives say £9000 a year whereas Labour says £6000 a year (and who know what Labour would have actually decided had it been returned to power). Labour launched the Academy movement. The Tories have picked it up and are running with it. Labour opened the NHS to private operators, the Tories are now taking those initial moves much further.

    My conclusion from all this is that getting Labour to favour political democracy over market choice in education (and elsewhere) is going to be an immense and uphill battle.