Boris and our Schools

The report of the London  Mayor’s Education Inquiry is a curious mix. It can’t avoid admitting that London schools represent a quite remarkable success story over the last ten years though it can’t resist a bit of carping when the opportunity arises. But there is a lot of useful analysis of the issues that face London’s schools. These include

  • the challenges of a changing labour market with fewer opportunities for low achieving pupils,
  • the need to raise standards for underachieving groups, especially among many white British pupils,
  • the crisis in school places
  • the broad range of skills and attitudes that young people need and that employers say are often missing,
  • the need for young people to have better information about the opportunities and pathways available.

Nor is it entirely wrong to insist that there is no room for complacency and that London is indeed competing in a world market.

In some respects the report makes the case for a proper middle tier supporting education. The need for detailed demographic work to underpin place planning for example is apparent. Developing links with major employers on a city wide basis is clearly sensible and is not something individual schools could do. Exploring how the curriculum could draw on the resources London has to offer as a whole also makes good sense and would need co-ordination. There is much else in the report which is of value and which supports the need for a local tier of management.

However the real problem with the report is when ideology takes over from analysis and research. The tone is set right at the start. The cover picture is of West London Free School pupils sitting in silent rows reading short Latin stories (indeed all the pictures are from WLFS!). This represents a deeply depressing vision of contemporary London. An educational vision drawn straight from Boris’ childhood is hardly what 21st century London needs. There is a continuing tension running through the report between a complex research based analysis of what London pupils actually need and the Govian simplicities illustrated by the Chair’s introduction:

We unashamedly want a return to ‘real’ subjects and an education system in which what children know is valued above how they know.”

“In these mental cellars there should be the knowledge of great vintages such as the works of Homer and Dickens.”

Much of the report actually demolishes this narrow view recognising the importance of developing skills and the place of technology and the arts and media in modern London.

Two particular high profile proposals illustrate the problems. A “Gold Club” of elite schools is proposed – schools that are high achieving and that are successful in closing achievement gaps. They are to be the focus of an annual conference and report highlighting their achievements and other schools will learn from them. This approach runs against everything we know about school improvement. What works is schools collaborating on a basis of mutual professional respect. Moreover selection will be a nightmare and will have the capacity to seriously damage the reputation of many very good schools that are not selected. Most schools have strengths and weaknesses. This kind of simplistic identification of “top schools” is both foolish and dangerous.

The second example is around free schools. The report buys quite uncritically the government line about the value of free schools. Even more bizarrely, after a detailed analysis of the places crisis, the report ignores its own conclusions in favour of supporting free schools wherever they happen to pop up. There is a proper approach to place planning struggling to be heard in this report – using the GLA’s property resources could certainly be helpful – but ideology gets in the way.

It is tempting to see this report as a typical bit of Boris grandstanding on a topic for which he has no actual responsibility. It is more than that and some of it will provide a sound basis for proper policy making in the future. But while thinking is dominated by a narrow ideology about learning and a profoundly simplistic approach to school improvement, real progress is unlikely.



7 Comments on “Boris and our Schools”

  1. Eddie Playfair says:

    John, I was just beginning to digest this report and trying to think about how to engage with it.

    This is an excellent post – really helpful, thanks.


    Eddie Playfair – Principal

    Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc)

    Prince Regent lane,

    London E13 8SG

    Tel: 020 7473 4110

  2. 3D Eye says:

    The vision of education referred to here is not so much taken from the mayor’s childhood as from the 19th century, and very well described by Charles Dickens in ‘Hard Times’. “Give these children Facts!”

    I don’t suppose Boris would see the irony in him saying, ““In these mental cellars there should be the knowledge of great vintages such as the works of . . . Dickens” when Dickens himself wrote in his great satire of the school system and the pedagogy of that age, “The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim”.

    He goes on to say, “As he eagerly sparkled at them from the cellarage before mentioned, he seemed a kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow them clean out of the regions of childhood at one discharge. He seemed a galvanizing apparatus, too, charged with a grim mechanical substitute for the tender young imaginations that were to be stormed away.”

    Dickens and Hard Times should indeed be included in the new National Curriculum as a key text that all children should be familiar with. Maybe as THE key text.

    Sample comprehension questions:

    Should all children be forced to learn whatever Key Facts and Key Subjects certain politically-motivated adults say they should learn?

    Should those facts be changed and be determined by whichever politicians currently form the government?

    Should all teachers be forced to teach the same curriculum regardless of the enthusiasms and preferences of their pupils?

    Should children be passive or active learners?


  3. Paul Martin says:

    Is this more ED Hirsch-ism?

  4. David Pavett says:

    Thanks John for drawing our attention to this report. I agree about its contradictory nature. Thus it both proposes a regional curriculum and the development of more schools that are not required to follow such a curriculum. This tension between the need for a framework for school development and coordination and the detaching of schools from any such framework runs throughout the report. I agree too that it has some worthwhile points. The idea of a London Curriculum which focusses on the city’s resources as a major aid to teaching is a great one – just a shame that the schools most favoured by this report will be able to ignore any such development.

    I agree to about the dead weight of ideology. Principally this involves a commitment to the idea that increased diversity of provision and parental choice are the best means of “driving up standards”. It doesn’t matter that even some of the material referred to by this report (such as the report on the London Challenge) contradict this assumption. It doesn’t matter because the claim is a matter of belief and has nothing to do with evidence.

    There is discussion of a need for a varied curriculum along with praise for a new Free School that will follow a “academic currilculum”.

    One of the leitmotifs of the report is that London schools must provide good schools for every child. The problem is that its authors seem to think that this goal can only be achieved via an educational market with schools competing for pupils. Finland is referred to as and admirable “high achieving jurisdiction” without mentioning that the Finns resolutely rejected the idea of market mechanisms as appropriate to education. On the other hand positive references are made to the the US’s No Child Left Behind approach without also mentioning that the pursuit of educational goals through market mechanisms there has resulted in falling average pupil attainment. Again, no matter, its what the ideology dictates that counts.

    An interesting insight is gained into the ideology underlying this report by looking at its references to Higher Education. The references are almost entirely of an elitist inspiration. School achievements in sending pupils to HE are almost exclusively in terms of “top universities”, “Oxford and Cambridge”, “the Russell Group”, “research intensive universities” and so on. At the same time the report tells us that less than ten percent of London pupils went to such institutions. What of the other ninety per cent. Did they somehow fail by only going to a “bog standard” university? And this is what all the talk of high standards for all children ultimately comes down to: by definition only a minority can achieve what the report regards as a real success in HE terms. (In this the report is at one with Anthony Adonis’ approach in his recent book on education but Adonis is not the only leading Labour politician to talk like this.)

    The report is also padded out with repetative guff that makes reading it a bit of a challenge. It is full of to do lists with no clear implementation paths in the way of so many reports of this kind. Most of this will be quickly forgotten.

    Another set ideological set piece is the use of competitive sport to teach “sportsmanship, listening and teamwork”. Competitive sport is a good thing for those who want to participate in it but they do not exhaust the ways of teaching pupils to listen or to value teamwork. Playing in a band or orchestra can do that every bit as much and without being motivated by competition.

    This competative approach extends, as John says, to the idea of a Gold Club of elite schools which, it is proposed, will help the lower achieving schools by running a couple of seminars a year. The Gold Club will include selective/private schools and the idea of them lecturing schools struggling with difficult social problems on how to make their lessons more interesting conjures up pictures of meetings that I am very glad that I will not be attending.

    This ideologically loaded report is just one of many and we can expect much more of this type. We need to read them (unfortunately) both to get the measure of the currently dominant educational ideology and, of course, to provide an effective and convincing alternative view of the way forward.

  5. David Pavett says:

    Do heading tags work?