Twigg at the RSA

A few days on from Stephen Twigg’s RSA speech[i], it is perhaps possible to see past the spin to identify the real nature and extent of the challenge to Gove that has now been set out. Commentators have tended to pick on particular points in order to make the speech fit their particular point of view – an example would be the muddled comments over what Stephen called Parent led Academies. Out of context this could look like free schools but in context the reality is very different.

Importantly, there was a strong and positive focus on the teaching profession and the need for high quality, motivated teachers. There was an overt contrast with the constant criticism that comes from the current regime.

The speech had three broad themes -:

“First, where a school freedom promotes higher standards, we will extend those freedoms to all schools.

Second, no one cares more about a school than the community it serves. Therefore, we will deliver a radical devolution of power from Whitehall.

Third, we will ensure that every school plays its part to raise standards across their area and meet the needs of their community.”

Within that framework some critical dividing lines were laid down. They included a clear recognition that “free schools and academies are not a panacea for school improvement” and that they can under-achieve as much as maintained schools can. A timely thought in the week that the first free school goes into special measures but, unless I’m mistaken, a first for a Labour spokesman.

There was a clear commitment to a stronger local role both in planning provision and in monitoring and intervening when things go wrong: We need stronger local oversight for all schools so that struggling schools are spotted much sooner, local support is on hand to drive up standards, and schools have a clear relationship with their community” and “there will be no bias for or against a school type- so new academies, new maintained schools, new trust schools- all options.”

It was in this context that the Parent led Academy came up. The key differences from free schools are that they would only be considered where there is a need for new places and that there would be a local decision making process to decide whether such a school would be appropriate.

Great stress was placed on collaboration and the experience of London Challenge was again highlighted. A quote from Andreas Schleicher of the OECD is very relevant here. He argues that “while more autonomous school systems are generally more successful than highly directed ones, there is a much stronger correlation between collaborative culture and system success. The lowest performing schools in the OECD have autonomy but no collaborative culture. “

The issue of admissions was raised, recognising that every school must play its part in ensuring fair admissions. The aim is “The comprehensive ideal, within a mixed economy of schools.”  – nice certainly to see the c word being used! There was recognition too that “we are seeing social selection playing out in the (admissions) system”.

Overall, I think this speech represents significant progress. There is however a great deal still to play for with a number of key areas as yet not fully fleshed out. Here are just a few examples:

          School freedoms – the aim is clearly to put all schools on a level playing field. So, on the one hand, no unqualified teachers and the maintenance of national pay and conditions. On the other, a substantial commitment to curriculum freedom for all schools. This last is puzzling because at the same time Labour is continuing the process of developing a national curriculum policy. It is to be hoped that this doesn’t really mean the abandonment of a curriculum entitlement for all children. And an issue not addressed at all was how to equalise the funding regime for all types of school.

          The legal framework which is now such an area of confusion has yet to be addressed. There was a presumption that different kinds of schools would continue to exist but that the differences between them would be, at the least, greatly diminished. But the issues David Wolfe has raised about the implications of a diverse range of legal structures have not yet been grappled with. [ii]

          Local accountability – exercised by whom? – current local authorities or something new? What exactly will be the relationship between LAs and schools on the one hand and LAs and central government on the other? And how can we make sure that there is real community engagement not just a rather distant political process in town halls? The Blunkett review will be critical here.

          Admissions – the view from the floor was that there needs to be a much more robust approach. For example, Gary Philips of Lilian Baylis talked about problems caused by schools with curricula designed to appeal only to particular kinds of families. Tidying up the code and the appeals process is unlikely to make a real dent in the pattern of socio-economic segregation although this has at least been recognised as an issue. And nothing on the areas where the 11+ continues.

2 Comments on “Twigg at the RSA”

  1. From my perspective, the concept of curriculum freedom is in reality an impossibility and therefore a misleading carrot. Whilst externally administered exams – GCSEs and A levels – persist, then they constrain pupils to the domain of the curriculum they measure.

    Instead of freedom from curriculum, if the curriculum were to be a less prescriptive one, to give latitude to teachers to flex with local needs and interests. The exams would then in part need to measure curriculum knowledge and understanding, and in part measure in a looser sense the non-curricula acquisitions.

    Quite how this would succeed is not clear because the system could be gamed – the non-curricula component could be highly rehearsed.

    So the attraction of such matters as ‘freedom from curriculum’ start to lose their meaning when explored. The desire for equivalent measures – the same exams across the nation – may be the key problem. To have true freedom from curriculum would require an accompanying freedom from the exams that measure those curricula.

  2. David Pavett says:

    John says that Stephen Twigg’s speech has “set out” “The nature and extent of the Challenge to Gove”. Maybe, maybe not. However, it is perhaps a little early to dismiss critics as those who “have tended to pick on particular points in order to make the speech fit their particular point of view” as if those who like the speech were not evaluating it from their own political standpoint.

    Labour’s talk of free schools might sound like Gove talk but, John says, “in context the reality is very different”. We are not told what that context is or how the reality is different. Three days later ST made it clear in a Q&A on LabourList that he is in favour of new schools being set up by parents and/or teachers and that David Blunkett has the task of finding the best ways of doing this. Sounds like support for free schools to me. The only difference of context is that Labour would not agree to such schools going ahead were there is not a shortage of places. But the issue of places was never the central criticism of free schools.

    ST spoke a lot about the importance of teachers and the “need for high quality, motivated teachers” but this is still the land of rhetoric. Gove says the same. Did ST say that he would favour a return to stabilising the working environment with a return to national conditions? No. Kevin Brennan said so at the Better Futures meeting but words are cheap. We need a clear statement. Did ST say that he would end the reduction of teaching training to on-the-job training run by schools/chains? No.

    The speech claimed that the objectives were (1) freedom, (2) community accountability, (3) all schools play their part in raising standards. This is indistinguishable from Gove’s rhetoric. We want to believe that Labour’s rhetoric means something different but where is the evidence?

    John finds “critical dividing lines” in, for example, “free schools and academies are not a panacea for school improvement”. I fail to see how this is a “critical dividing line”. ST favours a “mixed economy” of schools and doesn’t want to be dogmatic about school types. But surely it is exactly the “mixed economy” approach that the bulk of progressive analysis over the last several decades has pin-pointed is the the very thing that has prevented the realisation of the comprehensive ideal. This is described in detail in Melissa Benn’s School Wars.

    The “mixed economy” is not the solution, it is the problem. This is not a dogma-free approach. It is pure dogma. The idea that competition between schools is the best way to push up standards is the educational dogma of our times. The Finns rejected it to create their successful system.

    John believes that statements like “We need stronger local oversight for all schools so that struggling schools are spotted much sooner …” mean that there is a clear commitment to local democratic control. I am long enough in the (political) tooth to think that a “clear commitment” requires a bit more than that.

    And what of the quote from Andreas Schliefer according to which “more autonomous school” are more successful than directed ones, along with a reference to the London Challenge programme? What is an autonomous school system? Is it a system in which schools are autonomous or is it one in which the system of school is autonomous? The claim is virtually meaningless.

    The London Challenge showed is that all schools benefited from help to improve their management. It did not show that having different types of schools was in any way an advantage. It in no way provided evidence for the advantage of the mixed-economy approach.

    The Adonis line is that Academies are the new comprehensives. So, unlike John, I am not reassured by the use of the c word. All ST says in the speech is that there are problems with the present admissions system and that he thinks it should be fairer. He could hardly have said less. Of Academy chains, their power and business connections? Not a word.

    I fail to see the “significant progress” that John finds in this speech. None of the detailed criticisms of the fragmentation of the school system are answered. In fact ST’s answer to partial fragmentation is total fragmentation! Every school must have the “freedoms” of independent status. Is that really the way forward?

    If, after three years, there is no flesh on key issues (national conditions, legal frameworks, local accountability), as John admits, then what we are looking at is a major dereliction of duty. Labour has got away with avoiding these issues for three years. If even now it cannot be clear and has to set up inquiries to look into the issues then this is pretty much a guarantee that the amorphous state of policy will continue right up to and beyond the finishing line in 2015.

    Stephen Twigg has shown complete disdain shown for Labour’s policy procedures by announcing policy in this way without any prior discussion in the Party. I explained my view of the speech further in a piece on Left Futures.