How diverse should we let our school system become?Posted: June 17, 2014
Up to now this site has avoided commenting on the so-called “Trojan Horse” affair. The evidence as to what has really happened in the schools concerned remains a matter of dispute and as a result much of the coverage of the issues has been of pretty dubious accuracy and has lacked objectivity. Watching the car crash as Gove tries to square his insistence on letting anyone run a school with his neo-Con assumption that conservative Islam is an inevitable precursor to political extremism and terrorism has been interesting but a rather more serious analysis is now needed.
It is becoming clear however that these events have tested to the point of destruction many of the trends and assumptions that have governed schools’ policy since the late 1980’s. Ofsted clearly has egg all over its face – either it failed totally to find serious issues in previous inspections or it is now exaggerating its findings under political pressure. It also shows that governance and accountability systems are broken and need wholesale review.
What I want to focus on here though is the direction of travel towards diversity in the school system. This goes back at least to the Major government which published a White Paper called “Choice and Diversity”. The “choice” part goes further back to the shift to parental preference as the driver of admissions in the early 1980’s.
The fundamental premise is that education is a market and that standards are driven by competition. But competition only works if the products available are differentiated. In the private sector of course, price is the big driver of competition. That’s not (so far at least!) been a factor in state schooling so other forms of differentiation have been needed.
English schooling has never been a monolith. Faith schools and secular ones have always co-existed as have selective and non-selective. But from the 1980’s more and more ways were found of enabling schools to market themselves as having particular characteristics.
League tables and inspection made possible some kind of differentiation by quality. Of course what was (and still is) being measured was to a large extent quality of intake rather than quality of teaching or curriculum. But they did their job in identifying the schools “sharp-elbowed” parents ought to be getting their kids into. Banners with quotes from Ofsted started to appear outside schools on a scale that is only matched by some of the more aggressive retailers.
Then we began to get differentiation by specialism. Initially successful schools (according to Ofsted and the league tables) could adopt a curriculum specialism and get more money for it. For a time they were permitted to select a proportion of their intake according to pupils’ aptitude for the particular specialism. Some elements of this remain in place today. Then under New Labour almost every secondary school became a specialist but of course some specialised in music or languages and some in sport.
Spasmodically there have been attempts to set up schools with a much stronger curriculum slant. Only a handful of city technology colleges got off the ground but more recently University Technical Colleges and studio schools have appeared in rather greater numbers.
From the 1980’s too there came differentiation by form of governance. First there were Grant Maintained Schools which segued into Foundation Schools. Then came City Academies with their private sponsors and finally of course the Govian flood of academies and free schools.
Initially, the existence of a detailed National Curriculum limited just how different schools could be. Just as there isn’t much difference between baked beans in different supermarkets, so most schools had to stick to a prescribed curriculum and had to be judged against the same tests and exams. But academy curriculum freedoms have now begun to make the National Curriculum an irrelevancy for many.
Many schools have been very clever in tailoring their offer and their marketing to their desired pupils. Increasing numbers present themselves as focussing exclusively on academic subjects and standards – grammar schools in all but name with a strong message to the less able that this is not the school for them. Others have found a niche market through faith, ethnicity or some other unique feature.
The notion of education as a common experience which meets the needs of all future citizens – unforgivably put down as what bog-standard comprehensives do – has almost gone. Just at the time when our population is becoming more diverse that ever, we seem to be abandoning one of the key bits of glue which have the potential to bring people together rather than divide them.
And of course we know that one of the things that happens in highly competitive markets is that corners are cut and rules are not always kept to. The banks have been at it. Retailers exploiting third world suppliers and misleading customers with dodgy labels are at it. And sadly some schools are at it too.
Cases of real fraud are thankfully rare – though there is real concern about the integrity of exams as the pressure on schools is ratcheted up. But schools that are distorting the curriculum or restricting opportunity for ideological reasons are out there – and remember, the curriculum is not subject to the Equality Act’s requirements. We’ve had Jewish schools doctoring exam papers because they reject evolution. We’ve got state-funded Steiner schools and schools following transcendental meditation. We’ve Christian faith schools pushing a particular view of the world. Birmingham’s Islamic schools, to the extent that are genuine causes for concern, need to be seen as part of that pattern.
Analysing the problem is relatively the easy part. To know where we go from here is harder. Mending governance and accountability ought to be relatively easy. But all the current ideas write out of the picture real local communities and of course their elected representatives. Tim Brighouse in today’s Guardian eloquently describes how “as senior officers, with the help of local councillors and the cabinet member concerned, we would spend many evenings in schools, community venues and Balti houses seeking better understanding of the way forward with both governors and community members on the one hand and headteachers on the other.” Focussing on appointing Tsar’s, Directors and Commissioners misses the point.
An even harder challenge is to try to define what a common experience ought to be like. The derision that has been heaped on politicians who’ve tried to define “British values” shows how hard that can be. Can we say, for example that sex and relationships education should be the same in all schools? Where is the line between imposing white middle class values on other communities and allowing discrimination of a kind that really is contrary to British values to continue. The extremes are easy – yes, you can wear a headscarf but no, you can’t force a child to marry against her will. But there is much that is tricky and complicated in between.
We have to conclude that a free for all is not acceptable. Total curriculum freedom can no longer be a defensible position. Nor is making schools effectively unaccountable or encouraging them to do anything to meet what they see as the needs of their market. The question is whether our society is capable of a mature debate about what we want our schools to be like, how far they should be the same and what kinds of differences are acceptable