How diverse should we let our school system become?

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

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4 Comments on “How diverse should we let our school system become?”

  1. David Pavett says:

    John is right to comment on (1) Gove’s insistence on letting anyone run a school, (2) that governance and accountability systems are broken, (3) the assumption that market forces acting through diverse provision and parental choice is the way to improve quality, (4) League tables are a part of the market mechanism along with specialist schools and diverse forms of governance.

    The question is, as John says, whether our society is able to have a mature debate about all this. The current “draft” documents on education in Labour’s “Policy Review” are not encouraging in this respect with their stance that the “landscape” created by Gove cannot be changed and their acceptance of points 1 to 4 above.

    Many of the things predicted by critics of the dismantling of local authority involvement through the academies revolution are now happening. The Birmingham school problems have highlighted many of the issues. Whether or not there was a “plot” is, on the broader view, irrelevant. The point is that academisation lends itself to schools being pulled in different ideological directions driven by private/sectarian interests – and this is far from being something that concerns just Muslims.

    It is true that “… all the current ideas write out of the picture real local communities and of course their elected representatives”. That is something which members of Labour’s National Policy Forum should give serious thought to when it meets in a few weeks. Will they?

    I agreed with most of Tim Brighouse’s article in the Guardian but I did not agree with his acceptance of the continuation of the role of religion in all schools and further increase in faith schools.He provided no argument for this. The encouragement of more faith schools is one of the worst legacies of the Blair government. The current situation is patently unfair in terms of religious adherence (thousands of Christian schools and just a few Muslim ones).

    I have been impressed by the number of commentaries on the Birmingham affair which have concluded that it is now time to discussing how to bring to an end the use of public money for the promotion of religious creeds by schools. Brighouse seems to fall very short of that. And yet the poll reported in the Observer this week indicates that the public is ready for this. What is needed is some leadership on this from our politicians. So far none is forthcoming. Tristram Hunt has already jumped in and declared his support for the idea of faith schools (and presumably of religion in all schools). We need a proper debate not a shoring up of the status quo. Who is going to make that possible?

  2. Terry Loane says:

    I certainly agree, John, that “governance and accountability systems are broken and need wholesale review.” And I also agree with the closing remark in David’s comment, that “we need a proper debate not a shoring up of the status quo.”

    I really liked your post, John, because of its broad historical perspective. You place recent events within the context of 35 years of educational micro-management by meddlesome politicians and their apparatchiki: the National Curriculum; OFSTED; league tables; ‘British values’ etc. etc. If it wasn’t so serious for the lives of our young people it would be entertaining watching the whole system now being torn apart by the tensions of its internal contradictions. (Academies/free schools must be free to innovate, so no National Curriculum, but if the media make politicians panic, then the politicians immediately revert to diktat. Cameron insisted last week that ALL schools should “actively promote British values”, and this week Gove outlined rules to ensure that in all new academies and free schools “pupils will only be offered two portions of deep-fried, battered and breadcrumb-coated foods each week.” Is this freedom?)

    But what I felt was missing from your post, and indeed from most current educational discourse, is consideration of how children can and should learn. Nobody seems to question the assumption that children’s education should consist of compulsory participation in teacher-directed classroom schooling for about 5 and half hours each day for about 190 days each year. Yet this traditional model of schooling is surely based on social, economic and technological factors that are completely out of date. I am no technological determinist, but the increasing availability of free high-quality learning resources on the Internet and the new communication possibilities that the Internet offers must surely cause us to examine our narrow assumptions about compulsory attendance at particular times and places.

    There are plenty of examples out there of imaginative and engaging learning environments (and not all involve new technology). I suggest we need to look at initiatives like Sugata Mitra’s ‘self-organised learning environments’, the Self Managed Learning College in Brighton, and the huge success over many decades of voluntary Saturday morning music centres. As I said in an earlier comment on the ‘Education for Everyone’ blog: “We need to have the courage to re-imagine education, to re-imagine how to create communities of discovery that can replace our existing exam factories… We should be exploring major structural and environmental change in the way young people experience learning rather than arguing about the details of accountability within existing managerialist assumptions.” I suggest that anything less is, to use David’s words, “shoring up the status quo”.

  3. David Pavett says:

    My link to The Observer does appear to work in my post above. Here is another attempt.

  4. “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.”

    Do you really mean to imply that the only reason anyone wants parents to have a choice of school is because they believe in the market? Seems to me it can be justified on the grounds of trusting parents to make better decisions for their children than bureaucrats.