All of a sudden everybody seems to be interested in schools, with the two main parties slugging it out over who can be the more Dickensian whilst a major academic review of primary education (the Cambridge Review) is briskly dismissed by the Secretary of State for being out of date because the team had the audacity to spend six years on their research rather than six minutes on Google. Politicians and journalists of all hues seem to have decided that the only things parents are interested in and the only things that make schools “good” are uniform, rigorous discipline applied to (other people’s) children, vigorous teaching of the 3 Rs and shiny new buildings. Oddly they seem to be promising to free schools and teachers from any sort of central government or local authority control whilst simultaneously banging the drum about how they intend to get a tighter grip on them. Behind all the rhetoric there is little clarity as to how schools can be freed from the red tape whilst remaining accountable to both tax payers and parents.
Fancy running a school anyone?
For the last couple of years it has been hard to open a newspaper without seeing a photo of a Labour party politician lurking in the playgrounds of Mossbourne Academy in Hackney surrounded by a rainbow nation of manically grinning young people in their Billy Bunter blazers (designed by Jasper Conran no less – see photos above). Recently the Conservatives have joined them. The so-called Opposition, rather than attacking this symbol of New Labour, has decided that Mossbourne is the best thing since the Chalet School. In his speech to the Tory conference earlier this month shadow schools minister Michael Gove praised the school’s head: first and foremost for insisting on “a proper uniform – with blazer and tie”. The Conservatives have been reported as wanting to put a “rocket booster” under the Academies programme and to “dramatically accelerate the number of academies” with the addition of all sorts of new schools run by pretty much anyone who fancies it (and presumably find someone famous to design the uniform). They are even offering £5k per child per year to anyone who will take the pesky brats off their hands.
One of Michael Gove’s favourite claims is that he will empower parents by allowing them to set up their own schools. A new charity called the New Schools Network has appeared on the scene last week, allegedly thought up over lasagna at a west London dinner party. Luckily the people round the table had a few friends in high places and managed to set up the organisation now headed by a former advisor to Boris Johnson in some nice offices in Queen Anne’s Walk. According to the Sunday Times, most of the dinner guests that night either had children who were not yet of school age or had so far only tried the private sector. But no matter! It is easy to see the attraction of taking your £5k per child and setting up a small and caring school for your own child (perhaps with an unusual blazer) modelled on something Swedish (or possibly Canadian) and “Free” (whatever that means) but I cannot be the only person who hears loud alarm bells ringing at the thought of state schools being set up and run by the sort of parents who want to set up and run schools for their own children. How long is it going to be before the majority of parents find that the only “choice” on offer is between the Academy run by the Creationists, the “Free” school run by Blair and Lucy (yes really, these are the names of the most recent contributers to the New Schools Network website), or the “sink” school with all the kids in it that no-one else can be bothered with?
Putting schools (not children) to the test
The trouble is that in all this flurry of excitement about giving parents more “choice”, both parties seem to have entirely lost sight of the need to make sure that all schools are accountable to children, parents and society as a whole. SATs and league tables are being demonised because of the destructive effect they have on children’s experience in schools but this is in part at least because the current system fails to distinguish between the need to assess children for the purposes of ensuring their individual educational needs are met and the need to assess the overall performance of children in order to allow the school to demonstrate that it is doing its job properly. The Cambridge Review makes a very clear and important distinction between testing for attainment and testing for accountablity and it is one that politicians could do with getting their heads around.
If we believe that all children are entitled to a decent education then what we need is a school system in which all children stand a decent chance of going to a decent school. Parents and society in general need to know that schools are working to roughly the same agenda and are of roughly the same standard. This year’s GCSE results show that whilst some Academies have undoubtedly produced better results than the schools they have replaced, a third are still failing to meet the government’s minimum target for GCSE results. Perhaps Blair and Lucy’s school will be exactly what we all want for our children – but how will we know?
Whose schools are they anyway?
One way to ensure that there is a degree of accountability in schools whoever is running them is to insist that users of the service (young people, their families, employers) are able to hold the service providers to account. Whatever Michael Gove says, we can safely assume that beyond the lasagna-scented streets of West London and Bristol there will not be that many parents wanting to set up and run their own schools. And anyway, you should not have to be running a public service to have some say about what it looks like and how it operates. It is simply not enough to have a few spaces (often unfilled) for parents on your governing body and to write the occasional letter to parents telling them what your have done to their children. SATs results may be of some use to schools but they tell you as a parent little about what actually goes on in the school and nothing whatsoever about how your child is doing, or will do, or whether they are getting what they need from their school.
Over and over again research shows that one of the key factors which influences success at school is the degree to which parents are engaged with their child’s schooling and it is good to see that the the government is taking steps to enable parents to do this better by improving how schools report and talk to parents. Yet many schools are at best clueless about how to get parents involved whilst others actively (albeit sometimes unwittingly) drive parents away by simultaneously bullying and patronising them. Sometimes of course parents can be the bullies and their children the aggressors. Anger and fear on both sides are not mentioned in the new Parent Guarantee but perhaps they should be since together they guarantee a dysfunctional school.
Could do better
It seems unlikely that any future government is going to tackle the thorny issue of who should be allowed to run our schools and many may question the creation of a pseudo market economy within the state school system. However, whether it be local authorities, faith groups, used car salesmen or aspirational lasagna-eating anxiety-monkeys who are running the schools of the future, it should be a requirement for all of them to demonstrate that they know what their pupils, parents and local communities think of them and to show that they are responsive to their needs. This means a major shift in the way that schools and teachers relate to the outside world. Some schools know what they have to do and are already doing it. But there are many others which have lessons to learn and really need to try harder.