UK schools are bro­ken. Only rad­i­cal ac­tion will fix them

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Melissa Benn

Even for the scep­ti­cal, the sud­den­ness and speed with which the academy schools project has fallen from pub­lic grace is re­mark­able. Af­ter years of un­crit­i­cal ac­cep­tance of of­fi­cial claims that acad­e­mies, and free schools, of­fer a near cast-iron guar­an­tee of a bet­ter-qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion, par­tic­u­larly for poorer pupils, there is now wide­spread recog­ni­tion of the drear re­al­ity: in­ad­e­quate multi-academy trusts fail­ing thou­sands of pupils, par­ents in­creas­ingly shut out of their chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion, and academy ex­ec­u­tive heads cream­ing off ex­ces­sive salaries – in some cases al­most three times higher than the prime min­is­ter – from a sys­tem per­ilously squeezed of funds.

Cri­sis can be an over­worked term in pol­i­tics, and our schools are good ex­am­ples of pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions, sub­ject to years of poor po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions, that con­tinue to do re­mark­able work. But along with the academy mess, we can add the fol­low­ing to the cur­rent charge sheet of what should be (along with the NHS) our finest pub­lic ser­vice: press­ing prob­lems with re­cruit­ment and re­ten­tion of teach­ers; rock­et­ing stress among young chil­dren and teenagers sub­ject to strin­gent test­ing and tougher pub­lic ex­ams; and the on­go­ing fund­ing cri­sis.

For those who have been closely ob­serv­ing de­vel­op­ments in ed­u­ca­tion over the years, none of this comes as much of a sur­prise. The reck­less dam­age of the coali­tion years was, af­ter all, only an ex­ag­ger­ated ver­sion of cross-party pol­icy dur­ing the pre­vi­ous two decades: cen­tral govern­ment con­trol-freak­ery al­lied to the wil­ful de­struc­tion of lo­cal govern­ment and the par­celling out of schools to untested rich and pow­er­ful in­di­vid­u­als and groups, in­clud­ing re­li­gious or­gan­i­sa­tions. From early years to higher ed­u­ca­tion, ev­ery sec­tor of our sys­tem is now in­fected with the arid vo­cab­u­lary of met­rics and the empty lingo of the mar­ket.

So what now? It is clear that the Tories have run out of ideas, bar the ex­pan­sion of gram­mars. This au­tumn, fol­low­ing wide­spread con­sul­ta­tion, the Labour party will pub­lish its ea­gerly awaited plans for a na­tional ed­u­ca­tion ser­vice, an idea that Jeremy Cor­byn has made clear he would like to see form the cen­tre­piece of any fu­ture Labour ad­min­is­tra­tion.

For the pro­gres­sive left, then, this is an im­por­tant but tricky mo­ment that re­quires two dis­tinct ap­proaches, both of which be­fit a po­ten­tial govern­ment-in-wait­ing and an avowedly rad­i­cal party.

The first is a calm, col­le­gial prag­ma­tism: ad­dress­ing the im­me­di­ate prob­lems of our sys­tem, from teacher work­load to re­form of school ac­count­abil­ity, loos­en­ing the screws on uni­ver­sity teach­ing and re­search, and prop­erly fund­ing the all-im­por­tant early years.

Here, a lit­tle po­lit­i­cal in­ven­tive­ness might not go amiss. Why not tot up the money spent on un­nec­es­sary, dam­ag­ing re­forms and an­nounce that equiv­a­lent sums will now be redi­rected to ar­eas where they are clearly needed? Bil­lions have been spent on the academy trans­fer mar­ket, failed free schools, fund­ing the shad­owy re­gional schools com­mis­sion­ers, sub­si­dis­ing pri­vate ed­u­ca­tion: in fu­ture, let’s use that kind of money to im­prove spe­cial-needs pro­vi­sion, build up adult and fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion, or send teach­ers to re­gions where it is prov­ing im­pos­si­ble to re­cruit and re­tain staff.

Stop the ex­ces­sive test­ing of pri­mary-age chil­dren and spend the money on stead­ier, less cliff-edge forms of as­sess­ment. Im­ple­ment the Head­teach­ers’ Roundtable pro­posal for a na­tional bac­calau­re­ate, an ini­tia­tive that would im­me­di­ately broaden the ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ence of ev­ery sec­ondaryage pupil, with min­i­mal dis­rup­tion. Time, too, to learn the lessons of our global neigh­bours and phase out se­lec­tion, re­form un­fair school ad­mis­sions, and bring ed­u­ca­tion back into pub­lic hands. As Lucy Cre­han shows in Clev­erLands, an ab­sorb­ing study of top-per­form­ing school sys­tems around the world, many of these – in­clud­ing Fin­land and Canada – do not se­lect or even stream un­til 15 or 16, and ed­u­ca­tion

It is time to phase out se­lec­tion, re­form un­fair school ad­mis­sions and bring ed­u­ca­tion back into pub­lic hands

is pro­vided by a mix of na­tional and lo­cal govern­ment. The re­sult is a sta­ble pub­lic ser­vice, ca­pa­ble of far greater in­no­va­tion than our own frag­mented school mar­ket.

Ex­pert or­gan­i­sa­tions and in­di­vid­u­als are al­ready con­sid­er­ing ways to un­pick the semi-pri­vati­sa­tion of our schools. These in­clude: open­ing up cur­rently un­ac­count­able academy trusts to par­ents, staff and lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties; shift­ing con­tracts cur­rently held with the sec­re­tary of state to lo­cal au­thor­i­ties; and de­sign­ing a be­spoke mech­a­nism by which schools could re­join the lo­cal ed­u­ca­tion au­thor­ity.

But there’s an even big­ger job for the pro­gres­sive left, and that is to kick­start an hon­est pub­lic de­bate about what’s re­ally wrong with English ed­u­ca­tion and how we might de­velop a bet­ter, fairer model. Such a con­ver­sa­tion would have to break with the cur­rent cross-party con­sen­sus – in re­al­ity, a stub­born si­lence – on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween se­lec­tive and pri­vate schools and the of­ten be­lea­guered state sys­tem. Let’s ditch, once and for all, the idea that the se­lec­tive schools are an in­spir­ing model for – rather than a ma­jor block to – high-qual­ity pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion, and start to talk se­ri­ously about how to cre­ate a com­mon sys­tem.

As Alex Beard ar­gues in his re­cent book Nat­u­ral Born Learn­ers: Our In­cred­i­ble Ca­pac­ity to Learn and How We Can Har­ness it, de­vel­op­ments in every­thing from ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence to neu­ro­science se­ri­ously chal­lenge once rigid ideas of abil­ity and po­ten­tial – ex­cel­lence only for the few. He re­ports on a rain­bow of ex­per­i­ments, from im­prob­a­bly fun-sound­ing Fin­nish maths lessons to Cal­i­for­nian high schools de­ploy­ing “open source” learn­ing and team­work, that are pro­duc­ing skilled, en­thu­si­as­tic stu­dents and re­spon­si­ble, ques­tion­ing cit­i­zens. Beard con­sis­tently iden­ti­fies a highly trained, highly val­ued, au­tonomous teach­ing force – an­other area in which the English sys­tem has, with de­press­ing pre­dictabil­ity, gone into re­verse, trun­cat­ing teacher ed­u­ca­tion and con­trol­ling teach­ers more tightly than badly be­haved teens.

It doesn’t have to be this way. With gen­er­ous in­vest­ment, ex­pert teach­ers and heads given room to breathe, a broad but stim­u­lat­ing cur­ricu­lum, an ac­count­abil­ity sys­tem that sup­ports rather than pun­ishes, we could move in a more en­gag­ing di­rec­tion. Much of the ground work has al­ready been laid, from early com­pre­hen­sive re­form to the dra­matic im­prove­ments to Lon­don’s schools in the 00s, through to the re­cent con­ver­sion of large parts of the Tory party to the ben­e­fits of high­qual­ity com­pre­hen­sive schools.

Any fu­ture govern­ment com­mit­ted to such an aim needs to en­gage the en­er­gies of the thou­sands of pas­sion­ate young ed­u­ca­tors, first drawn in by the academy and free school move­ment, as well as the mass of weary pro­fes­sion­als in their mid­dle years. We don’t need silent cor­ri­dors or an ob­ses­sion with league tables to make clear that schools must al­ways be places of or­der, col­lab­o­ra­tion, high ex­pec­ta­tions and con­stant en­cour­age­ment – and vi­tal hubs for lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties.I don’t un­der­es­ti­mate what a shift in sub­stance and tone these pro­pos­als rep­re­sent for the Labour party. But as Beard sug­gests, quot­ing the ge­nius of West Wing scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin, “We don’t need lit­tle changes; we need gi­gan­tic, mon­u­men­tal changes. Schools should be palaces. Com­pe­ti­tion for the best teach­ers should be fierce. They should be mak­ing six-fig­ure salaries. Schools should be in­cred­i­bly ex­pen­sive for govern­ment and ab­so­lutely free of charge to its cit­i­zens.” Not a bad place to start when build­ing a na­tional ed­u­ca­tion ser­vice for the 21st cen­tury.

• Melissa Benn is the au­thor of Life Lessons: the Case for a Na­tional Ed­u­ca­tion Ser­vice, to be pub­lished in Septem­ber

Il­lus­tra­tion: Noma Bar

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