Braving the blackboard jungle

23 Nov 07
MELISSA BENN | This week, it was the turn of David Cameron and his front bench to propose radical education reforms to a media with an unquenchable thirst for mud-slinging between a weakened government and newly invigorated Opposition.

This week, it was the turn of David Cameron and his front bench to propose radical education reforms to a media with an unquenchable thirst for mud-slinging between a weakened government and newly invigorated Opposition.

To the disdain of much of the teaching profession, Cameron has suggested yet another public exam, a reading test for all six-year-olds. Shadow education secretary Michael Gove has promised 32,000 more ‘good school places’ (is there any other kind worth proposing?) targeted at disadvantaged children, largely through expanding the controversial academies programme.

It still feels a little like a political version of Alice in Wonderland to see Conservative politicians attack Labour on inequality. But Cameron’s recent policy assault is also cold calculation, and comes deliberately in the wake of two apparently damning reports on the government’s education record.

Press coverage of these studies — from Lancaster and Cambridge universities — pointed out a worrying gap between policy aspiration and achievement, particularly given the huge sums of public money involved.

However, few commentators noted that both pieces of research were set up to examine the root causes of educational success, not failure, namely the significant rise in the number of pupils getting five good GCSEs (grades A* to C) from 35% to 58% between 1992 and 2006, and apparent improvements in literacy and numeracy attainment in primary schools.

Even the government’s harshest critics had to conclude last week that there has been a genuine, if modest, improvement in children’s numeracy in recent years.

But perhaps the most damning conclusion of both studies is that government policy has actually increased the gap between the poorest and most well-off children. The Lancaster study concluded that educational resources under the specialist schools programme, led by Blair favourite Sir Cyril Taylor, appear to have been allocated ‘inefficiently and inequitably’, with most going to schools with higher proportions of better-off children.

The Cambridge study also found that the gap between the highest and lowest achievers in Britain is wider than in many other countries. Choice and diversity, it seems, have benefited those who need it least.

Such findings have not stopped centre-Right think-tanks such as Policy Exchange from jumping into the breach this week to argue, contrary to much of the evidence, that only further independence for state schools will tackle disadvantage. There is actually some subtle political manoeuvring going on here by the Tory front bench, if not Policy Exchange.

The big push on academies, and other models of schools free from local authority control, is a key part of a prolonged strategy to exploit perceived weaknesses within the Gordon Brown government.

It is clear that Brown and his allies are profoundly uneasy about academies’ cost and the long-term implications of this burgeoning semi-independent sector. The prime minister’s critics claim it is because he cannot bear to lose — or loosen — state control over such a vital part of the public sector.

But Brown understands only too well that local authority involvement is the best guarantee of genuine fairness for those who need it most.

Similarly, it is easy to see why the Opposition has attached itself with such obvious relish to the academy model. On the surface, the rhetoric around these new schools is all about boosting the chances of the urban poor but in reality, academies are paving the way for a newly segregated secondary sector.

There is growing evidence that many academies are becoming little more than exceptionally well-equipped vocational institutions, often linked to local employer need. Some schools now offer little in the way of a broad, humanist education.

In other areas, with a different constituency, and a more upmarket sponsor, these schools could easily be moulded, via the much-fêted mechanism of independence, into de facto grammars, so serving the already well-served middle class.

The potential tragedy for Labour is that time is running out and with it its chance to take the bold steps necessary to ensure Britain’s poorest children get a high-quality education.

Brown will need all his political courage to stick to his promise to increase state spending to private sector levels, and to press on

with his modest challenge to the inequities of charitable status — tax breaks worth millions every year to private schools.

Some of this week’s most effective ideas came from Nick Clegg, favourite in the Liberal Democrats’ leadership contest. He has promised to boost spending on the poorest children and cut class sizes. Sad to think that such relatively simple but powerful changes might have worked best all along.

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