‘The condition of Britain’s state schooling is pretty much on a par as a national peril with a campaign of dirty bombs.’ So writes Telegraph columnist Janet Daley, in an article so incredibly backwards, misleading and just plain wrong that it’s incredible the Telegraph saw it fit for publication. Daley seems to be comparing the state system of education to a national terrorist attack. Such a claim is insulting to thousands of hard working teachers and pupils – it doesn’t take a state education to work that out. Daley hasn’t sent her own children through the state system, so can hardly be seen as an expert as to its current state, but nevertheless, her claims should be scrutinised.
So why does she compare the state system to a serious national terrorist threat? This is her argument why the Education secretary Michael Gove’s attempt to ram the Academies Bill through parliament by utilising an emergency process used for some terrorist legislation is an acceptable one. The bill, she argues, is so important to fix the terrible state of our education system that we shouldn’t debate it thoroughly in parliament, we should just all agree it’s the right thing to do. But any legislation representing such a radical change to public services (and indeed, Daley herself enthuses that it’s a ‘revolutionary’ bill) should surely be subject to full and proper debate and scrutiny? Surely we should make sure that it really will make for a better system? Breathtakingly, Daley even has the audacity to claim that Labour, by calling for a full debate, is somehow ‘hoping to avoid excessive discussion of the ultimate intent and importance of the reforms’. Take a moment to square that in your head. By calling for the bill to be discussed fully, Labour is apparently attempting to avoid discussing it. The illogicality is incredible. The attempt to avoid debate makes a mockery of the supposed ‘new politics’ that the coalition government was trumpeting after the election. Such an approach was about cooperation, openness and transparency. Apparently, the ‘new politics’ is also about rushing through massive changes to public services using measures for emergency legislation without proper scrutiny.
Daley also argues that Academies will be free from ‘monolithic local authority control’, which is thoroughly misleading. Gove himself has already had to apologise for making a similar claim (amongst his other apologies), after local authorities pointed out that they do not run schools at all and haven’t for years. Instead, they do things like providing SEN (special educational needs) support to schools, which the schools would otherwise have to spend more money to do independently. In any case, wasn’t it a key plank of the coalition government’s ‘new politics’ for increased local control? But how can this be reconciled with the removal of local authorities from providing support and oversight of schools? And how can the claims of decentralisation be squared with the fact that the new bill would make Gove in sole charge of approving new academies? Wouldn’t that be rather similar to the ‘autocratic control’ that Daley claims Ed Balls, Gove’s predecessor, supposedly had?
Instead, Daley claims that under the new model of ‘independent but free’ schools, improvements are ‘inevitable’. This is ultimately the key question. If this is true, then criticisms of process aside, the bill itself is vindicated. Unfortunately, it is immediately clear that improvements are not inevitable, and any improvements we do see should not necessarily be taken at face value. Firstly, since the Academies programme isn’t new, there has already been time to see whether Academy status is beneficial to all schools who convert. The answer is no – the statistics improve at some schools, but are by no means guaranteed, and some schools who have converted to academies have got worse. Secondly, improved statistics do not mean an improved education. It has recently been discovered that academies enter students for more vocational qualifications than other schools, enabling them to ramp up their number of passes because such qualifications tend to be multiple awards. Thirdly, Gove’s bill prioritises the conversion of schools already deemed ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted. Forgive me for asking, but if these schools are already outstanding, then wouldn’t it be better to leave them to get on with it and avoid meddling? And how can this bill fix our supposedly failing education system if it targets the best performing schools? Daley asks – ‘How on earth can any Labour spokesman have the front to claim that the Gove reforms will create “educational apartheid”?’ The answer to this is simple – targeting more resources on the best performing schools will not help the others, and will therefore lead to greater polarisation. Flawed as Labour’s Academies programme was, it had the one merit of targeting the schools that really needed help.
Daley argues that this reform is needed because the current system is ‘not even managing to provide basic literacy on any sort of reliable basis’. Perhaps she has been reading too many tabloid stories, or failing to read beyond apocalyptic headlines on performance, because she won’t find much evidence for her claims. Many articles do claim whenever SATs results come out that they show how Britain’s children are leaving school unable to read, write and add up, and presumably this is the basis she is using for her argument. However, as Mike Baker has written, such an approach is yet again misleading. When the statistics are interpreted properly, it turns out that 80% of children ARE reaching the expected level in English SATs tests before they leave primary school. If this is what she is thinking of when she makes her claim, she hasn’t been thinking that carefully – it’s an ever greater generalisation of what is already a serious misconception, since she applies it to the entirety of the state system, secondary schools included.
One good point that Daley makes is that Gove’s approach is the logical conclusion of Labour’s own Academies programme. We know that Blair envisioned a similar law. But I do not defend Labour’s programme. It suffers most of the same problems that this law does. Academies are, I will cautiously claim, dangerous, because they are less accountable than community schools, and to pass this bill will not only be damaging to our education system, it doesn’t even tally with the purported aims and desires of the coalition government.
I could go on, because the sheer number of inaccurate, unfair or misleading claims in Daley’s article is enormous, and the sheer number of criticisms of the Academies programme I could make would make this article stupefyingly long. But that will come later.
Oh and before you ask about my credentials in offering a critique of Academies, I went to a City Technology College, which is now an Academy. In practice they are virtually the same, and I am well aware of the problems these schools result in – I’ll come onto that in a later article.