Can the Coalition achieve success in education reform where previous governments have failed?
For many decades, successive governments have proclaimed their ambition to make ‘every school a good school’. All have failed. The 1944 Act did not succeed in making real the ambition of ‘every school a good school’. Nor, sadly, have the initiatives which have followed over the next sixty years. Although the independent schools dominate still the highest jobs in some professions and sectors, the grammar schools undoubtedly did much to increase social mobility for the lucky ones of their generation after World War Two. No wonder, then, that many of them are nostalgic about the old system – forgetting that for every one lucky boy or girl who went to the grammar, there were four or more, some of them equally clever, who failed to get in, and whose access to higher education and the professions was therefore drastically reduced.
Despite the Blair triple education mantra, welcomed by all of us who care about education, the disparity between the best and the worst schools has widened markedly in the past 13 years.
Although matters were by no means perfect before, there must be a reason why things got worse for the most disadvantaged and weakest during those years. There is perhaps one clear reason; teachers were no longer trusted, and so their talents and skills were too curtailed to achieve what was expected of them. During the period when I was co-chair with Stephen Dorrell of the Conservative Policy Group for public services, we heard evidence from teachers, parents, Heads and local education officers of their frustration at the over-regulation and bureaucracy which they felt stifled the professionalism and creativity of teachers. Many also spoke of the destructive effect of both the inspection and the testing regime, which seemed to be designed to find the negative aspects of a school or teacher, rather than build on the positive.
The introduction by Labour of a programme to open academies, with increased freedom for Heads and teachers, building on the success of the City Technology Colleges of the previous Conservative government, was a welcome success. Many schools in deprived areas, where children had low achievement, were transformed. The freedoms originally planned for the academies were somewhat diluted from the original intention, however, and the Coalition government came into office determined to increase the numbers of schools becoming academies, and the freedoms they would enjoy.
The Academies Bill was one of the very first of the Coalition’s programme. It started out in the Lords, where for six separate sessions – several lasting well past 10pm – Lord Hill, the Minister in charge, led the Bill through the House and passed it safely on to the Commons. It will, I believe, be the start of a major revolution in our education system, perhaps at last moving towards ‘every school a good school’.
This Act will make possible a large number of new academies, starting with those schools deemed ‘outstanding’ by the inspection process, and then moving on to the more time-consuming task of transforming difficult schools in deprived areas into successful academies, as the City Technology Colleges had done in the 1990s. These academies will enjoy freedom from the constraints of a national curriculum, enabling teachers to gear their teaching to the needs of their pupils. They will enjoy freedom from a flawed and negative inspection regime, and will have a greater degree of financial freedom. They are, however, required to retain their current admissions policy, so avoiding academic ‘creep’ and will also fulfil their statutory obligation to cater for their share of children with special needs.
The academies will make possible a huge step forward towards improving the life chances of thousands of children. But while structural reform is a necessary condition for success in every school, it is not alone sufficient. Real improvement depends on the interaction between teacher and pupil, and no central controls can achieve that; not curricular control, not inspection and not the bureaucracy of league tables and the test result statistics on which they depend. The status, trust and confidence which government and society gives to teachers either enhances or limits their professional performance, and hence their pupils’ chance of success. This is where the last government got it so badly wrong.
The coalition has made it a central theme of their dealings with the public services to give trust and freedom to the professionals who work within the service, and whose talents make for their success or failure. I hope, profoundly, that this trust in professionals will be shown by all in government, and then generously accepted by teachers and their leaders. In this way the long-term benefit of this and future generations of all children may at last be achieved.