The veteran educationist Sir Tim Brighouse is in an optimistic temper. This could also be a interval of “doubt and disillusion”, particularly as Covid threatens to disrupt one other college 12 months, however in his view such occasions inevitably result in change. With that in thoughts, he has simply co-authored a sweeping 600-page overview of recent education policy, with ideas he hopes will contribute to a brand new path.
Written with the curriculum knowledgeable Mick Waters, About Our Schools divides current historical past into two eras: a postwar age of “hope and optimism”, wherein lecturers have been fairly free to do what they favored, adopted by a post-Thatcher age of “markets, centralisation and managerialism”, wherein the affect of inspections and league tables turned all-pervasive and particular person ministers may resolve how expertise akin to subtraction must be taught in each classroom in England.
The language used to explain the 2 ages is so main that you possibly can be forgiven for considering Brighouse was a completely paid-up member of what the previous education secretary Michael Gove, who straddles the e-book like a malign colossus, used to dismiss as “the blob”, after a 1958 science fiction movie wherein a gelatinous life type (on this case the progressive education institution) engulfs all the things it touches.
But he’s adamant that he would match into both age. “I don’t want anyone thinking we are just romantic oldies looking back at a forgotten period,” he says. “Many good things about that postwar period were poor. Teaching wasn’t good enough and there was a less clear definition of what a good school was.
“But reforms that helped to bring improvement have been poisoned by over-emphasis on autonomy and a devil-take-the-hindmost approach. Accountability has gone too far and become punitive.”
His personal skilled life is steeped within the previous native education authority mannequin – he was chief education officer (when such issues existed) in Birmingham and Oxfordshire. He additionally led the London Challenge, arguably one of the vital profitable education initiatives of the previous three many years, and was a reformer who printed examination leads to Oxfordshire effectively earlier than they have been a nationwide actuality.
But, because the e-book painstakingly factors out, schools in England now have an excessive amount of central authorities management, an incoherent jumble of various academy chains and native authorities, exams with grading techniques designed to put in writing off a big minority of youngsters as failures, undervalued technical and vocational education, insufficient assist for kids with particular wants, and efficiency measures that incentivise unethical behaviour, specifically exclusion and “off-rolling” of essentially the most susceptible pupils.
It’s an correct and disturbing image – and must be a name to arms for anybody genuinely taken with efficient policy-making. Brighouse and Waters’ quite a few options, which vary from taxing non-public schools – to subsidise poorer youngsters’s education – to cracking down on admissions and exclusions “dirty tricks” and coaxing each college into some form of native partnership belief (which sounds suspiciously just like the mass academisation plan that needed to be ditched by the Lib-Con coalition authorities), are logical and radical – a lot so they appear unlikely to catch on, though Labour, with its present policy vacuum, would possibly take observe.
Attempting to tease out why such wise and honest policy concepts could by no means see the sunshine of day must be the query of the second. The e-book sheds mild on this, too, due to interviews with many of the education secretaries of the previous three many years, plus a handful of Ofsted chiefs.
The downside is politics. When the previous Labour prime minister Jim Callaghan made his well-known Ruskin speech in 1976 difficult the dearth of accountability in education, in impact the place to begin of reform, the secretary of state had solely three powers over schools. Today she or he has greater than 2,500.
Thousands of schools are actually run from Whitehall by way of academy chains. Little actual autonomy exists at an area degree, and each head is on the mercy of whoever is in energy and the urge for food of Downing Street for dramatic change. So a lot so, that some skilled interviewees have been reluctant to be quoted for worry of the results.
The common life span of an education secretary is simply over two years – sufficient time for a couple of “launches and logos”, in keeping with the authors – and this has inevitably led to most easily tinkering with the path of journey of their predecessors.
As the previous Labour education secretary Charles Clarke explains, “realpolitik” interferes; concepts get deserted or shoved right into a “too difficult box” to be left to a successor, who then works by way of the identical cycle. Dealing with the archaic system of grammar schools and the eleven-plus take a look at is only one instance of this.
And whereas some education secretaries – akin to Ken Baker, who ushered in an period of alternative, league tables and inspections; David Blunkett, with his drive on requirements; and Ed Balls, who widened his division’s focus to incorporate youngsters and households in addition to schools – made a tangible distinction, none actually questioned the underlying issues with the system.
Talking to them for the e-book, “very few regretted anything they had done,” says Brighouse. “Most regretted things they hadn’t done and that they didn’t have more power. While all agreed that schools should be vehicles for greater equity, equality and social mobility, a lack of agreement about the purpose of schooling makes it very hard to define what those aims actually mean in practice.”
And then there may be Michael Gove. Even although he solely answered questions from the authors in writing, and did specific remorse for the way in which he cancelled the Building Schools for the Future programme in 2010, the anecdotes of others are littered with his affect.
Whether it’s Gove’s personal assertion that “there is no such thing as a smooth revolution” (reform is by necessity untidy), or his former adviser Sam Freedman’s remorse that extra consensus was inconceivable due to Gove’s (and little doubt Dominic Cummings’s) penchant for waging a public struggle within the media, or the previous Ofsted chief inspector Michael Wilshaw recounting that Gove didn’t need native authorities inspected as a result of he needed them to “wither on the vine”, Gove’s legacy is all over the place.
It has not been a constructive one, conclude the authors. “Many people interviewed for the book hold Gove responsible for some of the fundamental problems with schooling today – the fractured system, high exclusions and unsuitable curriculum,” they write.
These are all issues Brighouse and Waters would search to deal with at a post-Covid second when individuals are craving for what they describe as a “a new educational age – a time of hope, ambition and collaboration”.
But the way to translate that craving into actual policy change? The e-book comprises a telling anecdote from Brighouse’s days because the London schools commissioner, when he was requested by the then prime minister, Tony Blair, if there was something he needed so as to add to the London Challenge prospectus.
Brighouse’s suggestion that they need to embrace one thing concerning the chaotic state of secondary college admissions within the capital was “greeted with an audible silence”, after which, he admits, he backed off the topic.
“I have no idea how often I spoke truth to power; I am not sure I did enough. I didn’t fight hard enough over admissions, and I am conscious now that I should have done more,” he says. “I have never felt that I am pleased with what I have achieved because we didn’t address admissions or exclusions and you see the results of that now in the children who are effectively forgotten by the system.”
This could clarify why, amid all of the “building back better” policy options that the e-book suggests, he immediately settles on a plan for the “open school”, a parallel model of the Open University, as his prime precedence.
The open college would construct on the pandemic’s classes about digital studying and create a nationwide digital college to assist offset drawback, embrace youngsters who’re out of faculty, and supply enhanced alternatives for all.
It would wrap round a system guided by very completely different rules from those we see in the present day: a brand new consensus on the aim of education, a nationwide cross-party fee to take a balanced 10-year view of education policy, schools being judged in teams moderately than alone, with inclusion and wellbeing incentivised in addition to examination outcomes. Naturally there could be an enhanced position for the native authorities, which might be accountable for holding the brand new partnerships to account, in impact restraining central authorities energy.
Brighouse’s optimism is rooted within the parallels he sees between the second of Callaghan’s Ruskin speech, a vital place to begin of the e-book’s journey, and in the present day. “Everyone knew something had to change but it took a decade before the ideas were shaped into the 1988 Education Act,” he says.
“Change comes from a conjunction of individuals, ideas and an environment that is conducive,” he suggests, pointing to an instance from his personal area people about how this would possibly work in apply. His spouse, Liz, has lengthy been an Oxfordshire county councillor and is now a part of the Fair Deal Alliance, a coalition cupboard of Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Greens.
In his fantasy future he sees a more in-depth alliance between the opposition events in favour of electoral reform and consensus on some large policy concepts, hopefully together with some from the e-book.
“Today feels like 1976 when Callaghan made his speech. It took time, but change came in the end and this moment feels very similar, so even if it takes five to 10 years, we will have been happy to give these ideas a push and contributed to that.”