What’s Happening to Education?

By Ed

13 July 2010

Here’s a brief interview with journalist and historian Francis Beckett about education policy under the new government:

Two prominent policies of the new government are those of free schools and the ‘pupil premium’. On the one hand, the free schools program is presented as having some similar benefits to academies, but in a more radical way – schools will be created that will spring from the initiative of independent and creative teachers and parents, and will not suffer from the constraints of bureaucracy. At the same time, the pupil premium, which will guarantee extra money for students from poorer families, is argued to promote social justice. What is your view of these policies and their justifications?

I don’t want to say a huge amount about the pupil premium. It’s not an intrinsically bad idea, but it does seem to rely on schools having greater control over their intake, and that is intrinsically a bad idea, especially with the increase in powers of pupil selection that schools are likely to be given under the new government. The idea that a school can manipulate its intake - so many clever children to give a high profile, so many disadvantaged ones to bring in extra government dosh - means schools are being run for their own convenience rather than that of the communities they serve - which is of course at the heart of my objection to academies and free schools.

The argument that the free school programme will spring from the initative of teachers and parents is a fraud, because in the next breath ministers make it entirely clear that teachers and parents will not run them. They will be run by the usual suspects – the educational consultancies, the churches, the religious front organisations, the private companies – who will take absolute control, in exactly the way they have done with academies – that is the central argument against academies which you will find in my book. Academies have always squeezed teachers and parents out – they used to have a powerful voice on governing bodies, but no longer. See my book, The Great City Academy Fraud.

The Nuffield Review, carried out over six years from 2003 to 2009, argued that 14-19 education has become infected by “an Orwellian language of measurable ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’, ‘performance indicators’ and ‘audits’, ‘targets’ and ‘curriculum delivery’, ‘customers’ and ‘deliverers’, ‘efficiency gains’ and ‘bottom lines’”. Do you think that the growth of such corporate-speak in education is significant, and reflects broader shifts in government attitudes to education?

David Willetts had been higher education minister ever since the election and has yet to say anything about any sort of higher, further or adult education that is not concerned with training for employment. The idea of education as a good in itself has been lost.

Should the left still commit itself to the comprehensive ideal of a ‘good local school’ for every pupil, in a state-run system free from selection and any trace of marketisation? More generally, what are the key reforms needed in order to bring us closer to a just, democratic education system that appropriately serves the interests of young people, education workers and society in general?

Answer to your first question is yes, and answer to the second question follows from that.

How well placed are the teaching unions to challenge government policy and fight for a better education system? More generally, what do you think a successful strategy of the left regarding education would look like?

I don’t see a lot of hope anywhere except the teaching unions. They have their faults but no one else offer the experience of the classroom teacher as a rock upon which to build policy. The objective is the one outlined in your previous question. Achieving it is not going to be easy: before the election the two main parties were, in effect, both enemies of the idea of a free, egalitarian, non-selective state education system, and the Liberal party seems to have joined them. It is not going to happen tomorrow. Neither, in my view, is the traditional union method of industrial action going to be the means by which is happens. It will be a long process of changing the centre of political gravity, and the unions should commit more time and money and thought to the business of campaigning for it.

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