Veteran educator Sir Tim Brighouse is in an optimistic mood. This can be a period of “doubt and disillusionment”, especially as Covid threatens to disrupt another school year, but in his opinion such times inevitably lead to change. With that in mind, he has just co-authored a comprehensive 600-page overview of modern education policy with proposals that he hopes will contribute in a new direction.
Written by curriculum expert Mick Waters, About Our Schools’ recent history divides into two eras: a post-war era of “hope and optimism” in which teachers were fairly free to do what they liked, followed by a post-Thatcher era of “markets” “. , centralization and managerialism ”, where the influence of inspections and league tables became all-encompassing, and individual ministers could decide how skills such as subtraction should be taught in every classroom in England.
The language used to describe the two ages is so leading that one could be forgiven for believing that Brighouse was a fully paid member of it, as former Education Secretary Michael Gove, who scribbles over the book as a malevolent colossus, used to dismiss as “the blob”, after a 1958 science fiction film in which a gelatinous way of life (in this case the progressive educational institution) engulfs everything it touches.
But he is convinced he would fit in with both ages. “I do not want anyone to think that we are just romantic old people looking back on a forgotten period,” he says. “Many good things about that post-war period were bad. The teaching was not good enough and there was a less clear definition of what a good school was.
“But reforms that helped bring about improvements have been poisoned by excessive emphasis on autonomy and a devil-take-the-back approach. Accountability has gone too far and has become punitive.”
His own professional life is permeated by the old model of local education authorities – he was head of education (when such things existed) in Birmingham and Oxfordshire. He also led the London Challenge, which is without a doubt one of the most successful educational initiatives of the last three decades, and he was a reformer who published exam results in Oxfordshire long before they became a national reality.
But, as the book carefully points out, schools in England now have too much central government control, an incoherent tangle of different academic chains and local authorities, exams with grading systems designed to write off a significant minority of children as failures, underrated technical and vocational training, inadequate support for children with special needs, and performance measures that encourage unethical behavior, especially the exclusion and “off-rolling” of the most vulnerable students.
It is an accurate and disturbing picture – and should be a call to arms for anyone who is genuinely interested in effective policy-making. Brighouse and Waters’ countless solutions, ranging from taxing private schools – to subsidizing poorer children’s education – to cracking down on admissions and exclusions “dirty tricks” and luring each school into some sort of local partnership trust (which sounds suspicious as the mass academicization plan , which had to be dropped by the Lib-Con coalition government), are logical and radical – so much so that they seem unlikely to seize, even though Labor, with its current political vacuum, may want to take note.
Trying to tease out why such sensible and just political ideas might never see the light of day should be the question of the moment. The book also illuminates this thanks to interviews with most of the education secretaries of the past three decades plus a handful of Ofsted chiefs.
The problem is politics. When former Labor Prime Minister Jim Callaghan gave his famous Ruskin speech in 1976, in which he challenged the lack of accountability in education, in fact the starting point of the reform, the Secretary of State had only three powers over the schools. Today, he or she has more than 2,500.
Thousands of schools are now run from Whitehall through academy chains. There is little real autonomy at the local level, and every head is at the mercy of the one in power and Downing Street’s appetite for dramatic change. So much so that some professional interviewees were reluctant to be quoted for fear of the consequences.
The average lifespan of an education secretary is just over two years – enough time for a few “launches and logos”, according to the authors – and this has inevitably led to most people simply tinkering with their predecessors’ travel direction.
As former Labor education secretary Charles Clarke explains, “realpolitik” interferes; ideas are abandoned or pushed into a “too heavy box” to be left to a successor, who then goes through the same cycle. Dealing with the archaic system of grammar schools and the 11-plus test is just one example of this.
And while some education secretaries – such as Ken Baker, heralded an era of elections, league tables and inspections; David Blunkett, with his drive on standards; and Ed Balls, who expanded his department’s focus to include children and families as well as schools – made a tangible difference, no one really questioned the underlying problems with the system.
When they spoke to them for the book, “very few regretted anything they had done,” Brighouse says. “Most people regretted things they had not done and that they had no more power. While everyone agreed that schools should be tools for greater equality, equality and social mobility, a lack of agreement on the purpose of schooling makes it very difficult to define what these goals actually mean in practice. “
And then there’s Michael Gove. Although he only answered questions from the authors in writing and expressed regret over the way he canceled the Building Schools for the Future program in 2010, the anecdotes of others are filled with his influence.
Whether it’s Gove’s own claim that “there is no such thing as a sliding revolution” (the reform is necessarily messy), or his former adviser Sam Freedman’s regret that more consensus was impossible because of Gove (and no doubt Dominic Cummings) hung to lead a public brawl in the media, or former Ofsted chief inspector Michael Wilshaw says Gove did not want local authorities to be inspected because he wanted them to “wither on the vine”, Gove’s legacy is everywhere.
It has not been positive, the authors conclude. “Many people interviewed for the book hold Gove responsible for some of the fundamental problems of schooling today – the fragmented system, high exclusions and inappropriate curriculum,” they write.
These are all problems that Brighouse and Waters would seek to solve in a post-Covid moment, where people long for what they describe as a “new age of education – a time of hope, ambition and cooperation”.
But how can one turn that longing into real policy change? The book contains a telling anecdote from Brighouse’s days as London Schools Commissioner, when asked by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair if there was anything he would add to the London Challenge prospect.
Brighouse’s suggestion that they include something about the chaotic state of high school admissions in the capital was “received with an audible silence,” after which, he admits, backed the subject back.
“I have no idea how often I spoke the truth to power; I’m not sure I did enough. I did not fight hard enough for hospitalizations and I am now aware that I should have done more, ”he says. “I have never felt that I am happy with what I have achieved because we did not address admissions or exclusions, and one sees the results of that now in the children who are actually being forgotten by the system.”
This may explain why, in the midst of all the “build better back” political solutions that the book proposes, he immediately decides on a plan for the “open school”, a parallel version of the open university, as his top priority.
The open school would build on the digital learning pandemic lessons and create a national virtual school to help offset disadvantages, include out-of-school children, and provide enhanced opportunities for all.
It would encompass a system governed by very different principles than those we see today: a new consensus on the purpose of schooling, a national cross-policy commission to adopt a balanced 10-year view of education policy, schools being judged in groups rather than alone , with incentives for inclusion and well-being as well as exam results. Of course, there would be a strengthened role for local authorities, which would be responsible for holding the new partnerships accountable, which in effect limits the power of the central government.
Brighouse’s optimism is rooted in the parallels he sees between the moment in Callaghan’s Ruskin speech, a crucial starting point for the book’s journey, and today. “Everyone knew something needed to change, but it took a decade before the ideas were shaped into the Education Act of 1988,” he says.
“Change comes from a mixture of individuals, ideas and an environment that is conducive,” he suggests, pointing to an example from his own community about how this can work in practice. His wife, Liz, has long been a city councilor in Oxfordshire and is now part of the Fair Deal Alliance, a coalition cabinet of Labor, Liberal Democrats and the Greens.
In his imaginary future, he sees a closer alliance between the opposition parties in favor of electoral reforms and consensus on some major political ideas, hopefully also some from the book.
“Today it feels like 1976, when Callaghan gave his speech. It took time, but the change came eventually, and this moment feels very similar, so even though it takes five to 10 years, we would like to have given these ideas a push and contributed to it. ”