March 19 2000
It was said to be the most important speech that David Blunkett had made as education secretary. The minister announced last week that failing schools would be transformed into "city academies" run by business sponsors, voluntary groups or the churches. These academies would have a revolutionary freedom to draw up their own blueprint for educational success.
Drastic action is certainly required. In the week before Blunkett's speech, his "Fresh Start" policy imploded when three "superheads", the alleged miracle-workers drafted in to turn round failing schools, resigned.
This was even more embarrassing since the prime minister's education policy adviser, Andrew Adonis, was a governor of the flagship Islington Arts and Media School whose superhead, Torsten Friedag, was one of the three who gave up the struggle.
The resignations demonstrated that giving schools a specialist focus was not enough. There is no doubt that the government's policy of not excluding disruptive children, endorsed again by Blunkett last week, helped to make these ones ungovernable.
Fresh Start is now to get a fresh start. Revolutions are two a penny in the education department. But education "action zones", superheads and hit squads for failing education authorities have all stuck in the same rut. None has given schools independence from often malign education authority control - a prerequisite for success.
So is the new city academy idea just another greasepaint revolution? Well, for Labour, this is potentially a very radical departure indeed. The scheme is a rerun of city technology colleges (CTCs), the Tory innovation under which businesses started up or took over weak schools. It turned out to be astonishingly successful. The reasons for their success are precisely why the Labour party so bitterly resisted them.
They were independent of local authority control. They had more freedom even than grant-maintained schools. They had an ethos of drive and achievement associated with despised and grubby Mammon. Godly education authorities, by contrast, were sacrosanct, although they systematically rob schools of money earmarked for education, stifle initiative and reinforce a culture of low expectations.
Blunkett is going down the CTC road. He is attempting to create independent schools within the state sector, by-passing education authorities altogether. Unlike his other initiatives, the significance of this should not be underestimated. It breaks a mindset; and for Labour, the party of symbolism, sentimentality and self-delusion, the mindset is often the message.
Yet in the real world the limitations of the policy are apparent. There are about 430 failing schools, of which 100 still have not managed to turn themselves round within the government's two-year deadline. Yet Blunkett envisages only 5-10 academies being created during the next year.
Look to the prototype for explanation. Only 15 CTCs were created because business was not prepared to stump up the huge sums necessary. It is encouraging that Peter Vardy, the millionaire car retailer, has already promised £12m to build or convert six schools into academies. Yet the prospect of enough philanthropically minded entrepreneurs to rescue all failing schools is remote.
The government hopes that churches and charities will fill the gap. They will not set up CTC clones, however, but voluntary-aided or foundation schools which will remain within the education authority ambit. Too many church schools themselves display the same weak pedagogical grasp that characterises our general educational malaise. Still, people say, the churches can only improve on the record of direct council control.
There is a dangerous fallacy in this debate. Of course, the worst schools need the most urgent help. Yet directing attention at these underestimates the dimensions of our educational disaster. Most of our education is of too low a standard. Despite the ferocious reputation of Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, Ofsted persistently paints too complacent a picture.
Standards it judges to be adequate are often inadequate. That is why so many children still cannot write a literate job application; that is why so many undergraduates are doing remedial work in languages or maths. Many schools not deemed to be failing are pretty hopeless.
Assumptions behind education policy have ruined our examination and university systems and made the measurement of attainment meaningless. Most of the educational establishment still subscribes to a flabby and deluded orthodoxy.
This was on display at the same Social Market Foundation conference where Blunkett made his speech. A fatuous remark by a union leader that the emphasis on literacy and numeracy was thwarting creativity drew murmurs of approval.
Carol Adams, head of the General Teaching Council which is supposed to jack up teachers' professionalism, dismissed concerns about educational failure, declared she would "do battle with Ofsted" and said she wanted "artistry back in the classroom". A government that professes concern for standards, yet appoints such a person, does not have a clue.
Similarly, its exclusions policy illustrates how the government keeps getting it wrong. No doubt some children are wrongly excluded by teachers who cannot do the job. Some schools handle disruptive children very much better than others.
Yet a small minority of children do need alternative provision, either in special units run by the school or in specialist institutions. Such provision can be made only by a government that does not cling to the dogma that all children must be educated together.
Getting decisions right about exclusions, like so much else, ultimately boils down to the quality of the head teacher. How do we get more good ones?
The National College for School Leadership, which is designed to train them, seems unlikely to crack this problem, since the education department has appointed Heather du Quesnay to run it. She ran two unsuccessful education authorities, Hertfordshire and Lambeth, and was never a head teacher.
Heads must learn their craft not from managerial courses but from inspirational heads. Teachers must be taught by excellent classroom teachers. To get good teachers and heads, it is essential for teacher training to be taken out of our inadequate teacher training institutions and rooted in our best schools. Then heads must be given independence, as well as support and time to make a difference.
Blunkett claims that his new policy is entirely pragmatic. In fact, this is an initiative by a frustrated but timid Downing Street. It is too fearful of the reaction to go any further. It hopes that the success of the academies will create a momentum for widespread school independence. Experience tells us, however, that education needs clear leadership.
We already know that the CTCs work - and why. How many more thousands of children are going to have their life chances ruined while the rest of the nation waits for Labour to tiptoe around its prejudices?