Will education reform lead to a 21st century tripartite?

July 13, 2010 at 8:10 am | Posted in Education | 1 Comment

In The Guardian, Fiona Millar summarises what seems to be the most commonly-held nightmare scenario among critics of Michael Gove’s education reforms:

Most local areas will have a brand new school, but it will be an academy, outside the local family, with facilities that can outshine its neighbours.

Down the road will be another school, which has opted out because it is “outstanding” so almost certainly has a relatively advantaged intake. This school will enjoy more money, and many freedoms, far from the gaze of central government, which hasn’t got the capacity to enforce compliance in admissions, exclusions, special needs and taking those tricky children from the hard-to-place panel.

Around the corner will be the local free school set up by the yummy mummies and daddies, where pupils will enjoy a limited but high-status curriculum.

And then there will be the crumbling neighbours, who didn’t get BSF, doing their best with the pupils who no one else wants and sharing out the diminished pot of money left at the heart of the local authority.

The scenario Millar depicts is basically a 21st century tripartite system; free schools will be too small and exclusive to be a realistic option for most families, which will leave them with a stark choice. If they’re fortunate, they’ll get their children into ‘outstanding’, well-equipped academies which will be so over-subscribed that they can set tough admissions criteria and easily exclude those whose behaviour is disruptive.

If they aren’t so fortunate, their children will end up in a ‘bog standard’ comprehensive which is duty-bound to accept them regardless of background or ability, but which can’t attract the best teachers & students because their facilities and results pale in comparison. Thus a stratified education system is created (or sustained?) whereby parents with the most financial and cultural capital can achieve the best outcomes for their kids, at the expense of those with the least. Same as it ever was.

It must be said, of course, that Millar is hardly the most dispassionate or objective observer of our education system, and since Gove’s reforms are still in their infancy, it’s only fair to offer a few arguments in mitigation. First, Gove insists that academies will still be enouraged to offer advice and support to help ‘lesser’ schools improve their outcomes, and the Prime Minister pledged that they’ll still be obligated to accept pupils with Special Educational Needs.

In addition, the Tory/Liberal pledge of a ‘pupil premium’ is meant to encourage schools to accept poorer students by paying more per head. The governement would also insist that substandard schools won’t be allowed to waste away, and can either be taken over or closed altogether if deemed to be failing. For the coalition, the market will drive up standards across the system, but the state will ensure that no child is left behind.

As is always the case, the impact of Gove’s reforms can’t be easily measured until a few years down the line, but there are a few observations to make at the outset. First, we should avoid buying into the hype that these reforms are radical. There is nothing particularly radical about giving proven outstanding schools greater freedom or in intervening aggressively with failing schools. Indeed, rather than fixating on those at the top & bottom, a more important test is the effect on schools in the middle band; the ‘good’ and ‘satisfactory’ schools which achieve decent results but don’t add all that much value to their students’ outcomes.

These are the schools which haven’t been invited to apply for academy status and will remain tethered to a local authority which now feels less of an obligation to improve its own schools. What incentive is there for an LEA to help a ‘good’ school become ‘outstanding’ if they know that it would end up applying for academy status and detaching from the LEA mothership? Not only would that authority lose funds, but it would also create added pressure on other schools in the authority. So why would they bother?

At this stage the biggest fear about the coalition’s reforms is that a policy for improving the outcomes of all schools doesn’t seem particularly evident. Without some clear idea of how to achieve this, or limit the impact of academies ‘creaming off’ the most able students, there is a greater risk that Millar’s nightmare of a socially segregated education system turns into a reality. We could avoid a return to the 1950s.

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  1. You’re right Neil.

    The way in which these strategies are held as symbols of “freedom” is sickly, but not unbelievable, since Gove appears to be of the school of thought that states ones freedom should come at the expense of another’s. Here is this in action. Inevitably, this will spur a tripartheid.

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