Segregation by aspiration will not improve social mobility Mr Gove.
We live in complicated times. The old Blairite, statist, mantras of ‘accountability’, ‘targets’ and ‘strategies’ are seemingly being replaced with more abstract terms like ‘autonomy’, ‘progress measures’ and ‘reading lists’. The process of conversion to academy status is now becoming a common headache for school leaders across the country. The bold and ambitious jumped in straight away and will financially benefit the most, the more cautious and agnostic are dipping their toes, consulting and doing their sums, while the weak, determinedly opposed, scared or ‘categorised’ try to pretend it isn’t happening. Many hope that it will all simply go away, or that the government will fall before they find themselves the only ‘local authority’ school in the area. It is not a leap of zealous enthusiasm so much as an exercise in weary, wary pragmatism.
Meanwhile we have the mysterious case of the missing Admissions Code. Where is it? We had anticipated and expected a draft in advance of the Education Bill’s passage through parliament but it still has yet to see the light of day. In this shifting landscape, the seasoning, garnish and wording of Gove’s ‘Admissions Code 2.0’ could be of huge importance for those schools who would like to be able to select their students a little bit more (or at least send their own kids to 'their' Free School), just as much as it may be for those schools who would like some of their ‘competition’ to be able to covertly select students a little bit less. It is possible that the code is delayed because it has become something of a political football within the coalition. There is suspicion that the government hopes to introduce it quickly and quietly, perhaps over the summer, because it will weaken the powers of local authorities to control fair catchment areas and bandings. Until we see it, speculation will remain.
Like the old ‘pick ‘n’ mix’ sweetie sections in Woolworths, such an autonomous, market driven, system offers the attraction of choice and variety. There always did seem something deliciously egalitarian about the ability to choose your own weight and selection of sweets. For the record I was, and remain, a big fan of Jelly Babies. However, even as a child I recall a strange and sad stirring of sympathy for the left over Everton mints and hard boiled sweets no one ever seemed to want to add to their bag of treats. They didn’t even look like they wanted to be picked. Gove genuinely believes in autonomy and competitive self-determinism for schools as a means of widening social mobility. He appears to favour this as a more effective means of improving the perceptions (for it is that which is important in this culture war, not empirical or research-based realities) of state schooling among the middle classes than a return to, or expansion of, outright selection.
The shocking attrition (exclusion or drop out) rates, particularly among young black males, that were recently revealed to be the price of whatever successes the much lauded, funded and admired US ‘KIPP’ school system can claim, show just what is required to allow autonomy and self determinism to be seen to succeed. ‘Free’ or ‘charter’ schools have not invented a cure for the problems free access open schooling systems in western democracies face. They have been able to divest themselves of students who don’t play ball, or who don’t accept the systems they put in place. Any school would be able to point to improved results given the power to show reluctant or recalcitrant participants the door in large numbers. They can also be seen to do more with less money for precisely the same reason: the children they exclude are expensive and require a lot of additional time and support. Hard boiled sweets.
The consequent legacy of ‘attrition’ is ugly and has to be picked up by whatever schools these rejected students wind up in. There has to remain an authority to school, or at least contain, these children as best they can. You can see why schools currently mulling academy conversion fear a future in which they find themselves fulfilling this tricky societal role. What the Govian philosophy offers is not a solution for schooling; it is about enabling segregation by aspiration. And that is a tough philosophy to try and oppose. Who wants to appear to be the enemy of aspiration? Why shouldn’t the aspirant working and middle classes be given the chance to send their children to excellent schools? Shouldn’t we applaud the progress that some children from deprived backgrounds make in such schools?
Sometimes the temptation in social policy is to become obsessed with the solution without fully understanding the problem. The need for school reform should always be driven by a relentless desire to improve standards and outcomes for the largest number of children. There can be no aim more aspirational than that. Most objective analyses of standards in UK schools over the last twenty years conclude that standards have been consistently rising in most key areas (despite the government’s persistent, deliberate and egregious misuse of PISA data in a tawdry attempt to trash the modest achievements of the Labour years). The enduring question mark over that progress and improvement is the continued belief, regardless of any serious research or inquiry which might prove otherwise, that exams are easier, grades have been inflated and that standards of teaching and student behaviour are far worse than, well...‘back in the day’.
Only a fool would try to claim that British schools are perfect. Inequalities and inadequacies persist. The continued existence of state funded faith schools skew intakes and allow covert selection to take place in many parts of the country, particularly urban centres. A few backward counties still persist with academic selection at eleven years old and, despite big improvements in recent years, too many schools are still found by Ofsted to be providing inadequate provision. Bad teachers still blight too many classrooms and the systems for removing them and for developing/sharing the best practice in teaching and learning are not robust or developed enough. This combined with the eagerness of a relentlessly negative and largely right wing media to ‘expose’ occasional examples of bad practice, poor judgement or gross misconduct and portray them as endemic and commonplace system-failures, means that those of us who see much virtue in our schools, and in the expertise and skills of our teachers, have a tough sell. Those whose ideologies have always been in favour of academic selection and in opposition to comprehensive education, or whose priorities are unashamedly elitist and self serving, have a much easier job. Their solutions, therefore, are often more attractive at first glance.
What is happening in schools at the moment is akin to a disorganised and hungry rush at the pick and mix counter. Budgets are down, redundancies are on the up, the admissions code is missing, the rhetoric from the top is often ugly and in today’s climate nobody wants to find themselves left scooping up the hard boiled sweets.
But they need us the most.