Stubborn conservatism of the education left
Academies and free schools are changing British education. Michael Gove has been a powerhouse of policy since the coalition came into power, but he seems to combine this legislative hyper-activity with a rare thoughtfulness. British education may yet become something hitherto unheard of: a success story.
The most recent data from the department of education shows that GCSE results in academies are improving at more than twice the national average. This pattern has been confirmed by both PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Centre for Economic Performance at the LSE. Success stories such as Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, and Burlington Danes Academy in Hammersmith, offer an inspiring picture of how much more we can expect from our state schools. Academies are showing that the morass of mediocrity that has prevailed for decades is inexcusable.
One would think that the educational establishment would be rejoicing at these developments. But no. This Easter has been conference season for the teaching unions, and the delegates have taken to the warpath, railing against academies, free schools, teacher workload, tougher exams and anything else in danger of improving British education. Don’t let their unkempt beards and Guardian subscriptions fool you, the left-leaning teacher is one of the most reactionary animals in today’s political jungle.
Hannah Arendt observed that ‘The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.’ There was a revolution in British education during the 1960s, as comprehensive schooling and ‘progressive’ teaching methods became the unquestionable dogma of the teaching establishment. These ideas, radical fifty years ago, are today the orthodoxy in the state sector and questioning them is sure to be met with howls of indignation. The left has been at the reins of British education for half a century, and is now a bulwark to improvement.
By achieving fantastic results through bureaucratic autonomy and traditional teaching methods (strong discipline, homework, teacher led classes), academies are showing up the failures of the left-wing education establishment. As a result, it is rushing to the defensive barricades. The Anti Academies Alliance is an alphabet soup of left wing interest groups, including the TUC, NASUWT, NUT, ATL, UCU, Unison, Unite, GMB, PCS, MU and FBU. No matter how clearly it is demonstrated that academies drive up standards, the Anti Academies Alliance will oppose them. This is a purely reactionary position, clinging to the comprehensive dream not because it has been proven to work, but because it is an article of faith.
This Easter has seen the two main teaching unions, the NUT and the NASUWT, ramp up the campaign against improvements in British education. The NUT in Torquay has voted in favour of mass resistance, including more strikes, in opposition to Gove’s education policy. The slightly less left wing NASUWT has come to a similar conclusion in Birmingham, promising to step up its campaign against the ‘privatisation’ of British state schools.
Such talk of ‘privatising’ the education sector, a favourite refrain of the NUT General Secretary Christine Blower, is inflammatory nonsense. Union firebrands talk as if the sole aim of Gove’s policy is to open up the education sector to rapacious, money-making businessmen driven by nothing but the profit motive. What evidence is there to support this? One free school in Suffolk, founded by a charitable trust, which has contracted out the administration of the school to a successful Swedish public service provider called IES.
The idea that there is an insidious, fat-cat led plot to ‘privatise’ state education is a left wing fantasy, designed to make the public unthinkingly recall leftist battles of old. There is no privatisation agenda at the Department for Education, such an idea is a fabrication made to prompt tribal antipathies in people’s minds, as if it all really can be related back to Thatcher, miners and the evils of capitalism.
The academies program has been pursued because, freed from the stranglehold of LEAs, schools are more likely to improve. They have the autonomy to develop their own ethos, carve out a communal identity, and institute effective (not ideologically preferable) teaching methods. Despite being of the left, those who oppose academies and free schools do so simply because they are questioning long-established policies. In the Guardian, veteran education journalist Peter Wilby complained that ‘Gove has destroyed the foundations of the power structure that governed English education for more than a century’. He did not bother explaining what was effective about that power structure, but invoked its longevity as a defence in itself, as if it was the divine right of kings, or hereditary peers.
The left wing educational establishment is finally being made to account for its failures since their ascent in the 1960s. In their defence of the status quo, they are just as unthinking and tribal as any conservatives.