Tough teachers, free schools and Berlin Walls
Michael Gove seemed omnipresent last week, making speeches, giving interviews, riling coalition partners, and whipping the commentariat into a flurry of opinion pieces. Much of this was kicked off by his speech last Monday at the London Academy of Excellence (LAE) in East London.
The LAE has been heralded as early evidence for the success of Gove’s free schools reform. Established in 2012, it is an academically selective sixth form college in Stratford sponsored by a group of independent schools, including Eton, Highgate School and Brighton College. The LAE made a big splash in the Sunday Times last month when six of its pupils were offered places by Oxford and Cambridge, achieving more than every school in the borough Newham, where the LAE is situated, did in the previous year combined.
I attended the speech, and enjoyed seeing inside such a successful new institution—the library’s book selection certainly belied high academic aspirations. Rather predictably, the ensuing media debate bore little resemblance to the content of Gove’s actual speech.
The Newsnight Debate
That evening, Fiona Millar (Local Schools Network), David Green (Director of Civitas) and Robert Wilne (headmaster of the LAE) were invited to discuss Gove’s speech on Newsnight. According to Fiona Millar, simply by believing many state schools can still improve, Gove declares an implacable contempt for the teaching profession—in her words he aims ‘to demonise everyone who works in the state system’. One can only assume Millar did not read Gove’s speech, which he ended by stating, ‘…today all I want to add is a simple and heartfelt thank you to the nation’s teachers for transforming state education and the lives of our children immeasurably for the better.’
Discussion then turned to ‘the blob’, the analogy used to describe the entrenched education establishment. Members of the blob like to respond to any suggestion that such an entity exists with amused confusion, implying the likes of Gove are crazed conspiracy theorists. In fact, the blob is real and was, until recently, very powerful. It has historically been populated by individuals from local authorities, university education departments, government agencies, teaching unions and the schools inspectorate. If you would like an illustrative list of 100 blob members, simply look at the signatories of the letter sent to the Independent and the Telegraph last March arguing that a knowledge-based national curriculum would harm ‘problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity’.
As the above quotation illustrates, the blob is characterised by its attachment to progressive education, something I discussed in an essay for Standpoint magazine in October. Therefore, it was highly disappointing to hear Robert Wilne, the headmaster of the LAE, dismiss the blob as ‘some construct put together by the media’. Wilne is wide off the mark. The term was not invented by the press, but was first used in Britain by Chris Woodhead, the head of Ofsted from 1994 until 2000—a man intimately familiar with the education establishment, which frequently stymied his attempts at reform. Having stepped down as Chief Inspector, Woodhead wrote in 2002, ‘my single biggest doubt about Ofsted stems from the fact that some inspectors are unwilling or unable to jettison their progressive educational views.’ Nice to know how much things change…
I was surprised not to see more understanding on Wilne’s part. The reason the free school he runs has achieved so highly is because it lies outside of the blob’s embrace: it is independent of the local authority control, can employ untrained teachers and is sponsored by a group of independent schools. The school, quite simply, would not exist were it not for Gove’s reforms.
Having denied the blob’s existence, Wilne hoisted himself by his own petard, ably demonstrating the diffusion of the blob’s ideas by referencing Jean Piaget (one of the fathers of child-centred education) and Guy Claxton (uber-trendy founder of Building Learning Power™) during the Newsnight discussion. What was it that Keynes said about ‘practical men’? As for Jeremy Paxman asking David Green whether he thinks Fiona Millar is a part of the blob, his answer was simple. ‘Yes’.
The Berlin Wall
During his speech at the LAE, Gove claimed that state schools should aim to be more like independent schools, claiming there remained a ‘Berlin Wall’ dividing the two sectors (an allusion also used by the New Statesman the previous week in a feature about independent schools). An emotive topic, this suggestion has kicked up a good deal of media comment. As I have argued elsewhere, independent schools do not thrive simply because of their increased funding and the social capital of children who attend them. They also benefit from having a broadly traditional view of education, unlike the state sector which has been buffeted by waves of progressive, child-centred ideas. It is the essential conservatism of Britain’s independent schools that has made such an internationally regarded success. See here, and here.
Wiser voices on the left recognise this. I recently read Labour MP David Lammy’s book on the 2011 riots, which addresses the issue of underperforming inner-city schools. Like fellow Labour MP Andrew Adonis, Lammy was parachuted out of London as a child with a local authority scholarship to an independent school, so he is no stranger to their qualities. Lammy writes, ‘It is the unspoken truth behind the willingness of the middle class to stretch family finances to pay for private education. Parents are not paying for better teachers, or even necessarily for better facilities. They are paying for an academically competitive peer group and a traditional ethos – one that will reinforce the character traits they have tried to encourage in their children.’
However, many still refuse to accept the idea that in terms of philosophy, independent schools are doing something right. Gove claimed that in a good education system, it would be impossible on entering a school to know whether it was of the independent or private sector. Many would see this as a noble aim, and Adonis has expressed a similar vision. Yet still Gove was hounded. Laura McInerney protested that the average independent day school fees are £11,000 a year, whilst a state school receives only £4,500 per pupil. In fact, the figures are more like £6,000, and such a difference shrinks yet further when you consider how much of an independent school’s budget is spent on bursaries and capital costs. The days when complaining of Britain’s schools being chronically underfunded are over – according to PISA we have the 8th best funded state education system in the world. Lack of money is not what is holding back our schools.
Many other commentators sought to argue that the independent school advantage has everything to do with intake, and nothing to do with approach to education. McInerney, now in the New Statesman, ridiculed the idea that there is a ‘magic sauce’ enjoyed by independent schools. Archie Bland argued in the Independent that privileged children would do just as well at state schools as they do at independent schools – a risible claim which is easy to make if you, as did Bland, attended Winchester College. In fact, research in 2005 showed that amongst the top 5% of pupils aged 11 according to their Key Stage 2 SATs, those that go to an independent school are almost guaranteed three As at A-level, whilst only a third at the same level go on to achieve three As within the state system.
In his article in the Independent, entitled ‘State schools are as good as private schools Mr Gove. Here’s the proof’, Bland’s ‘proof’ for such a claim was… wait for it… Ofsted judgements. Anyone who uses Ofsted judgements as cast iron evidence of school quality clearly knows nothing about education.
Ofsted has been in the news since the ding-dong between Gove and Wilshaw in the Sunday Times two weeks ago, and latterly the ding-dong between Gove and Sally Morgan. Much of this is political pantomime, and will blow over. The far more interesting ding-dong remains the battle being waged between Ofsted, and the self-appointed inspector of the inspectorate Old Andrew. It is extraordinary how many journalists reported on Ofsted this last week, whilst missing the real story. Wilshaw is engaged in a titanic struggle against his blobbish inspectors who, firmly wedded to progressive education, insist on marking down schools for daring to employ teacher talk at the expense of ‘active’ or ‘independent’ learning. Old Andrew is offering no let up in his heroic coverage.
One exception to the media’s inability to see the real story was Telegraph columnist and former teacher Alison Pearson. On Wednesday, she wrote a piece quoting Wilshaw’s letter to his inspectors, which stated, ‘On occasions, pupils are rightly passive rather than active recipients of learning.’ Pearson concluded, ‘Calling children the drivers of their own learning left the teacher as passenger and gave the kids too much power… Michael Gove deserves all our support in his battle against The Blob and its child-centred Blobbledegook.’
Perhaps Old Andrew’s indefatigable commitment to showing up Ofsted inspectors is finally bearing fruit in the national press. One day there will be a statue built of him.
As the week drew to a close, Tough Young Teachers crept up as a reminder of how far education reform still has to go.
This show has proved compulsive viewing. This week, we saw Claudenia, a teacher who appeared so dedicated and hopeful in the first episode, break down in tears. After being repeatedly ridiculed by her year ten class, she sobbed, ‘I’m such a looser, I don’t know what’s wrong with me… You can’t argue with 28 kids. Just to have them laugh in your face. I’m talking to a group of year ten girls, what are they, fourteen, fifteen? And I’m shaking like, what the hell?’
Later in the episode we saw a more senior member of staff shipped in to speak to the girls, but the attempt at reasoned remonstration was dismally familiar. The year ten girls walked out of the room without an inch of contrition on their face, despite having made this teacher’s life a misery. They had done something wrong. They needed to know this. Give ‘em lines.
At the end of the episode, the once sprightly Claudenia sighed, ‘I feel tired and exhausted, with not much hope… leaving does seem like a very viable option.’ These breakdowns should not be seen, as they often are, as simply par for the course for young teachers in Britain’s schools. In reality, they are a miserable experience needlessly created by senior management teams who are unwilling to establish a strict behaviour policy.
In previous episodes, I noted two teachers at one of the other schools, Harfield Academy, adopting the unfortunate idea that it is a good idea for a trainee teacher to ‘get pupils out of their seats’. I think I found out why. A montage showed the Harfield Academy banner, proudly emblazoned with the motto ‘Achievement through Active Learning’. Very blobby.
I hope these teachers do hang tough. One day conditions may improve, despite the legions of people in education who would have you believe there is no great need for change. On Thursday, Tim Stanley of the Telegraph interviewed Michael Gove for the paper’s podcast. I was pleased to hear him question Gove, quite forcefully, about his unpopularity within the profession. If there is anything that will prove the undoing of Gove’s reforms, it will be this.
However, Gove remained resolute, explaining: ‘In politics, or in any organisation, inertia is a powerful force. And if things are faltering, failing, weak, underperforming, getting organisations to change means tackling the forces that support that inertia. And that will sometimes involve the odd scrap… I believe that the type of schools that I would like to see more and more established across the country are the types of schools that the overwhelming majority of parents in this country would like to see for their children.’
I do sometimes worry that Gove’s forthright tone means he will never carry the profession. In an area such as education, passing legislation through Parliament is a fraction of the battle. Change has to occur on a cultural level, ultimately within the minds of teachers. However, Camila Cavendish was on hand to reassure me in yesterday’s Sunday Times. Despite having her own disagreements with Gove over adoption policies, she was full of praise for his education reforms. Cavendish pointed out the absurdity of those who bemoan the lack of conviction politicians in British politics, and then when we finally get a conviction politician accuse them of being stubborn and unreasonable. Such is Gove’s fate. Yet Cavendish concluded that Gove is winning, and should be seen as ‘a true liberal who is improving the life chances of a generation’.
Even the New Statesman was willing to offer Gove some praise. Their last two issues have included some thought-provoking articles on ‘the 7% problem’ in Britain – i.e. the dominance in public life of the small minority of people educated at independent schools. There was an excellent first contribution from Kynastons pater et filius, and some follow up essays from the likes of Andrew Adonis and Tony Little. In last week’s issue, the New Statesman leader unfavourably compared Gove’s strident reforms with Hunt’s ‘timidity and incoherence’. The New Statesman wrote of Gove, ‘…one is in no doubt what he stands for and what he wants. He can be wrong-headed but he has the courage of his convictions. Could one say the same of the shadow education secretary?’
Until Hunt thinks of something more interesting to say than carping on about the need to train teachers and create new levels of bureaucracy, I think the answer will remain simple. ‘No’.