Monday, February 09, 2009

Smashing Producer Capture


Gove tries on his new school uniform

Have we all read Cam's schools interview? He doesn't exactly pledge to send his own kids to state secondary schools, but he does pledge this:
"We've got to bust open the state monopoly on education and allow new schools to be established. It's what's happened in Sweden, in parts of America it's hugely successful in terms of making sure there's excellence, there's competition, there's innovation and new excellent schools come along. It's a big chance. It will mean some big battles with forces of resistance. Some LEAs might not like it, some of the education establishment won't like it."

He also pledges this:
"You need a standard straight away. From day one of a Conservative government I want Michael and his team to be a team of zealots when it comes to excellence and standards and rigour and discipline. There are forces in the education establishment that have to be taken on and defeated on this."

So that's choice and competition, plus a return to rigour and discipline. Hurrah!

But what's all that stuff about taking on the education establishment? As the inestimable Janet Daley points out this morning, bitter experience tells us we should hold the cheering until Cam and Gove have actually done that:

"What they will discover is what every previous bunch of politicians has discovered when they have tried to make the schools accountable to exasperated public opinion: trying to cure what is genuinely wrong with state education is like wrestling with an octopus. That infamous Education Establishment has a grip on the training of teachers, the appointment of heads, the admissions policies of schools, and the devising (and revising) of the curriculum. It is an ideological closed shop which, in spite of the rage and frustration of parents, employers, and political leaders, remains almost undaunted."

As we've blogged before, Tyler's first civil service job way back in 1973 was at the old Department of Education and Science. And he well recalls the Perm Sec explaining to us keen young graduate entrants that, throughout our careers, our main role would be to stop here-today-gone-tomorrow politicos doing anything "too crazy" (aka doing anything).

The politico in charge of the DES at the time was a certain Mrs T (no, the other one). She'd arrived three years earlier with action in mind. As Nick Timmins records in his outstanding biography of the welfare state (The Five Giants):
"Within ten minutes of arriving in Curzon Street, the new Secretary of State produced a page from an exercise book listing eighteen things she wanted done that day. 'Point one' was a new instruction to local authorities cancelling Crosland's circular and telling them they could keep their grammar schools if they wished and even open new ones... Ten days later, out came Circular 10/70...

The educational establishment from the local authorities to the unions was outraged at the lack of consultation... an anonymous columnist in the
Bow Group's journal declared Mrs Thatcher's decision bad for education and bad for the Conservative Party.

The remarkable thing is, how little difference it made... The move to comprehensive schools had its own momentum and the tide was not stemmed."

The bottom line is that even Mrs T - even with all her legendary equipment in the cojones department - was unable to prevail against the state education establishment.

So Gove and his "zealots" are going to have to gird themselves mightily for the struggle. They will need to close their ears to the torrent of abuse and non-cooperation they'll be taking (even Thatcher described her time at the DES as "terrible"). They'll need to face down strikes, and the accompanying BBC/Guardian stories about them wrecking education for millions of hard-working children. Gove can forget those cosy invites onto Newsnight Review.

But you know, despite all that, there's just a chance he'll really do it. He's not stepping out into the blue - as Cam says, these reforms have been seen to work elsewhere. And forewarned is forearmed - he knows all about the resistance he'll get from the establishment and must be preparing.

Frankly, we're a lot more concerned about Cam's sticking power than Gove's. Cam talks about confronting the education establishment, but talk is cheap. Will he still back Gove when the shells and rockets actually start coming in?

And there is one other big concern.

While we all applaud the plans for parental choice, new suppliers, headteacher control over admissions (and exclusions), and the undumbing of exam standards, why on earth do Cam and Gove think they are best placed to tell individual schools how to organise themselves?

We already know about their prescriptive approach to teaching reading (synthetic phonics - see this blog), but there's more. Cam is going to retain Labour's ban on selection by academic ability, and instead he's going to insist on "setting" within schools.

But as Janet D points out, we've had setting in comps for years, and it hasn't exactly been a miracle cure. And what does Cam know about it, anyway? Has he ever taught? Well no, but he reckons setting works at Eton:

"Eton is a very well funded school, we've got great history and all the rest of it but one of the great things about it was setting by ability in every subject. So if you were bad at maths you had the smallest class with the best teacher. That's not magic, that's common sense. It's about how you help struggling kids. It had competitive sports. It had small units."
Er... yeesss.... Except that in reality, Eton is a highly selective school. These days entry is by fiercely competitive exam and interview (well, a pint of real blue blood is still acceptable, obviously). In fact, Eton is precisely the kind of school that supporters of grammar schools want to see return in the state sector. It shouldn't be the preserve of rich bright toffs.

As JD puts it:
"Set all the schools free, Mr Cameron, and give parents the right to take their tax-funded allowance (don't call it a voucher) to whichever one they want. Then the rest – the curriculum, the teaching methodology and the educational ethos – will find its own way home."

Amen.

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