“Many Blame Gove”: Education Guru explains what’s wrong with England’s schools | Educational policy
Veteran educator Sir Tim Brighouse is optimistic. This may be a time of “doubt and disillusionment”, especially as Covid threatens to disrupt another school year, but from his point of view such times inevitably lead to changes. With this in mind, he has just co-authored a comprehensive 600-page review of modern education policy, with suggestions that he hopes will help reorientate itself.
About Our Schools, co-written with curriculum expert Mick Waters, divides recent history into two eras: a post-war era of “hope and optimism” in which teachers were fairly free to do what they wanted, followed by an era of “Markets” according to Thatcher, Centralization and Managerialism, “in which the influence of inspections and rankings became ubiquitous and individual ministers could decide how skills like subtraction should be taught in every classroom in England.
So leading is the language used to describe the two ages that one might think Brighouse was a fully paid member of what former Education Secretary Michael Gove, who straddles the book like an evil colossus, dismissed as “the” hat blob ”, based on a science fiction film from 1958 in which a gelatinous form of life (in this case the further education institution) devours everything it touches.
But he firmly believes that it would fit any age. “I don’t want anyone to think we’re just romantic oldies looking back on a forgotten time,” he says. “A lot of good things in this post-war period were bad. The classes weren’t good enough and there was a less clear definition of what a good school is.
Mick Waters, former director of curriculum for the Qualifications and Curriculum Board and co-author of About Our Schools. Photo: Susannah Ireland
“But reforms that have helped improve have been poisoned by an overemphasis on autonomy and an approach that takes the devil up the bum. Accountability has gone too far and has become a punishment. “
His own professional life has been shaped by the old model of the local education authorities – he was the Chief Education Officer (when that sort of thing existed) in Birmingham and Oxfordshire. He also led the London Challenge, arguably one of the most successful educational initiatives in the past three decades, and was a reformer who published exam results in Oxfordshire long before they became a national reality.
But as the book meticulously points out, schools in England now have too much control by central government, a disjointed mess of various academy chains and local authorities, exams with grading systems designed to write off a significant minority of children as failures, undervalued technical and Vocational training, inadequate support for children with special needs, and performance measures that encourage unethical behavior, particularly the marginalization and “off-role” of the most vulnerable students.
It is an accurate and worrying picture – and should be a call to arms for anyone genuinely interested in effective policy-making. Brighouse and Waters’ numerous solutions range from taxing private schools – to subsidizing the education of poorer children – to cracking down on “dirty tricks” on admissions and exclusions and overcoming each school into some sort of local partnership trust (which is suspicious sounds like mass academization). Plan that had to be abandoned by the Lib-Con coalition government) are logical and radical – so much so that they are unlikely to prevail, although Labor, with its current political vacuum, might notice this.
Trying to find out why such reasonable and fair political ideas may never see the light of day should be a matter of the moment. The book sheds light on this, too, thanks to interviews with most of the education ministers of the last three decades and a handful of Ofsted bosses.
Former Education Minister Michael Gove announced a 2011 curriculum review for national schools. Photo: Stefan Rousseau / PA Archive / PA Images
The problem is politics. When former Labor Prime Minister Jim Callaghan made his famous 1976 Ruskin speech challenging the lack of accountability in education, the very starting point of reform, the Foreign Secretary had only three powers over schools. Today he or she has more than 2,500.
Thousands of schools are now run from Whitehall through academy chains. There is little real autonomy at the local level, and every head is at the mercy of rulers and Downing Street’s appetites for dramatic change. So much so that some professional interviewees hesitated to be quoted for fear of the consequences.
The average life expectancy of an education secretary is just over two years – enough time for a few “launches and logos”, according to the authors – and this has inevitably led to the easiest tinkering with the direction of travel of her predecessors.
As former Labor Education Minister Charles Clarke explains, “Realpolitik” intervenes; Ideas are given up or put in a “too difficult box” to be left to a successor who then works through the same cycle. Dealing with the archaic system of high schools and the 11-plus test is just one example.
And while some education secretaries – like Ken Baker, who ushered in an era of election, rankings, and inspections; David Blunkett with his pursuit of standards; and Ed Balls, who broadened his department’s focus to include children and families and schools, made a noticeable difference, none really questioning the underlying problems of the system.
Speaking to them about the book, “Very few regretted what they did,” Brighouse says. “Most regretted things that they hadn’t done and that they no longer had power. While everyone agreed that schools should be a vehicle for more justice, equality and social mobility, a lack of agreement on the purpose of schooling makes it very difficult to define what these goals actually mean in practice. “
Former Labor Education Secretary Charles Clarke: “Realpolitik interferes”. Photo: Martin Argles / The Guardian
And then there is Michael Gove. Even if he only answered questions from the authors in writing and regretted the cancellation of the “Building Schools for the Future” program in 2010, the anecdotes of others are littered with his influence.
Be it Gove’s own assertion that “there is no such thing as a smooth revolution” (reforms are bound to be messy) or the regret of former advisor Sam Freedman that more consensus based on Gove’s (and undoubtedly Dominic Cummings) preference leads to public arguing in the media or former Ofsted chief inspector Michael Wilshaw says that Gove did not want the local authorities to be inspected because he wanted them to “wither on the vine,” Gove’s legacy is omnipresent.
It was not a positive result, the authors conclude. “Many people interviewed for the book blame Gove for some of the fundamental problems facing schooling today – the fragmented system, high exclusions, and inadequate curricula,” they write.
These are all issues Brighouse and Waters would address in a post-Covid moment when people yearn for a “new age of education – a time of hope, ambition and collaboration”.
Former Ofsted boss Sir Michael Wilshaw: Gove wanted the local authorities to “wither on the vine”. Photo: Felix Clay
But how can this longing be translated into real political change? The book contains a telling anecdote from Brighouse’s days as a London school inspector when he was asked by then Prime Minister Tony Blair if he wanted to add anything to the prospectus for the London Challenge.
Brighouse’s suggestion to include something about the chaotic state of secondary school admissions in the capital was greeted “with audible silence,” after which he admits he withdrew the subject.
“I have no idea how many times I’ve told the truth to power; I’m not sure I’ve done enough. I didn’t fight hard enough for approval and now I realize that I should have done more, ”he says. “I never felt that I was satisfied with what we did because we didn’t look at approvals or exclusions, and you are now seeing the results with the children who are effectively being forgotten by the system.”
This may explain why, in the midst of all of the “building back better” policy solutions suggested in the book, he instantly places himself on a plan for the “open school,” a parallel version of the open university, as his top priority.
The open school would build on the pandemic’s teachings on digital learning and create a national virtual school to level handicap, include out-of-school children, and improve opportunities for all.
It would encompass a system that is guided by completely different principles than today: a new consensus on the purpose of school education, a bipartisan national commission for a balanced 10-year review of education policy, the assessment of schools in groups instead of alone Inclusion and Wellbeing, and Exam Results. Of course, the local authorities, who would be responsible for accountability for the new partnerships, would have a stronger role, thereby limiting the power of the central government.
Brighouse’s optimism is rooted in the parallels he sees between the moment of Callaghan’s Ruskin speech, a crucial starting point in the book’s journey, and today. “Everyone knew something had to change, but it took a decade for the ideas to flow into the Education Act of 1988,” he says.
“Change comes from a connection of individuals, ideas and a conducive environment,” he suggests, referring to an example from his own local community of how this could work in practice. His wife, Liz, has long been a County Councilor for Oxfordshire and is now a member of the Fair Deal Alliance, a coalition cabinet made up of Labor, Liberal Democrats and Greens.
In his fantasy future, he sees a closer alliance between the opposition parties in favor of electoral reform and consensus on some big political ideas, hopefully some from the book too.
“Today feels like Callaghan gave his speech in 1976. It took time, but in the end the change came and this moment feels very similar. Even if it takes five to ten years, we will gladly have pushed these ideas forward and contributed to them. “
About Our Schools by Tim Brighouse and Mick Waters will be published by Crown House on January 7, 2022