An Element of Unfairness

Ross McKibbin on the Academies

The modern history of English secondary education begins with the 1944 Education Act, usually known as the Butler Act. It was, for better and worse, the most important piece of education legislation of the 20th century, but was expected to reform an educational system already deeply divisive and inequitable. In some ways it promoted the hopes of wartime democracy; in others it betrayed them. It raised the school-leaving age to 15 and made secondary education universal and free. It equalised the payment of teachers in all state secondary schools and devised procedures by which nearly all the religious elementary schools were incorporated into the state system. It didn’t specify what kind of secondary education local authorities should establish, and as a result they fell back on what already existed and what conventional opinion thought appropriate: grammar schools for the academically inclined, junior technical schools for those with superior technical aptitudes and secondary moderns for those of a ‘practical’ turn of mind.

In fact, the junior technical schools were soon allowed to die, largely because they were too expensive, and what emerged was a bipartite system of secondary grammar schools and secondary modern schools, between which there was no parity of esteem or resource. The secondary moderns were not as bad as their reputation, but they undoubtedly had a depressing effect on those who attended them. Failure began at the age of 11, when the great sorting-out took place. Those who passed the 11+ went to grammar schools; those who didn’t to secondary moderns. To parents ambitious for their children but who could not afford private education, failure in the 11+ was about as great a disaster as could befall a family.

The 1950s were the high point of the grammar schools. About a quarter of pupils went to them and received, on the whole, an excellent academic education. Although primarily middle-class institutions, a significant number of working-class children also attended them. For some this meant cultural liberation and social advance; for others merely social alienation. Even by this point, however, there was diminishing support for grammar schools. From the late 1940s there was pressure from the labour movement to replace them with ‘multilateral’ schools (i.e. comprehensives), largely on the grounds that the working class gained no net benefit from them. There was also significant middle-class hostility, especially from those whose children had failed the 11+ or were thought likely to do so. While most conceded that they were indeed good schools, such good, it was argued, was outweighed by the damage they did to the majority who went instead to those symbols of failure, the secondary moderns.

The 1944 Act thus left England with a state school structure that had decreasing social and political legitimacy. But the Act missed another opportunity: it left the public schools alone. They had feared the worst during the war and were themselves responsible for the appointment of a committee under Lord Fleming to consider their relationship to society and to wartime democracy. The committee’s report was feeble, though some children benefited from the scholarships set up by a few education authorities under its aegis. Doing away with the public schools, however desirable, would not have been easy. They would have been strongly defended and abolition would have meant an infringement of individual liberties – today the EU would not permit it for that reason. Yet the Labour Party’s indifference is puzzling, given these schools’ centrality to a class system Labour was supposedly committed to abolishing. Not one Labour MP supported an amendment to the 1944 Act which would have required parents to send their children to a local authority school. Few of the Labour MPs who had gone to public schools (Attlee included) showed any enthusiasm for the proposal, while for most of the remainder public schools were simply too distant to register on their ideological consciousness.

When Labour returned to office in 1964 England possessed a primary school system divided between Local Education Authority schools (the successors to the old board schools), voluntary or ‘aided’ schools (mostly Anglican or Catholic) and a comparatively small number of preparatory schools which ‘prepared’ their students for public school entrance. There were four kinds of secondary school: public, direct-grant (which received state funding from Whitehall on condition that they took a proportion of their pupils on scholarships), grammar and secondary modern.

By this time Labour was committed to comprehensive education, having accepted the argument that the bipartite structure worked against the majority of working-class children. After Anthony Crosland, the education secretary, asked LEAs to plan for a move towards a comprehensive system in 1965, the number of comprehensive schools rapidly increased (especially when Thatcher was education secretary in the early 1970s). Although LEAs were never compelled to turn their schools into comprehensives, only a few (like Kent) held out, and there was little sign of widespread opposition to the change. The comprehensives, however, simplified the system without solving the problem. The Labour Party had no clear idea how the schools should be organised: whether, for example, children should be streamed or not. (In most schools they were not.) The direct-grant schools, such as Manchester Grammar School, which had formidable academic reputations, were allowed to become independent if they wished – and most did. The public schools were again untouched and now combined social cachet with a highly publicised ability to get people into the right universities and the right jobs. The ‘postcode’ issue – the tendency of comprehensives and sixth-form colleges to become more or less desirable depending on their location – wasn’t overcome, and attempts to do anything about it (via lotteries, for instance, as recently employed in Brighton, or bussing) have excited much hostility. There was also a real element of unfairness in the whole business. The rights of the well-to-do to buy a superior education were protected, while the rights of the not well-to-do to get one gratis at a grammar school were abolished. Crosland seems to have been motivated more by a hatred of grammar schools than a love of comprehensives. (‘If it’s the last thing I do,’ he’s supposed to have said, ‘I’m going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England. And Wales and Northern Ireland.’) The fact is that the Labour Party had only the vaguest notion of what might constitute a democratic educational system.

In retrospect, what is striking is the absence among the country’s political elites of any strong ideological support for the comprehensives when they came under attack, which they soon did. In the minds of critics the comprehensives were associated with ‘progressive’ education, general slackness and the abandonment of formal standards of literacy and numeracy. Their failings were the subject of constant press attack, and these criticisms were given some respectability by James Callaghan, now prime minister, who announced in a speech in Oxford in 1976 that in his view teacher training, the curriculum, classroom practice and (by extension) the comprehensives themselves were fair game.

Even more unsympathetic to the comprehensives, the Thatcher government made some attempt to weaken them by providing alternatives. Schools were allowed to opt out of LEA control and an assisted places scheme was introduced to permit subsidised entry into public schools for children who did well in a school’s entrance exam. The government also encouraged the foundation of city technology colleges (CTCs), which were meant to be primarily technological institutions but were looking increasingly like grammar schools. Few schools, however, opted out; not many CTCs were established; and, on the whole, assisted places did not go to the clever working-class children for whom they were intended.

More important was the government’s decision to seize control of the curriculum: to determine what was taught, how it was taught and when it was taught. Here the dominant ‘market’ metaphor was useful as a way to measure ‘outputs’, to establish criteria of success or failure and to judge schools ‘objectively’ by a quasi-numerical process. This is the culture of the league table, which in the last twenty years has operated in ever more extensive and refined ways. In the area of ‘choice’ and ‘competition’ the market metaphor was less useful. In practice, the Conservatives were much more interested in discipline and authority than in choice, and their educational policies were more prescriptive than libertarian: an awkward inheritance that encumbered Tony Blair’s government from the start.

When Labour returned to office in 1997 education (as we were repeatedly told) was to be central to its programme. Though the rapid growth in the number of comprehensives had given England a closer approximation to a common education system than ever before, the system remained highly diverse and hierarchical, with independent schools at the top, followed by grammar schools, CTCs, voluntary schools, grant-maintained schools (those that had opted out of LEA control) and finally comprehensives. The assisted places scheme did not survive the change of government: the scars of the 11+ were still too raw even for New Labour. But Blair and his circle had little sympathy for the LEAs or the comprehensives, or for any of Old Labour’s modest egalitarianism. In any event, the criteria adopted as measures of educational success left little room for schools whose raison d’être was partly social democratic; and, as it turned out, the government wasn’t entirely hostile to selection.

The way the league tables were organised, when they began to be published in 1992, allowed the government to identify ‘failing’ schools: secondary schools which failed not only their students but even more, it was argued, the economy. Such schools, all comprehensives, were seen as the secondary moderns of our time, a curious twist since it was precisely these schools which were designed to rescue children from the horrors of the secondary moderns. The aim of Blair’s government was to rejig the whole system. The all-in, ‘bog standard’ comprehensive was to go, replaced by specialist schools, community schools, trust schools, foundation schools – most of which, nonetheless, were recognisably the schools they had supposedly succeeded. For Blair, the two classes of school that really mattered were the voluntary-aided schools, now usually called ‘faith’ schools, and a new type of school, the city academy.

Of the two, Gordon Brown’s government is clearly putting its money on the academies. The faith schools were a particular enthusiasm of Blair’s but are viewed with suspicion by the Labour Party as a whole. Their admirers believe they have an ‘ethos’ and an academic discipline close to those of the grammar schools. They are popular with many middle-class parents, who often get religion when they start thinking about their children’s education. But faith schools are inherently divisive: that is their function. And their admissions practices hardly square with Labour’s policies of social inclusion. In a surprisingly frank statement to the House of Commons Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families in January, the education minister, Ed Balls, made it clear that it was ‘not the policy of the government . . . to promote more faith schools’. Communities, if they wanted, might establish them but his department was not ‘leading a drive’. In this context, of course, faith schools might be decoded as Muslim schools, but even so Brown obviously does not share his predecessor’s particular enthusiasm.

The city academies are a much more serious matter. The CTCs, with their private sponsorship and independence from the LEAs, were a precedent, but it seems to have been the influence of Andrew Adonis on Blair that drove the academies forward. Adonis, who is now a minister in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and was previously in Blair’s Policy Unit, has no roots in the labour movement (which doubtless commended him to Blair) and is, if anything, a David Owenite social moderniser. His own schooling is an important part of his political personality. He went to Kingham Hill School, a boarding school for disadvantaged children, and often speaks of his debt to it: ‘I owe more than I can possibly say, or ever repay, to Kingham Hill and to those who supported me while I was there.’ The point of Kingham Hill School was to help children who might have floundered in the conventional state system. Adonis would clearly welcome more schools like it: state boarding schools providing disadvantaged children with ‘the combination of educational, residential and pastoral support where it is lacking in existing family or care settings’. In 1997, in their book A Class Act, Adonis and Stephen Pollard argued that a new ‘Super Class’ of City gents and private sector professionals was emerging and that the educational system was central to this. The middle classes were leaving the state sector while everyone else was confined to those ‘textbook’ failures, the comprehensives. Far from creating a classless society, the comprehensives were partly responsible for a new class system every bit as closed as the old one. It is from this analysis that the academies emerged: social exclusion plus failing comprehensives plus LEA inertia equals city academies.

The academies are founded on two principal tenets. First is a desire to disprove the old argument that ‘what comes in comes out’, that schools for deprived children cannot achieve good academic results. Schools do not have to capitulate to local cultures, however dysfunctional. Relative poverty or deprivation, Ed Balls said in words he might come to regret, can no longer excuse educational failure. Schools are not merely consequences of their social settings; they can modify these settings by their own efforts, can create new aspirations to replace the old defeatism. Lucy Heller of ARK Schools, which runs a number of academies, says: ‘we have high aspirations academically – high absolute as well as relative aspirations . . . We profoundly believe that we can make that difference.’ The second tenet is that failing schools can be identified; that the criteria adopted by the government (usually GCSE results) are accurate measures of failure.

The academies all have ‘sponsors’, who can be businessmen, universities, churches, or educational charities like ARK. At first, sponsors were required to stump up £2 million towards the cost of setting up the schools (£25-30m) but educational sponsors are now exempt. The sponsor(s) can nominate the majority of governors: there are usually around 13 governors, including one parent governor and one LEA governor (or more if the LEA is a co-sponsor), but the clear aim of the academies has been to keep the LEAs at arm’s length. Now that the government is finding it harder to get new sponsors it has allowed the LEAs to sponsor an increasing number of schools themselves – though the purists hold that these differ little from the LEA comprehensives whose governance and educational culture the academies were designed to replace. In them, it is the heads and the sponsors who are to give the schools their character and dynamism, not the LEAs.

All sponsors have a corporate view of schools, even if Richard Tice, chair of governors in one of the first academies, Northampton Academy, is unusual in the frankness with which he espouses the corporate model: the school as a business and the head as a CEO. All put tremendous emphasis on leadership and the vocabulary of management; it is the head teacher, they say, who really matters, and there is no doubt that for many teachers who have survived the transition from failing comprehensive to academy these heads have been lifesavers. The problem, as one of my colleagues put it, is how to institutionalise charisma, how to proceed when the pioneering generation, some of whom, like Michael Wilshaw (the head of Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney) have national standing, retires. Will their successors be equally effective?

Academies have an autonomy that is the envy of other state schools. They have only distant relations with Whitehall and the LEAs and some would like them to be even more distant. They are suspicious of the teaching unions and would like greater freedom to opt out from national salary scales and nationally negotiated terms and conditions (LEA schools of course cannot do this). Although academies are allowed more flexibility in their teaching of the national curriculum than the comprehensives, most want even more. Tice would like the role of testing, league tables and the national curriculum ‘dramatically reduced’ and is critical of the distorting effects of testing. Few involved in education would disagree.

For someone like me who went to school in the 1950s, to visit an academy is to enter familiar territory. Uniforms are not only mandatory, they concede nothing to fashion. Top buttons must be done up; definitely no trainers or baseball caps. They represent a reanglicisation of dress among students for whom American styles are (or were) de rigueur. The tone is respectful and discipline enforced. The schools would like it to be easier for them to exclude pupils and would also favour a much less protracted appeals procedure – though they are unlikely to get this since the government believes that no school should be a net beneficiary from exclusions. The academies attempt ‘small class’ teaching and are divided into sub-schools which ‘own’ their part of the institution. The government’s hope that education will be tailored to individual needs may be a vain one but that is certainly these schools’ ambition. A very close eye is kept on students’ progress, which is constantly measured against presumed norms. Those who do well are publicly recognised: photos of ‘improvers of the month’ are hung on the wall. A number of the new academies – Mossbourne, for example, whose architect was Richard Rogers – are housed in fine buildings with excellent facilities. (It is also true that in some cases they are replacing decrepit buildings which were themselves once praised for their architectural brio.)

At the moment the evidence as to the success of the academies is mixed, and there is an inevitable tendency for people to like or dislike them according to preconceptions. Once established they are clearly popular with parents: all are oversubscribed (Mossbourne had 1237 applications for 180 places in 2007), and if they provide the only way for working-class children to gain access to the environment pupils at independent schools take for granted it would be a hard-heart who denied them. The schools value their relative autonomy and believe that they are capable of rapidly mobilising certain kinds of expertise, especially business exertise, which are not available to ordinary comprehensives, and of bypassing the sluggishness of many of the LEAs. Certainly, teachers feel they have support; something not always true of LEA schools. To the extent that they are ‘traditional’ – uniforms, discipline, politeness and the public rewarding of success – this isn’t a bad thing. Much was lost as well as gained when the formal education of the 1950s was abandoned. And the academies’ willingness to take on a frequently defeatist educational culture is also no bad thing. They may be over-optimistic in their aims, but it would be surprising if they didn’t have some successes. Within the present secondary school system there is clearly a case to be made for them.

In a sense, the criticisms that are voiced are criticisms of the system itself. There has been a strong tendency in English secondary education for schools that administer their own admissions to become selective, however good the intentions and whatever the reason. The addition of yet another type of ‘own-admission’ school is very risky, and the academies from the beginning have had to live with the suggestion that they are or will inevitably become selective. The academies do not believe they are – indeed they believe they are comprehensives – and by the adoption of ‘banding’ are attempting to ensure that their intakes accurately reflect the social composition of local communities. (‘Banding’ is intended to ensure that places are given to the same number of children from each ability group as determined by an exam that all the children who apply to the school have to take.) Some, like the ARK schools, do not even select the 10 per cent of students which, as ‘specialist’ schools, they are entitled to. Moreover, the government now requires schools to be ‘socially inclusive’: they aren’t allowed to interview parents, for example, often a way of gauging social class – a recognition that, left to themselves, schools are tempted to tinker with their intake. The extent to which the academies are selective probably depends on the extent to which they are oversubscribed. The proportion of students entitled to free school meals – the conventional measure of poverty – will always be an issue. There have been reports that the proportion of FSM pupils has dropped in the new academies and it seems likely that neighbouring comprehensives have a disproportionate number of students from low-ability bands. But it’s unfair to draw too many conclusions from this at the moment.

Selection and oversubscription are related to the vexed question of parental ‘choice’. The government has insisted that parents have a right to choose a school for their child and that choice should be dominant in the framing of policies. Yet choice in education is neither physically nor arithmetically possible. Parents can express a preference, but they cannot choose, and the government is misleading them if it pretends they can. In any case, should parents have an absolute right of choice? To ask this nowadays, of course, is to take your life in your hands; but it is a reasonable question. Education is central to the way modern society organises itself and to our conception of the good society. Most parents are in no position to make such judgments; nor should we expect them to. In arranging his own children’s education Blair always insisted on his rights as a parent and that his choice was parental rather than political (i.e. social). Should anyone have those rights? The government’s uneasiness about the answer presumably lies behind its legislation on social inclusion. But if schools are to be socially inclusive that will place a further limit on parental choice – and the government is reluctant to admit this. The academies are in the middle of a political confusion they are in no position to untangle.

Then there is the question of the academies’ relationships to neighbouring comprehensives. One theory is that it’s competitive: the superior performance of the academies drives up the performance of everyone else. The other thesis is co-operative, and sees the academies raising standards all round via mutuality and shared resources. But these models can hardly operate together, and it is unclear which is preferred. And in neither case is the relationship one of equals. Both models are more likely to lead to resentment than harmony, especially as some LEA schools feel they have been denied resources in order to fund academies, and there is no doubt that more is spent per capita in the academies than in LEA schools. Once again, there is little the academies themselves can do about that.

The criteria by which schools are judged to have ‘failed’ are also suspect. The academies, though many want to be freed from the tyranny of testing and league tables, have their origins in those tables. It is their presumed accuracy as benchmarks that underlies the notion of the ‘failing’ school. This was made clear last month when Ed Balls said he would close by 2011 the 638 schools in which fewer than 30 per cent of pupils pass five A to C GCSEs, including English and Maths, if they fail to get their pass rates above that figure. That many comprehensives have in some sense ‘failed’ is undeniable, but the accuracy of the benchmarks cannot be taken for granted. Some schools cope heroically with very difficult circumstances: the proponents of academies have always underestimated just how recalcitrant local cultures can be. (Which is why, according to the government’s own figures, one third of academies are themselves ‘failing’ schools.) Many of these ‘failing’ schools have very high ‘value added’ scores, which measure the progress made by children in between tests and were intended to show the difference added by schools even when their absolute results don’t seem impressive. ‘Failing’ schools are often good at things not measurable by formal criteria – at enabling students of many different nationalities to live together more or less in peace, for example. The result is that some schools, liked by parents and Ofsted, are in danger of being closed because they do not meet the narrow criteria set by the government.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the academies is what the government most admires about them: sponsorship. Why that was thought so important is puzzling. Autonomy and effective leadership – the things most prized by the academies – can be provided within existing educational structures. The attraction must have something to do with the idea of an entrepreneurial, can-do culture, not a quality possessed, it’s thought, by the LEAs; and partly with a fondness for the idea of ‘diversity of provision’; but it must also in part derive from simple hostility to the public sector. And why are the sponsors expected to chip in £2 million, but not if they are educational charities? Although sponsors are vetted before their bids are accepted, sponsorship, especially business sponsorship, gives individuals or private institutions rights over state education that no other citizen is given. How these privileges will be used in the future no one knows (though they do not seem to be misused at the moment), but the fears expressed both within and outside the academies that sponsors might require the teaching of creationism, or another hobby-horse, suggest what might go wrong.

Then there is the question of public school sponsorship. At the same time as the government began to encourage educational institutions to act as sponsors the charity laws were changed. To keep their charitable status independent schools must show that they benefit the wider community, particularly the deprived. The actions they must take to prove this will probably not be too onerous, but one way of meeting the requirements is for such schools to act as academy sponsors. Since educational institutions are no longer required to contribute to the costs of new academies and since many public schools claim they are as poor as church mice, this is also a cheap way of discharging their charitable obligations. ‘It is their educational DNA we are seeking,’ not their money, Adonis told the Guardian. For the government this has been a heaven-sent conjunction. Adonis greeted the news that Winchester (a ‘powerhouse of academic excellence’) was to sponsor an academy as a ‘decisive moment’. This kind of language can only do the academies harm. The relationship between Winchester and any academy is about as unequal as can be imagined. Furthermore, within the English social system the public schools are as much of a problem as any failing comprehensive. Indeed, anyone who reads A Class Act could be forgiven for thinking that independent schools by their mere existence do as much harm as bog-standard comprehensives.

What will happen to the academies, what success they will have, and how that success should be defined is difficult to predict. The answer to some extent depends on how socially acceptable they become. While not as divisive as faith schools, they are nearly always contentious and the object of more or less hostile campaigns. Whether this will continue we don’t know. Many people will probably benefit from them; others, outside their walls, will probably slip further behind. They will not encourage commonality of social experience; but hardly any English school does. We can predict, however, that such is the political support they receive, they are now as permanent as anything can be in English education. Brown and Balls do not share Adonis’s utopianism, but they are no less committed to the schools than he is. The Conservatives are even more committed and there will be no nonsense from them about social inclusion. There is no longer any significant political support for a universal system of comprehensive education. In these circumstances the academies are a genuine attempt to save something from the wreckage. But they command no unanimity of opinion, and their governance is hardly defensible in a democratic society. At the same time, they are popular with many parents, and their academic culture is often superior to that of the schools they replaced.

The least damage would be done if all secondary schools became quasi-academies: schools which possessed much of the academies’ autonomy and their academic culture. But such a compromise should carry with it certain conditions. The first is the abandonment of sponsorship – notions of which are becoming increasingly preposterous and socially regressive. Nothing would be lost and everything gained. The only obstacle is the government’s distrust of LEAs and local communities. The LEAs are perfectly able to live with quasi-academies and vice versa. This is in fact the way comprehensives are evolving: towards greater autonomy and more authoritative leadership. The second is the end of grammar schools. Where they survive they are having the same effect on comprehensives as they had on secondary moderns in the 1950s. Grammar schools and failing comprehensives go hand in hand. (Kent has more than thirty ‘failing’ schools because it also has a large number of grammar schools.) Adonis’s solution to this problem – that grammar schools should in some way sponsor ‘failing’ comprehensives – is extraordinary. The third is the removal of that incubus, the league tables, which everybody (except the government) now wants. Since too many passes have already been sold, such a compromise is as close to a democratic secondary school system as we are ever likely to get.