In the Labour peer’s vision for the state sector the academies and free schools rollout goes on, regardless of vested interests
At a fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrat conference in Liverpool two years ago, the Guardian pitted two of the brainiest men in British politics against one another to debate the state of the nation. Andrew Adonis, Labour policy guru turned ennobled transport secretary, and Chris Huhne, former Guardian leader writer turned Cameron coalition cabinet minister, duly combined to deliver a memorable jousting session.
But the most treasurable moment of their sparky debate came when Adonis responded to a characteristically uncompromising set of economic assertions by Huhne with this wonderfully withering assessment of his former SDP comrade. “I’ve known Chris for 30 years,” he said, “and I just wish I could ever be as confident about anything in politics as Chris always is about everything.”
It’s a great line. Yet anyone reading Adonis’s new book on the state of the English education system will see he has rediscovered his confidence in abundance. Adonis’s book, predictably titled Education, Education, Education, is a blazing polemic. It takes no prisoners. Yes, it occasionally airbrushes inconvenient counter-examples out of the picture in its onward rush. But it is an exhilaratingly unapologetic, well-sourced, highly readable and generally persuasive account of why the late-20th century English schools system had to be reinvented, has largely been reinvented, but still needs to be reinvented further. Read it.
The single most striking thing about Adonis’s insider’s account of the launch of academy schools by the Blair government, and of their linear development in Michael Gove’s free schools since the coalition took office in 2010, is that it describes what has now become a fait accompli. It is a mere decade since the first academy schools – independent state schools managed by private sponsors and accountable to national rather than local government – were established. Yet last week, at the start of the new school year, the Department for Education was able to announce that there are now 2,309 of them, representing more than half of the secondary schools in England. More than 2,000 of the total have been opened since 2010.
So the independent state school model is here to stay. And more than that. The independent state school is now the dominant form of secondary education in England, and likely to become more so, as other schools join or are created, and as the new template advances into primary education too. It won’t become universal in public education, any more than the comprehensive system became universal, either – and it remains strongly resisted in Wales – but the revolution made by Adonis and Gove seems irreversible for the foreseeable future. Get used to it.
The reasons why the system had to change – the overwhelming educational inadequacy of so many comprehensives based on the old secondary moderns, the lack of expectations and discipline within so many failing schools, the rigidity of the idea that every school had to be the same (even when they weren’t), the resistance to reform of the bureaucratic and professional vested interests (summed up in John Prescott’s complaint that if you set up a new school and it was a good one then people would want to go to it), and the reality that the failure of the comprehensive system in practice was widening, not narrowing, the gulf between the public sector and the socially dominant private schools – are all lucidly set out by Adonis.
It’s a humbling story, not least for the too many who, for whatever reasons, stopped thinking about the failures of the school system and were reluctant to embrace the need for radical change when the argument in the Labour government was at its fiercest. Echoes, there, of a wider Labour collective failure on public service reform that remains unresolved, partly because of union pressure. But what is clear now is that change in the school system has prevailed. There at least, largely due to Gove, the battle is won. Even one of Adonis’s biggest critics, Fiona Millar, seemed to acknowledge that fact this week when she wrote “we are where we are”. That’s not a perfect place, as examples like the eleventh-hour aborted launch of a Bradford free school, highlighted in the Guardian this week, all too obviously show. But sceptics should beware of appearing to will the system to fail.
The overall track record of academies is so clearly successful that it becomes perversely reactionary to focus on the failures, albeit genuine ones. When groups like the New Schools Network or the Future Leaders trust can show that academy results are still improving at 8% a year, or when Teach First partner schools can claim that their results are improving at twice the national rate, a certain openness to the facts should be the order of the day. This is less left-right than reform versus the status quo.
Naturally there must be caveats. Overall rates hide individual patchiness, and the more schools become academies or free schools the greater the likelihood that overall score improvements will slow. Managing so many schools from the centre will strain resources and credibility, as Matthew Taylor, a more sceptical Blairite than Adonis, has pointed out. Local accountability, not to be confused with local authority management, remains ramshackle. And schools are always about more than grades – though tell that to parents, please.
In the end, though, and with all these proper caveats, Adonis and Gove are essentially right. Academies and free schools are boosting innovation, providing choice, giving parents a voice, empowering teachers and, crucially, tackling disadvantage – not perfectly, but better than the old system did. They do so, what is more, within the public state system, not outside it, and put greater pressure on the private schools. When Gove recently said the government wants to close the achievement gap between the rich and the poor, I do not think he was lying.
And it is clear from Adonis’s book that he wants the job finished. In two years’ time, if Labour returns to power, either he or Stephen Twigg may get that chance. Adonis says he knows from experience that an incoming government must have a fully prepared plan, and not just in education. In 2015, after all, the electorate won’t cut Labour the slack to work things out the way they did in 1997. If so, Adonis has written the education plan in his book. His sights are set on a radical renovation of teacher training, based in the best universities and schools, not lower status colleges. Will it work? The unthinking left and the vested interests will hate it, as usual. But then just look at what Adonis has achieved so far.