The Tory Split on Selective Education Widens

Victoria Mill, 39 Trafalgar Street, Burnley, Lancashire BB11 1RQ
Victoria Mill in Burnley, Soon to be a Technical College for 14-19 Year Olds
Image by robert wade via Flickr

The BBC reports today that the Welsh Tories want to introduce a form of selective education in Wales.

They are not proposing to re-introduce grammar schools or the eleven-plus exam, but to have pupils allocated at 14 years old to either an academic or a vocational workstream. It is not clear yet whether the vocational pupils would be taught at separate schools.

Interestingly, the proposal bears some similarity to the “University Technical Colleges” being championed by former Conservative Education Secretary Ken Baker. They take pupils from age 14, and provide specifically a vocational- rather than academic-oriented education. They are opening in increasing numbers across Britain, including one in my own town.

The BBC points out that the current Conservative policy of opposing selective education has “caused disquiet in the Conservative party and led to the resignation of front-bencher Graham Brady in 2007″.

The BBC also mentions a recent study by the London University Insititute of Education, which shows that the abolition of grammar schools has removed an opportunity for disadvantaged youngsters to “escape” to top universities and well paid careers.

UKIP, as is well known, has been loudly in favour of selective education all along.

Meanwhile, David Cameron has made clear that he does not want selective education, trying to shut down the debate by calling its supporters “ideologically self-indulgent”.

As so often, it seems that Mr Cameron is out of touch with public opinion, out of touch with informed opinion, out of touch even with his own party, and struggling to keep up with events.

Here’s what Conservative Central Office had to say on the matter:

We don’t have an opinion on Welsh education policy because it is a devolved matter.

Well, that’s convenient.

The Tories Say They Support Education – So Let Them Start Doing What is Necessary

Education minister at Sprites Primary
Image by Regional Cabinet via Flickr

More evidence of Britain’s poor performance at Maths.

The Sutton Trust has produced a report that compares a number of countries on the basis of a common international test.

Only 1.7% of British pupils reached the highest level, compared with an OECD average of 3.1%.

Some countries were way ahead of Britain. Switzerland and Korea, the figure was 7.8%.

This matters. Maths is the foundation for excellence in most things – from engineering to economics.

The problem is partly cultural. We have this ridiculous attitude in Britain that Maths is “much too hard”, and people tell each other proudly, “Oh, no, I was never any good at Maths! My teachers were in despair.”

Being rubbish at Maths is nothing to be proud of. It is just as shameful as being rubbish at your own language, which is English for most of us in the UK.

We do have to change that national attitude and start valuing Maths. Kids who are good at it need to be encouraged – but not told they are somehow special just because they are good at Maths rather than anything else.

“Oh, wow, you got an “A” in Maths! That’s incredible! I was never any good at Maths,” is not the right thing to say to a kid. Maths, at least basic Maths, is simply a fundamental part of a decent education.

It is not just cultural though. It is part of a wider breakdown in our education system.

The report argues that England is falling down international tables because of successive failures to help the most able pupils.

It calls for bright children to be identified at the end of primary school, with their achievements and progress tracked from then on.

That used to happen of course. “Identifying bright children” used to be done by the 11+ exam. And their achievements and progress were boosted by grammar schools from that point on.

Look at this from the BBC’s report:

Brighter pupils are more likely to go to private or grammar schools rather than other state schools.

Er – wrong. Brighter pupils who go to private or grammar schools are more likely to excel. Or put it another way – brighter pupils who go to our State comprehensives are more likely to stop doing well.

The government’s response to the report? It’s all Labour’s fault:

Education Secretary Michael Gove added: “We already knew that under Labour we plummeted down the international league tables in maths.

“Now we see further evidence that they betrayed bright children from poor backgrounds.”

Well yes. So why are you continuing with that betrayal, Mr Gove?

Labour’s answer? Everything was rosy under Labour:

Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg said: “Results for all pupils, including the brightest, improved under Labour.

“While there are always improvements that could be made, gifted and talented pupils were stretched through a National Academy, targeted scholarships and a new A* grade at A-level.

“While we want to see bright pupils stretched, this can’t be at the expense of leaving some behind.”

Hard to know where to start with that one. How can a bright pupil be stretched without leaving less bright ones behind I wonder?

The NASUWT teaching union produced an even less self-aware response:

Nasuwt teaching union head Chris Keates said the tests used to draw the comparisons, and the way children prepare for them, differed between countries.

“Their conclusions raise more questions than they answer. They are not comparing like with like.

“The education systems are different…

Well, yes, Chris. The education systems in other countries aren’t run by your members.

So which of these actually supports identifying the brightest pupils at age 11 and stretching them? In other words, which supports the reintroduction of grammar schools?

Labour? You must be joking. They abolished them in the first place and remain committed to keeping them out.

The NASUWT? Don’t make me laugh.

The Conservatives maybe? Nope. They support the present law that makes it actually illegal to open new grammar schools. If your local council wants to reintroduce selective education in response to local wishes, you can forget any support for that from Mr Gove. And if you think his new Free Schools are going to be allowed to be selective, think again.

David Cameron himself called the supporters of grammar schools “ideologically self-indulgent”. I’m not sure what that means – perhaps it means thinking for yourself as opposed to following orders from Mr Cameron.

Or perhaps it means supporting UKIP, who are now the only big party that support new grammar schools.

Just Another Brick in the Wall

Michael Gove at Conservative Party Conference
Michael Gove – image by conservativeparty via Flickr

The last government announced that the school leaving age was to be raised to 18.

Well, not quite. It was going to be compulsory to be in education or training up to that age. Employers were to have a legal duty to check that 16-18 year-olds were getting training before employing them. Needless to say, that was likely to cause employers to avoid employing 16-18 year olds in the first place.

The Coalition government, when it came into office, had ample time to reverse the policy – it wasn’t due to start implementation until 2013. Instead they continued to support the whole policy of the outgoing Labour administration.

The BBC explains the reasoning behind the change thus:

Under the proposals, the process of raising the compulsory age for education and training to 18 will be completed in 2015.

It will address the high drop-out rate at the age of 16 – a measure in which England’s school system has lagged behind many other industrial countries.

In other words, instead of addressing the reasons why children drop out at 16, they are tackling it by simply making it illegal to drop out at 16.

Now Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has announced that pupils who fail to get “a good grade” in maths and English at age 16, will be forced to continue with those subjects until they do. Or until they finally escape aged 18. (Nobody seems quite sure what “a good grade” means – presumably a “C” at GCSE.)

This whole affair is quite depressing. One of the positive things for children entering sixth forms was that everyone in the class would actually want to learn.

Indeed, the teachers at my children’s school were telling the kids who were keen to go into “A” levels that the sixth form would be completely different. All the disruptive kids who had no interest in working would have left, leaving the sixth formers (and their teachers) to work in peace.

Up to age 16, the teachers would spend three quarters of their time trying to keep order in the class. After 16, suddenly they could spend near 100% actually teaching.

And the kids who actually wanted to drop out of school at 16 could go to work. Some of them would find that at work, their motivation would improve so much that they would make quite a success of their careers. Terry Leahy, who recently retired as Chief Executive of Tesco, famously started his career as a shelf-stacker. John Major, British Prime Minister in the first half of the 1990s, left school at 16.

Michael Gove probably thinks he is showing a passion for education. He is not. Our education system is in a complete mess. The root causes of that need to be tackled. So far he does done precious little.

Our schools need to be sorted out properly – which means destroying the whole stifling bureaucracy that has grown up around them. Mr Gove’s department is part of the problem, not part of the solution – which is why his Free Schools, responsible to central government rather than Local Authorities, won’t help.

The Tories have turned their backs on the foundation of new grammar schools. And all the main parties have point-blank refused to even consider the use of “education vouchers”, under which parents would be able to use State funding to help send their kids to private schools.

Our education has been undermined by successive governments for half a century. Our entire Establishment has had the strongest possible desire to destroy excellence and tear down success. The result is that our secondary schools are nearly all comprehensives. Although there are some good comprehensive schools, overall the system has been a disaster. That much we know.

We also know that there are thousands of parents who cannot quite afford to send their children to private schools, but would do so if they had those education vouchers to help them. Private schools stay stubbornly at the top of the academic league tables, and their social, cultural and spiritual provision is generally much better as well.

The sorry state of our schools is the result of half a century of socialism. Together with the welfare state, it is the main legacy of the domination of British politics by the Left since 1945.

The answer to the failure of our school system is to sort out the schools, not to use the law to keep disaffected, bored youngsters in the classroom for an extra two years.

The Onward March of Academies – Will They Make Our Schools Better?


H block and A block - Edlington Comprehensive School
Image by aldisley via Flickr

The Telegraph tells us that half of all secondary schools have converted, or are in the process of converting, to Academies.

Lord Hill, the Schools Minister, said: “In academies, head teachers – not politicians or bureaucrats – are in charge of what happens in the school. I am delighted that the majority of secondary schools in England are seizing this independence by becoming an academy.

“With greater freedoms, these state funded schools can truly meet the needs of local parents and pupils.”

Academies are schools that are funded directly from central government, rather than being funded by Local Education Authorities (a.k.a. local councils). To be more accurate, central government takes the money from local education authorities and gives it to the Academies. The Academies get a little more funding than normal State schools, but have to provide for themselves the services that local authorities provide for normal State schools.

Academies are set up with a “sponsor”, who pays a small part of the capital cost for the school. That sponsor might be a large company, a charitable organisation, or even an individual. That sponsor is supposed to take an interest in the running of the school, and has the right to appoint governors to the school governing body.

The head teachers of Academies also have more authority over the curriculum and the running of the school than head teachers of normal State schools do.

The Academy programme was set up by Tony Blair’s government, but was supported from the start by the Conservatives, and is now supported by the Liberal Democrats as well.

That in itself sets alarm bells ringing. Initiatives with cross-party support are often wrong-headed. After all, with no party opposing, the opportunity for effective political challenge to the initiative is limited, and its failings can go unremarked. What is more, such policies that are championed by successive governments often turn out to be the policies of the bureaucracy rather than the policies of elected representative government.

On the other hand, perhaps we should celebrate a political consensus on the way forward to overhaul our education system. And the opposition of teaching unions has more to do with the threat to the collective bargaining power of the unions, than it does with educational standards.

It is pretty clear that the government’s eventual aim is to abolish local education authorities. Once almost all schools have converted, and we are well on the way to that, the LEA’s will serve little useful purpose. The case for their abolition will become compelling.

There is a problem with that though. LEA’s don’t only run schools. That is the main part of their function, but not the only part. They are also responsible for the admissions system, and importantly, have the legal responsibility to provide a school place for all children. There will still be a need for that function.

I suspect, therefore, that we will see LEA’s being replaced by something like local school boards. The big danger is that those boards will be set up as subsidiaries of the Department for Education, rather than of local councils. Once that happens, they will begin to agitate for more powers over schools. They will argue that they need those powers to fulfil their duty to ensure education for all. That agitation will not be in public, where the press and the public can stand up against it. It will be done behind the scenes, in cosy chats with their fellow bureaucrats in Whitehall.

Conservatives appear to think that the end game is a system of free and independent schools, funded by grants from Whitehall based on the number of pupils they attract, and inspected by Ofsted to ensure standards,

The actual end game may well be a National Education Service, organised along exactly the same lines as the National Health Service currently is. Those local school boards would look remarkably like local health authorities do, and the Academies would look remarkably like Hospital Trusts. Our education system could well end up not only failing, but almost completely unaccountable as well, just like the NHS.

There is, of course, another way. Education vouchers have been proposed for years, and universally rubbished by the education experts who have wrecked our school system. In that system, every child gets a voucher to the value of a State education. They can spend it on a school place in a State school, in which case it covers the full cost. Or they can spend it on a private school education – in which case they would have to top up its value to the price of the private school place.

The bureaucrats don’t like that. It would bring real competition into the system and expose their own failings. The stampede of kids out of the State schools would give the lie to the idea that the people are happy with the education system that the bureaucrats have provided.

The other side of that coin is the reintroduction of grammar schools. Critics of the selective education system claim that it brands children who fail the 11-plus as “failures”, and that concentration on the grammar schools means that all the other schools become second rate.

The truth in practice is the reverse. The standards in grammar schools are extremely high – often higher even than those in private schools. Crucially, in areas where grammar schools are still retained, the presence of the grammar schools actually seems to lift the performance of the other schools. You end up with elite grammar schools, and other schools scrambling to prove that they are good enough even for bright pupils to attend.

This is true, for example, in Warwickshire, whereas in neighbouring Northamptonshire, the comprehensive schools are so poor that the local education authority took legal action to try and stop people living near the border sending their kids across to grammar schools in Warwickshire.

The Conservative Party used to believe in grammar schools, until it was hijacked by the Cameroons. In 2005, they went into the general election with a policy of “a grammar school in every town”. Today their policy is to keep the existing law, where it is illegal to open a new grammar school. David Cameron called grammar school supporters “intellectually self-indulgent”. He feels more in common with the bureaucrats who run the education system, than he does with ordinary people who can see that selective education works.

Tory Party leaders might say, “Ah yes, but we got heavily defeated in 2005, and in 2010, with the new policy, we won!”

Actually, in 2005 Michael Howard’s Tories got 31.7% of the vote, and ended up with 198 – 31% – of the seats. A fair result. In 2010, David Cameron managed 36.1% of the vote and got 306 – 47% – of the seats. Their vote was only up a little – their much better result in terms of seats was down to Britain’s rigged electoral system. There is no evidence from that result of any enthusiasm for them from the electorate.

The Tories are busy changing constituency boundaries because the current system, they say, is unfair to them – whereas the truth is that the current system with the current boundaries gave them 71 more seats than their vote share warrants!

But back to schools.

The current Academies policy, supported by the three old parties, could end up with a good system – or it could easily make things worse.

A really serious reform of our school system would include education vouchers and support for new grammar schools. And that just so happens to be the policy of UKIP, and anathema to the Tories.

The Tories Still Opposing Grammar Schools


English: Queen Mary's girls grammar school

Queen Mary’s Grammar School, Walsall - Only UKIP Want More Schools Like This

The Coalition Government is still dead set against grammar schools.

Labour have been claiming that the Tories want to expand grammar school provision.

Did the Government reply, “Yes, indeed. Grammar schools are the most excellent part of our education system and we want to expand them”?

No, they did not. They “reassured” their socialist friends that the Tory Government too is opposed to grammar schools.

The education department also restated that new grammar schools could not be opened.

“It remains illegal for any new grammar or partially selective schools to open. Admission by ability cannot be extended outside the tiny number of existing selective schools.”

Polls generally show huge support for grammar schools. But only UKIP want to expand them beyond the current 164.  (There are 3,300 Secondary Schools in England.)

As usual, it is the people – and UKIP – against the Establishment Lib-Lab-Con.

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The Problem is not the Schools – It’s the Educationalists

Which of These Would be a Typical British School?

The National Grammar Schools Association has commissioned a survey, which found that 76% of adults supported the idea of more grammar schools being built.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families responded:

“We don’t support academic selection…We want to improve all schools – that’s why we target the most deprived areas through the massively successful Academy and National Challenge programmes.”

And so the phoney war between grammar school supporters (that’s most members of the public) and comprehensive system fans (that’s most members of the education establishment) continues.

I say “phoney war” because grammar schools are not what this war is really about.

On the one side are parents. They want, of course, a good education for their children. They say they support grammar schools. But I suspect that what they really support is the grammar school ethos – in other words, good discipline, challenge for the pupils, rigour, pride in the school and a passion for excellence.

If those parents consider that under the old grammar school system, the majority of children failed the 11 plus, and were consigned to the local secondary modern, their support for grammar schools evaporates. What they really want is the opportunity for their own children to have what grammar school children have.

Britain’s grammar schools are among the few good State secondary schools in Britain – so of course parents think they want grammar schools. Really they just want good schools.

On the other side are the education establishment – the DCSF and the Local Education Authorities. The quote above from the DCSF is revealing, and typifies their attitudes.

They want to improve all schools. Therefore they are targetting the most deprived areas.

In those two sentences they reveal everything that is wrong with them. They believe that the failure of Britain’s schools is all about money, all about privilege, all about poor areas having bad schools. They believe that their proper role is social engineering, to extend the mythical privileges of children from middle class areas to the poor.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Many really poor schools are in nice areas, and vice versa. The league tables don’t show that – but that’s only because the pupils from nice areas are easier to teach, and therefore get better results in a school of a given standard.

I have visited a school in Ukraine. Ukraine, of course, was part of the old Soviet Union. The USSR failed in almost everything. But its schools were first class – and the Ukrainian school I visited still retained the legacy of that system.

This was a comprehensive school. The entry was not selective. But the discipline in that school was ferocious. The children were polite. They paid attention in class. They were quiet. They stood up when the teacher entered. And the teacher demanded, and got, hard work right through the lesson.

However, what struck me about that school was that despite this ferocious discipline, the children were happy – much happier than the kids in the average British comprehensive.

Those children will leave that school well equipped for adult life (although in Ukraine, of course, their adult life will be harder than it would be in the West).

That is what British parents really want from Britain’s schools. They want all our children to have what grammar school pupils have – the opportunity for a decent education.

Our State school system has betrayed already one generation of kids. They are now letting down a second generation.

This cannot be allowed to go on. Somehow the people who run our schools – not the teachers, but the people who currently have the power – need to be put out to grass.

Our school system is an utter failure. The answer is not a return to a mystical golden grammar school age, but the destruction of the power of the barons who run the education system.

No more programmes, no more initiatives, no more boxes to be ticked or targets to be met. The power of the DCSF and the LEAs over our schools must be broken for good.