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Book Review: Progress in Education from New Labour’s Action Man

A long-term campaign has been conducted against comprehensive education through the mass media. It’s themes are well known: “failing comprehensives”, “falling standards”, “left-wing teachers”, “teachers’ unions”, “local authority bureaucracy” and many other negative tropes. These are all found in abundance in Andrew Adonis’s book Education, Education, Education – Reforming England’s Schools.

Adonis sees himself as pursuing an “unashamedly progressive agenda”, the core of which is the transformation of all of local authority secondary schools into Academies which he claims are the realisation of “the comprehensive ideal in practice”. His argument is that by breaking the influence of local authorities and teachers unions the way has been opened to offer high-quality education for all instead of the few.

The approach is strikingly ideological in that there is no attempt to engage with different points of view. The facts don’t matter because, for Adonis, local authorities are self-evidently a bad thing for school organisation and independent state schools are self-evidently the solution. Facts and figures are occasionally selected to bear his case out. Arguments and data which give a different picture are ignored. Anyone wanting to see the sort of hard evidence he ignores should look at the reports on the City Challenge and London Challenge programmes on the DFE and Ofsted websites respectively.

Even so, Adonis does not manage to be completely consistent. Finland is praised for its top-scoring educational achievements but Adonis fails to mention that 98% of children there attend comprehensive schools run by local authorities. The inconsistency actually breaks out into the open. Having spent almost the entire book rubbishing schools run by local authorities (comprehensives are discussed where there is “no learning”, which are “little different” from secondary moderns, where things “went badly wrong”, wich had “low standards”, and where problems were “exacerbated by hard left ideological hostility” and lots more like that). But on page 209/214 Adonis temporarily slips into a recognition of the achievement of these schools: “In the past 25 years, England has advanced from a ’30 percent system’ [pupils getting five good GCSEs] to a ’60 percent system‘.”, “England’s schools have done well to get from 30 to 60 and to narrow the gap between top and bottom.”

This spark of recognition of school achievements is buried under the anti-comprehensive rhetoric that fills most of the book. Another clear indicator of Adonis’ stance is his positive references to the US charter school movement which one-time charter school supporter Diane Ravitch has shown to be an educational disaster in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

Good schools need good teachers and Adonis makes much of this. However, the US case shows that exaggerating the transformative power of teachers can be a backhanded way of doing teachers down. What schools can achieve can never entirely overcome the social setting of the school. If teachers are made into miracle workers then when the miracles don’t happen teachers are blamed. This line of attack is clear in the US and the same theme seems to be developing here and is reflected in Adonis’ book – although, again, he is not entirely consistent.

I found particularly galling the relentless elitism of Adonis’ attitude to HE. He only ever refers positively to the “top universities” alternately Oxbridge, the Russell Group (14 universities) or the “top 30 universities”. If you happen to have got your degree somewhere else, it seems, you might as well dump it in the dustbin now.

Adonis raises a large number of issues beside his central theme of Academy schools. Some of these are important and worth discussing (e.g. his points about the exam system) while others are argued without the slightest attempt to look at evidence (e.g. his proposal to lengthen the school day and the school year, or his suggestion that teachers should have a 3-4 year probationary period). Interestingly, he gives plausible reasons for rejecting Steven Twigg’s new “middle tier” educational administration (between the government and schools). He doesn’t discuss Twigg’s proposal for Academies run by the armed forces.

English schools are being transformed at breakneck speed. More than half of England’s secondary schools have detached themselves from local authorities to become Academies. Gove’s ideological and authoritarian approach leave no room for discussion or consensus. For him individual choice exercised in an educational market is the way raise standards. This completes the work of Kenneth Baker’s 1988 Education Act which started the work of detaching schools from local authorities. Baker also set up proto-Academies in the form of City Technology Colleges. New Labour’s reforms can be seen as a bridge between Baker and Gove.

Anndrew Adonis has few words of praise for others but it he found some for both Michael Gove (e.g. “consolidating the new Academy consensus”) and Kenneth Baker (e.g. “ground breaking reforms”, “creative burst”). He is more subdued about their Labour counterparts. If you want to understand New Labour thinking on education (and nothing else has yet emerged from the Shadow Cabinet) then read this book.

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