The battle for young minds

Nicky Morgan

Nicky Morgan

Headlines this week speak of further legislation to reform and improve state education.  Apparently, Nicky Morgan (who replaced Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Education) is introducing laws to allow her to send in hit squads to failing schools; to give coasting schools notice to improve or face similar treatment to failing ones and to create another 500 semi-independent free schools created by charities and parents’ groups.  It seems she is continuing the Gove formula which is a blessing.  Education has always been the domain of a variety of interest groups and this will mean a further re-positioning among those groupings.

If you go back far enough, most of primary education was provided by and largely funded by the Anglican and Roman churches.  Although the funding has largely dried up, an awful lot of primary schools continue to have a religious and, mainly Christian, connection.  I think this is a wholly good influence.  These schools seem to have an ethos that is exemplified by the appearance of their reception areas.  Religious schools will proudly display a crucifix or cross or a statue or picture of the Virgin Mary for children to pass as they enter and leave.  Pure state schools are more likely to exhibit a health & safety notice or a bland statement about equalities.  Sadly neither denominational nor non-denominational schools will display our national flag outside or a picture of our monarch inside but that seems to be a reflection of the British mentality that shuns national pride.  Personally, I don’t have a problem with the growth in Moslem schools providing their teaching reflects British values including democracy, rule under the law, women’s equality, British sovereignty and our unique sense of fair play.

Local government has also had a major role in children’s education and, for years, had responsibility for funding schools, for the allocation of children to schools, for much of the detailed management and for planning school places through new build, extension and closure.  Over the years, as in so many other areas, the power of local councils has been chipped away.  First of all a national funding formula was introduced to the extent that schools are now funded directly by central government.  Ofsted took away much of the quality control that local government used to exercise and, with academies and free schools blossoming, local government has less and less control over the quality of state education although it continues to be blamed for many of its failures!

There is one area where some local strategic overview has to be exercised and it is in planning for school places.  With population growth and demographic shift around the country, some areas face a perilous shortfall of school places while others have an embarrassment of supply.  I can’t see Westminster making a good job of planning for this and believe local councils have an important continuing role here but am unclear how much of a priority they will give to it when there is so much pressure on social care provision which remains the largest budgetary item for unitary and county councils.

As someone who believes firmly in local government, do I regret the passing of control over state schools away from local councils?   My response is both Yes and No.  I think most public services are best run locally and I think it is wrong to allow professional providers too much control in their own area.  By this I refer to what Michael Gove called “The Blob” in the form of the teacher unions.  They have consistently placed the wishes of their members above the needs of their pupils and have perpetuated out-of-date and so-called progressive teaching methods that do not work.  I fear local government failed to grapple adequately with this phenomenon and found itself caught in the eternal triangle of central government, teacher unions and local government.

The growth of academies and free schools, started by Blair and continued by the coalition and now by the Conservative government, seems to be working.  Why?  I think it has created an element of a market with choice and diversity growing in what was a pretty mono-cultural institution and has stimulated competition that the teacher unions always anathematised.  However, I think there is a bigger issue still with which to grapple.  Why are public and independent schools so much better in terms of their output, whether measured by university places, exam results or the visible quality of the young adults that emerge from them?  I don’t think it is only money and the gap between state school funding and the cost of day provision in the independent sector has narrowed considerably.  Rather like the NHS, simply throwing more and more money into the system does not guarantee a proportionate increase in quality.

I think there is another hugely important factor in all of this.  It is parental support for education.  When parents will beggar themselves to buy a house in the catchment area of a good state school or by paying fees for an independent school or a for a tutor to top up inadequate state teaching, their children will always have an advantage over families where education is seen as irrelevant at best or something to be endured or avoided as far as possible at worst.  A home where there are books or, nowadays, a kindle and a PC or tablet and parents who want to see their children thrive educationally has to be the single most important element in providing any child with good prospects for their own life.  Lefties will argue that academies and free schools will favour the middle classes and will disadvantage the poorer and more disadvantaged in society.  I think there is an element of truth in this but levelling down cannot be the answer.  How do we level up?  How do we motivate parents for whom school was a fearful and unproductive experience to try for something better for their children?  Particularly when culture in their estate will be to mock “swots” and to extol dropping out, drugs and violence as the only answer to living in a sink estate?

For many people, their lifestyle is a matter of choice.  If they prioritise booze, baccy and the bookies over books, learning and self-improvement, it is exceptionally difficult to break that cycle.  I don’t think making public services appear “free” helps.  I think this is fearfully true for state education, the NHS, legal aid and other subsidised public services.  I have always believed an education voucher system would transform state education over time.  If parents knew their teenager’s year at school had a cost of some £7,000 pa, demonstrated by a voucher that they could spend at any school of their choice, I think this would shake up the schools market and the complacency that grips coasting state schools.

I think Keith Joseph might have seen the potential value of a school voucher system but Margaret Thatcher was never persuaded and subsequent Conservative governments have never had the courage to introduce one.  Grant-maintained schools,  academies and free schools might be seen as half-way houses towards a more market-based system and Blair saw their value quite clearly but Conservatives have always feared the accusation of “privatisation” that has become a bogey-man for some electors and too many Conservatives!

I am afraid Nicky Morgan is still tinkering at the edges of a system that has failed countless generations of British children, particularly those in disadvantaged areas.  Labour would simply level down.  I hope one day a future British Prime Minister might have the courage to introduce a full-fledged school voucher system. I think it is the only way to drive up educational standards for all.  Perhaps Boris might see the light?

About Keith R Mitchell CBE

Qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 1967. Pursued a successful career in financial training and publishing until selling his interests in 1990. Elected a County Councillor for the Bloxham Division in 1989. Leader of Oxfordshire County Council 5 November 2001 to 15 May 2012. Chairman of the South East England Regional Planning Committee July 2002 to July 2005. Chairman of the South East England Regional Assembly July 2005 to July 2008. In HM the Queen’s 2007 Birthday Honours, appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in recognition of services to local government.
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