Tuesday 14 August 2012

Schooling is about every child in a locality.

Over the next 12 months the basic shape, structure and composition of education in England is going to change. Many 'maintained' schools (ie schools run by local authorities) will either opt to become academies, find that their Tory local authority has given up on them, shoving them into the hands of trusts and consortia or that one by one they will be forced to become academies by Michael Gove.

The press often presents this as a debate about 'schools' and whether this or that status of 'a school' is better for 'a school' or not. So we read debates, apparently  based on research, as to whether charities or local authorities or fee-paying schools or 'foundation' schools are the 'best'.

I think that this completely misses the point. Or worse. That's to say, the moment we get drawn into that argument, we take out of the discussion the fundamental principle behind universal state education: that it is for all. Swapping stats about this or that kind of school is what we might call micro-stats.

Perhaps the best way of looking at this is by considering how most children attend schools. They do it in a locality where there parents and carers live, and where a 'cohort' of children in that locality go through the system. (Of course plenty of people migrate from one locality to another but that's by no means the majority, so let's leave that to one side for the moment.) So this 'cohort' - the total number of children in a locality - will be educated. If one or two schools in that area are excellent - according to any criteria we might choose to pick on - it is of no use to any children and students who are not in those excellent schools. Now, if we put into that mix, that the main reason why these excellent schools are excellent is that they have subtly or not so subtly selected their intakes on the basis of ability (or conversely refused children for a perceived lack of ability) then of course it now becomes impossible for the other schools to become as 'excellent' as the excellent school! What is happening  in this model is that children are being divided up into good and not so good schools.

Now again, let's build into this mix 'competition'. Underlying the local authority system (after the break-up of the 1944 system of division of schools into Grammars and Secondary Moderns) was the principle (not always adhered to)  that schools could and should co-operate, that there was no virtue in them trying to out-do each other. Quite the opposite: that co-operating in, say, staff development, use of facilities etc, benefited the whole locality, the whole 'cohort' of that locality. There have been plenty of times I've sat in halls and heard local dignitaries, inspectors, advisers, teachers, librarians talking about 'our' schools, meaning all the schools in 'our' town, in 'our' borough and the like.

We should be quite clear, it is precisely this 'our' in the phrase 'our schools' that Michael Gove is smashing. In his eyes and in the outlook of his colleagues in this government, this 'our' is the enemy. It is, they think, anything from outdated civic or municipal socialism to what they call 'stalinism'. In fact, it was and is (where it remains) a rational way of trying to treat us as people with equal rights of access to the best possible education. I say 'trying' because  in some respects, it was only a start, and there was much more that could have been achieved and we can of course hope and struggle so that it one day will. So, for example, there were in many areas only very tentative beginnings to such things as all-school teachers' conferences; development of local curricula; strategic planning involving classroom teachers as well as school managements; involvement of all-school parents' representatives in issues of education and so on...

However, we are in a very different position now. The academy system is based on a completely different model. At the heart of it is a replica of the business model: competition. The academies compete for 'customers' and will succeed or fail depending on their ability to win them. The propaganda on this is of course that competition is good, it weeds out 'the bad', it makes everyone do their best, survival of the fittest etc. One problem: we're talking about children's, parents', teachers' and school workers' lives here. Time is of the essence. A failing school is that child's schooling. A school that is not winning the competition is losing, and as anyone and everyone knows who has ever had anything to do with education, a school that is not winning or even perceived as not winning can in a matter of months turn into a disaster area. In part, that's because we run schools in a very hierarchical way (for better or worse) where the school management are inevitably, by virtue of the amount of power invested in them, absolutely crucial to whether a school functions efficiently or not. We've all seen it happen: a school with the skids under it, for whatever reason - sometimes for no other reason than the ill-health or prolonged absence of one or  two key figures in the hierarchy - can start losing 'customers', losing teachers and it's going under. What's going on here is that that part of the cohort for no intrinsic reason of its own, is being junked. That is that group of children's education down the pan.

Usually when this happens, the way this is described nationally or locally in the press  is that this school is 'no good', that its management is faulty, its governance 'weak' and the like whereas what is really happening is that the system of running all the schools in that locality hasn't been strong enough to ensure that all schools, all teachers, all staff are co-operating with each other for all that locality's children. It was hard enough in the past to enable this to happen, with local authorities sometimes behaving in high-handed and patrician ways, but now, with the academy system, it is virtually impossible.

So, let's not get drawn into any argument about the virtues or otherwise of this or that kind of school. That's not the issue. The only thing we should discuss are the virtues or otherwise of systems of educating the whole of a locality's cohort  from pre-school through to post-16 and on into adult education. To date, there is no better system than local, democratically and co-operatively run schools, intent on educating everyone, and not on poaching 'customers' from each other. What this government has done very cunningly is move the whole argument away from locality ie where very nearly all of us live, to an argument about type of school and we end up on their territory of the argument not our own.