English schools are broken. Only radical action will fix them | Melissa Benn

From failed free schools to poor funding and inequality, education needs drastic reform to create a fairer model

Even for the sceptical, the suddenness and speed with which the academy schools project has fallen from public grace is remarkable. After years of uncritical acceptance of official claims that academies, and free schools, offer a near cast-iron guarantee of a better-quality education, particularly for poorer pupils, there is now widespread recognition of the drear reality: inadequate multi-academy trusts failing thousands of pupils, parents increasingly shut out of their children’s education, and academy executive heads creaming off excessive salaries – in some cases almost three times higher than the prime minister – from a system perilously squeezed of funds.

Crisis can be an overworked term in politics, and our schools are good examples of public institutions, subject to years of poor political decisions, that continue to do remarkable work. But along with the academy mess, we can add the following to the current charge sheet of what should be (along with the NHS) our finest public service: pressing problems with recruitment and retention of teachers; rocketing stress among young children and teenagers subject to stringent testing and tougher public exams; and the ongoing funding crisis.

For those who have been closely observing developments in education over the years, none of this comes as much of a surprise. The reckless damage of the coalition years was, after all, only an exaggerated version of cross-party policy during the previous two decades: central government control-freakery allied to the wilful destruction of local government and the parcelling out of schools to untested rich and powerful individuals and groups, including religious organisations. From early years to higher education, every sector of our system is now infected with the arid vocabulary of metrics and the empty lingo of the market.

So what now? It is clear that the Tories have run out of ideas, bar the expansion of grammars. This autumn, following widespread consultation, the Labour party will publish its eagerly awaited plans for a national education service, an idea that Jeremy Corbyn has made clear he would like to see form the centrepiece of any future Labour administration.

For the progressive left, then, this is an important but tricky moment that requires two distinct approaches, both of which befit a potential government-in-waiting and an avowedly radical party.

The first is a calm, collegial pragmatism: addressing the immediate problems of our system, from teacher workload to reform of school accountability, loosening the screws on university teaching and research, and properly funding the all-important early years.

Here, a little political inventiveness might not go amiss. Why not tot up the money spent on unnecessary, damaging reforms and announce that equivalent sums will now be redirected to areas where they are clearly needed? Billions have been spent on the academy transfer market, failed free schools, funding the shadowy regional schools commissioners, subsidising private education: in future, let’s use that kind of money to improve special-needs provision, build up adult and further education, or send teachers to regions where it is proving impossible to recruit and retain staff.

Stop the excessive testing of primary-age children and spend the money on steadier, less cliff-edge forms of assessment. Implement the Headteachers’ Roundtable proposal for a national baccalaureate, an initiative that would immediately broaden the educational experience of every secondary-age pupil, with minimal disruption. Time, too, to learn the lessons of our global neighbours and phase out selection, reform unfair school admissions, and bring education back into public hands. As Lucy Crehan shows in CleverLands, an absorbing study of top-performing school systems around the world, many of these – including Finland and Canada – do not select or even stream until 15 or 16, and education is provided by a mix of national and local government. The result is a stable public service, capable of far greater innovation than our own fragmented school market.

Expert organisations and individuals are already considering ways to unpick the semi-privatisation of our schools. These include: opening up currently unaccountable academy trusts to parents, staff and local communities; shifting contracts currently held with the secretary of state to local authorities; and designing a bespoke mechanism by which schools could rejoin the local education authority.

But there’s an even bigger job for the progressive left, and that is to kickstart an honest public debate about what’s really wrong with English education and how we might develop a better, fairer model. Such a conversation would have to break with the current cross-party consensus – in reality, a stubborn silence – on the relationship between selective and private schools and the often beleaguered state system. Let’s ditch, once and for all, the idea that the selective schools are an inspiring model for – rather than a major block to – high-quality public education, and start to talk seriously about how to create a common system.

As Alex Beard argues in his recent book Natural Born Learners: Our Incredible Capacity to Learn and How We Can Harness it, developments in everything from artificial intelligence to neuroscience seriously challenge once rigid ideas of ability and potential – excellence only for the few. He reports on a rainbow of experiments, from improbably fun-sounding Finnish maths lessons to Californian high schools deploying “open source” learning and teamwork, that are producing skilled, enthusiastic students and responsible, questioning citizens. Beard consistently identifies a highly trained, highly valued, autonomous teaching force – another area in which the English system has, with depressing predictability, gone into reverse, truncating teacher education and controlling teachers more tightly than badly behaved teens.

It doesn’t have to be this way. With generous investment, expert teachers and heads given room to breathe, a broad but stimulating curriculum, an accountability system that supports rather than punishes, we could move in a more engaging direction. Much of the ground work has already been laid, from early comprehensive reform to the dramatic improvements to London’s schools in the 00s, through to the recent conversion of large parts of the Tory party to the benefits of high-quality comprehensive schools.

Any future government committed to such an aim needs to engage the energies of the thousands of passionate young educators, first drawn in by the academy and free school movement, as well as the mass of weary professionals in their middle years. We don’t need silent corridors or an obsession with league tables to make clear that schools must always be places of order, collaboration, high expectations and constant encouragement – and vital hubs for local communities. I don’t underestimate what a shift in substance and tone these proposals represent for the Labour party. But as Beard suggests, quoting the genius of West Wing scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin, “We don’t need little changes; we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. Competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens.” Not a bad place to start when building a national education service for the 21st century.

• Melissa Benn is the author of Life Lessons: the Case for a National Education Service, to be published in September


Melissa Benn

The GuardianTramp

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