Do you remember that speech in Shakespeare’s The Tempest when Prospero’s slave, Ariel, reports back to his master with an account of all the work he’s done to capsize the king’s ship? He says he boarded the ship and “flamed amazement”. One moment he was on the deck, the next in every cabin, then up on the topmast and then on the bowsprit, creating “sulphurous roaring” and causing people to jump into the sea.
It made me think of you. There I was last week, hearing you presenting all your big new ideas on the radio and on TV. You were firing off in all directions. I hope you’ll excuse me if I express some scepticism about your schools white paper. You see, people like me who’ve been parents and education-watchers for nearly 50 years don’t whoop with joy when a new secretary of state for education comes on the scene with yet another Great Big Bag of Big Ideas that will – of course – drive standards up, narrow the attainment gap, give parents what they want, deal with bad behaviour, give everyone a job, level up, simplify the types of schools, and give help to those pupils falling behind.
For most of those 50 years it’s your party that’s been in power. If you think education needs shaking up that’s because you’re dealing with the last time you guys shook it up. Or the time before that. Or the time before that. What did Kenneth Baker or Michael Gove do that didn’t do the trick? Or what knack or streak of genius have you got that those two giants of education theory and practice didn’t have?
I wonder, for example, if you remember Gove-worship? It worked like this: Gove would announce another great education reform – the “knowledge-rich curriculum” or “world-class GCSEs” or, of course “academies and free schools”. Your side of the Commons drooled with delight. Sympathetic newspapers wrote about the great revolution that Gove was bringing about. Then, when the great man suddenly left office, his admiring colleagues explained how Gove had turned schools round, driven up standards, and broken the stranglehold the local authority mafia had over education.
Job done, surely? But no. It seems even after 11 years of Tory-led education we still apparently need Ariel Zahawi to hurl yet more of Jove’s lightning around. So I have to confess bewilderment. How about you do another speech next week in which you explain to us parents what it was that your predecessors got wrong that you’re now having to put right?
Yet your Great Big Bag of Big Ideas feels uncannily empty. Apart from the mind-numbingly ordinary stuff about the hours in a school week, one of your Big Ideas caught my eye. Announcing that all schools are to join multi-academy trusts, you said: “All the evidence suggests that schools that work together in a family of schools … deliver better outcomes for the children.”
I don’t expect you to be a scholar of education history – though it would be nice – but have you heard of someone called Sir Tim Brighouse? He led something called the London Challenge (2002-07, when I had several children in London schools). Do you know what Brighouse put in place? Schools working together. It was a huge success and teachers are still talking about it. Brighouse would have been just the man to advise on a national rollout of the scheme.
It wasn’t to be. Instead, the preferred Tory model for schools, as enacted by Gove, was for them to compete with each other for pupils, teachers and facilities through the vicious instrument of league tables. The huge apparatus of assessment, which could and should have been designed to help students, is instead tied into proving that one school is better than another. And yet, it is precisely this model that you are sticking with: demanding yet more academies, praising grammar schools – thereby depriving neighbouring schools of academically high-achieving students. And yet you roar out praise for families of schools.
One thing that can be said for certainty is that within a few years, someone sitting in your seat will give the same speech as you, using the same cliches. “Narrow the attainment gap … good standards … bad behaviour … blah blah blah … passionate about education … I went to school, you know … I want every school to be a grammar school … levelling up … blah blah blah …” When is an education secretary going to find out what really needs to be done?
Yours, Michael Rosen