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A changing scene

28 September 2018

Dennis Richards reviews some of the latest educational titles


These days many school head teachers are likely to have little or no experience of the Church

These days many school head teachers are likely to have little or no experience of the Church

IT IS right to be wary of the things-have-never-been-so-bad school of thought, particularly in relation to education — and, indeed, the younger generation in general. The rebellious nature of adolescents goes back into the mists of time. Nevertheless, it is deeply shocking to be informed that 25 per cent of girls aged 14 have self-harmed.

The widespread abuse of social-media platforms has been vilified as one of the primary causes of this dreadful malaise. The obvious shortcomings in this country’s attitude to mental health have also received wide publicity. Next in line has been the competitive climate of our school system, now so closely associated with academisation, marketisation, league tables, target-setting, and a “winner-takes-it-all” mentality. It is, therefore, timely, after 30 years of unremitting education reform, to ask: How did we get here, and to what extent it has been a success?

Right on cue, we have two significant volumes published in recent months from the close friends and education campaigners Fiona Millar and Melissa Benn. The Millar volume, The Best For My Child, appeared first. Surveying the almost dizzying amount of change in the period 1988-2018, Millar intertwines the story of her own parenting experience, and her years as a governor at her children’s school.

Close to the seat of power during the New Labour years, she does not hide from putting the spotlight on what happened during the Blair-Brown premierships. Refreshingly, she names names, secure in the knowledge that the relevant children of such illustrious luminaries in the political sphere have long ago moved into adulthood.

The “Do as I say, but not as I do” test claims some surprising scalps in this fascinating account. The mantra of diversity, choice, and competition, which began with Margaret Thatcher, City Technology Colleges, grant-maintained schools, and the rest, has now effectively reached its end result. It is, therefore, the moment for a skilled and experienced education journalist to ask: Did it work? Millar’s answer, unsurprisingly, is yes — and no.

Her own experience is very London-centric. Aware of this, she has researched some of the tougher northern regions. In Blackpool, one of the deprived coastal towns on the west coast, the gap between successful and failing schools has stubbornly refused to narrow. Stephen Tierney, the executive principal of the most successful academy chain in the town, is embarrassed that, in reality, the market may have damaged provision overall. His colourful phrase “accountability on steroids” has created as many problems as it has solved.

There is a searing honesty about this account, especially with regard to admissions and their impact on social mobility. Church-school head teachers and governors have nothing to fear from this volume. They are no better and no worse at squaring the circle of parental choice and over-subscription. This will be the definitive primer, both for the general reader and teacher-training courses, for the next few years. The subtitle of this entertaining read is: Did the schools market deliver? Read it, and you can judge for yourself.

So, where do we go from here? Life Lessons, by Melissa Benn, is, by its own definition, essentially “provocative”. It proposes nothing short of a radical reframing of our educational system along the lines of a National Education Service.

Millar, in her book, advocates an approach which “keeps the best bits of the 1988 reforms”. She singles out most notably “a belief in parental preference and holding schools publicly to account”. Benn makes no such concessions. She sees the principles of her proposed service as closely mirroring those that have driven the NHS since its inception.

She is not wrong in saying that the current system is under “severe strain”. Two “unintended consequences” of the rapid expansion of academies, too rapid in the eyes of many, come to mind.

First, the governance of multi-academy trusts (MATs) has disastrously devalued the part played by, and the importance of, an individual school’s local governing body. More recently, it has become clear that chief executive pay (the new title for head teachers) is out of hand. Even more worryingly, there is evidence that MATs have become increasingly “choosy” about which schools they are prepared to accept into a trust. In short, it is a fragmented mess.

Whether our education system is ready for a Melissa Benn-type revolution is not yet clear. If we carry on as we are for much longer, it may just happen anyway.

Amid the unremitting gloom surrounding our schools, it is something of a relief to turn to the ever reliable Grove imprint. Grow Your Own School Leaders, by Alison Farnell, is a refreshingly positive look at the leadership of church schools.

Farnell is a vastly experienced commentator and consultant on many aspects of church-school education. Based for many years in the diocese of Coventry, she has focused, in this volume, on her experience of the school leadership offered in that context. Many dioceses now offer such courses.

Where they do not, this typically jargon-free Grove publication will allow schools, especially their governing bodies, to develop their own school leaders. The style is chatty and anecdotal; it is also realistic, taking into account that there are now church-school heads who have little or no experience of the Church themselves. It is invaluable — and all for £3.95.

The Best For My Child: Did the schools market deliver?
Fiona Millar
John Catt Educational £14

Life Lessons: The case for a national education service
Melissa Benn
Versobooks.com £8.99

Grow Your Own School Leaders (eD35)
Alison Farnell
Grove Books £3.95

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