I am Chair of Governors and Directors of a large, highly successful Academy in North London. A secondary school for over 1300 students whose aspirations (and those of their parents, families and the wider community) are met (in the main) and even enhanced by the opportunities provided in a well-run, challenging environment. It has not happened overnight, but the School has a great staff (built up over the last 15 years) and a student population from a wide range of backgrounds that continuously seeks improvement and growth.
Successive Governments have tried over many years to establish an improved system that will provide good and better education for all our children (from nursery through primary to secondary and then to university and lifelong education – the latter even more critical in this fast-changing world).
But, having seen this from the inside, the efforts of the last 50 years have resulted in some progress, enormous bureaucracy and, often, micromanagement stifling regulations that kill off innovation and seek to suck the lifeblood out of the system instead of motivating and providing energy into it.
Politics, economics and education makes for a complex triangle. The “new” ideas of Michael Gove – to let markets into the system and to see education for education’s sake – are the latest attempts to reinvigorate education. What chance do they stand?
To answer this, we should ask what the central problems are. I am not so sure that anyone asks. This is a short attempt to describe some of them – focusing on secondary education and the complexity of politics, economics and education. I aim to follow-up with some analysis of the more complex areas in the future.
19th Century thinking
In the area of Politics, the UK labours under our former, great achievements. The 19th Century saw the establishment of the UK as the power house of democracy and economics. We are burdened with that success to this day – our political system remains very similar to the 19th Century version – Houses of Commons and Lords (Lords!!) where the latter has been slightly remodeled but still retains the name and establishment oversighting regimen. The establishment (developed in our Independent Schools) is back in the 21st Century with a vengeance – along with the traditions of the 19th Century. The 19th Century political system has not evolved much. Society has recently evolved backwards.
Economics is also mired in the 19th Century. Economics (no more than a social science – if that) retains the common view that it is a science just as much as chemistry or physics. The intervention of people into the equation (and all economic decisions are people decisions) is simulated to a state where broad generalisations are made that lead to financial crashes and stultified decision-making. Politicians (not many of whom are economists and virtually none of whom would venture to critique economic conformity) are ill-equipped to make decisions based on such loose-fitting material.
Education is a mix of 19th Century tradition (the large Independent sector and the positioning of the maintained sector) and a host of 20th Century upheavals – from comprehensive education, to Ofsted meandering, to dumbing down all the way to Academies and, now, Michael Gove’s spirited attempts to open up the system through broader Academies to Free Schools and his focus on more direct control of the syllabus by the Head and less local government involvement.
We think of two systems (private and public – Independent and State) but these relate to how they are funded and the tradition employed. It has meant that those fortunate enough to get into the private sector (and into the better area of it – and there are bad schools in that sector, too) reap not just better facilities and better-paid teachers, but a different tradition of education and a far better network of opportunities. The network effect is huge – and a typical hangover of the 19th Century norms in politics and society.
In the middle ground (now threatened as the “squeezed middle) are the good maintained sector schools. These are likely to be in the suburbs or the outside of cities. They are not better funded but attract good staff and Heads and have a society around them that wants better. They see themselves as “wanting in” to the Independent equivalent sector of society. The drive for improvement is pervasive in such schools.
In the background are the worst-performing schools – usually in inner cities but also in rural areas where education is not yet seen by local society as critical.
Three sectors – remnants of 19th Century decision-making and 19th Century thinking.
Yet, we operate in the 21st Century. Education has to achieve many things yet does something different in each of the three areas.
In the first (the alpha sector), it provides a broad education and the ability to move into society at the highest level possible. This is through networks (with universities, companies, politics) and through the provision of relevant education – through learning that equips pupils to reach for higher standards to learning that enables pupils to attain the next step (e.g. university).
In the second (the beta sector), network management is usually missing entirely and virtually dispensed with because it is deemed wrong. But, we live with 19th Century norms and this required networking. Education is primarily Government dictated through the curriculum which is all about exams. The three aspects of learning above are ill-considered by most schools even in this sector. However, some break through and many achieve better exam results – although most result in the attainment of tertiary education into the beta sector of universities.
In the Third (Epsilon), many schools (not all, this can be changed) keep kids off the streets (to greater or lesser effect) and provide an entry path into the wider world or working. Networks and networking are non-existent except in the local area. Chances of reaching out and attaining higher levels are poor even though funding is substantial (and higher per head than in the Beta sector).
In this Brave New World of education, the three sectors are breeding grounds for the various sectors of society that existed in the 19th Century and still exist today. While we rightly approve of economic improvements in the last 100 plus years and a widening of the so-called middle ground, the political and economic systems and responses have not made much progress for education. Instead of 2 levels, we have three – alpha, beta and epsilon. If this is what society demands (a separation from birth into the three sectors of society – alpha for leaders and high-end professions; beta for middle-level professions and decent work and life rewards; epsilon for a range of low-paid jobs or the benefit society) then we need do no more.
If, however, we want to get the best out of all our people and want them to have the best chance in life (which is, in the 21st Century, a basic right), then fundamental answers have to be provided to the fundamental questions – how we break through the Brave New World sectors of society and challenge the basic concepts of our politics and our economics to fashion an education system that meets the needs of all individuals and society rather than what might be the needs of societies establishment –an establishment fashioned in the 19th Century along with most of the ideas that fashion our lives today.
I will take a look in the future at some of the changes that a 21st Century response may make to some of these challenges.
Note: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (published in 1931) – a dystopia based on people bred for alpha, beta, gamma, delta and epsilon lives.