Free Schools – Liberty or Libertarian?

Today (20th October), Nick Clegg stood aside from Michael Gove (and David Laws) in seeking to ensure that teachers in Free Schools are properly trained (to QTS standards), that there is an educational centre based on the national curriculum and that all students should have access to good meals at school.

The basic trend of this government is to free up schools from the central doctrines of Local authority rules and requirements whilst ensuring that they remain financed by the centre. This is one aspect of Michael Gove’s belief in free “choice” – which is commendable in principle but hits at least three snags: people in communities do not want to have a variety of bad choices; there are too many issues at stake for lay-people (no matter how capable and well-meaning) to adequately assess all the issues before making a choice;   choice requires a real sense of competition and access to that competitive environment and a real market.

There is in England a Brave New World of Education where the division is between the alpha model of private education, the beta model of good state schools and the epsilon model of all the rest. The advent of Free Schools is meant to blow away the model so that where problems exist in a location, excellence is developed through the ability of the market and hard-working people – untrammeled by centralist doctrine. Supporters of this market-notion state that the disasters of the Bradford Free School – Al-Madinah – show that the market works – that bad schools will be outed and forced to improve or close.

Choice in Education

The ability to choose rests upon an assumption that those with a choice will receive their preferred choice.  In a parliamentary report from 2010, it was estimated that 85% of those in the secondary school state system received their first choice, but this obscured the much lower rate in cities.

Of course, choice is only as good as what is offered and this is critical. Real choice would enable those choosing to be able to select the right school that will enable the student to gain real value and advantage in his / her education. That means the provision of a school of a good standard. Choice in many areas obscures the fact that those making the choice have to select the “best on offer” – all may be well below the required standard that they would “choose” if they had the chance.

This is why there are efforts to raise standards across the board in the hope that all will, eventually, have a choice that contains better schools – those of a sufficiently high standard to satisfy all the requirements.

In this feverish search for choice and raised standards (and we all welcome a considered drive to improve), choice has been thrust forward as a key reason behind Free Schools.

Freedom from Local Authorities

With the advent of Academies, schools (especially secondary state schools) are progressively moving out of the local authority sphere of influence. Cut-backs in the latter mean that their central education capabilities have been curtailed and the drive for a more centralized control by the Ministry of Education continues – while purporting to be a drive for more local control by each school.

For many schools, this freedom is positive. Local authorities are hugely variable in capability, ingenuity and innovation – as well as funding. This meant that, in many areas, schools were held back and can now progress untrammeled by local authority (often “political”) involvement.

However, this freedom also means that Academies, while having to adhere to national Admission rules, do not have to co-ordinate admissions with the local authority. The impact of this is yet to be determined.

Progressive Freedom

Academies have substantial powers over teacher pay and curriculum in many areas but Free Schools (based mainly on local demand requirements in a range of areas – including Faith) are not beholden to the national curriculum nor the requirement to select teachers based on existing training norms. In addition, the debate about local “need” may also strain credulity. Faith schools, for example, are the first in line on this basis but the desire of those to provide faith schools may not be in line with those locally who may oppose this. Unlike planning permission, the process is more about the desire of those in favour than reaching a local conclusion based on what makes sense for the local community as a whole. The school as a local community hub (so important with the demise of the Church) is now forgotten in the search for market results.

Nick Clegg’s intervention may not go far enough and seems to typify those who find fault with the Gove vision. That vision is about freedom and choice but is not sufficiently strong in its understanding of what is needed in the local community. Local authorities purported in the past to have this responsibility but failed in many cases to carry out that remit. So, just like Margaret Thatcher’s response in London (to abolish the GLC), where possible local remits are abolished and individual schools set up – with progressively more independence.

This disruption, between local authority or central government, between local (often bad) control and school independence, means that local areas may lose the chance to have a substantial uplift in education capability because individual schools are now encouraged to go it alone. Without some understanding of overall local need, the progressive freedoms of the market (in a confused market economy like education) will throw up abnormal results – often by chance. Economics is not strong on education.

The ability of individual schools (often under pressure from Boards) may not be high. The ability of many Free Schools to chose teachers not based on rigorous teacher training standards is also dubious.

Choice of what?

Michael Gove hopefully has learned a lot in the last ten years. When he was in opposition, I personally asked him for his views on whether there was scope for schools to benefit from better procurement and management of IT through some association or collaboration of state schools. Over 3,000 secondary schools typically pursued their own aims and ambitions in this area. Recruitment is tough in this sector as salaries are not competitive for strong IT staff. Imagine a company with 3,000 subsidiaries all being allowed to go their own way!

Gove’s written response to me was interesting. His view was that individual schools should stand on their own feet and that, if they had poor IT, parents would exercise choice and not send their children to such schools.

This outlined to me Gove’s prioritization and focus on choice. It puts too much weight on parent’s assumed knowledge of even backroom systems like IT – which almost no parents would investigate. It suggests that perfect information is not just available but understandable and assessable. This seemed to be a nonsensical response at the time but seems to underlie much of Conservative thinking about so-called “choice”. We should be ensuring that all schools have great IT – a fundamental requirement in the modern, high-tech working society – not allowing any to fall by the wayside. This should not be about allowing schools to fail – but, ensuring they all succeed: not sink or swim, but ensure they can swim.

Parental choice has to be reasoned choice that makes sense to parents. Each area may have different needs. In some, there may be great schools but a requirement to spend £500,000 on a house to get into one; in other areas, there may be one excellent school that attracts the best students and the rest are allowed to wallow in mediocrity at best; in other areas, grammar schools may dominate; in other areas, reduced capital investment may not attract good staff – the list goes on and no two areas are the same.

Choice is what is highlighted each time a Free School comes before local people. It is, in itself, meaningless because no-one really understands it. Choice of what is less a real choice than a funding decision as a Free School may be the only way to acquire the funds locally to do something of real value.

So, Nick Clegg is on the right lines in trying to firm up key elements of Free Schools but there is more to do. Liberals (or anyone that shares a desire to benefit local communities) need to bring in some form of assessment that enables local people to gauge their options. In addition to the assessment of individual schools and our focus on league tables, parents have to acquire information on the local area’s overall education capabilities (not the Borough itself) into which Free Schools, Academies, Private education and other schools exist.

This is not a call for local authorities to get back its old powers, but for educational assessment that enables citizens to acquire immediate information on their local areas (their catchment area) and for decision-makers (often central government) to actively show that they have not just taken these assessments into account but are actively pursuing change in areas of real priority.

This way, choice allied to progressive and continuous overall improvement can be parsed into the local framework and maybe enable real decisions to take place: localism that means something rather than a free-for-all.

Education and Equal Concern

I was at two contrasting events this week that provided strong connections.

The first was the Annual Prize Giving at Ashmole Academy, where I am Chair of Governors / Directors. Our guest of honour was Professor A C (Anthony) Grayling – one of this country’s best-known philosophers and writer on ethics through books such as “Liberty in the Age of Terror”. He has also recently opened the New College of the Humanities (NCH) in London – a new private university.

The second was the inaugural meeting of the Board of Directors of Future Brilliance Limited – a not-for-profit set up by Sophia Swire, a courageous and hugely talented woman who has spent much of her life working to improve the lives of Afghans. Future Brilliance – Afghanistan has already begun work to provide business skills training and business opportunities to young Afghans and has a focus on especially improving access to woman for education and business in Afghanistan.

Education

I introduced Anthony Grayling to parents and students and quoted from his book mentioned above – a quote he himself had taken from Ronald Dworkin’s “Sovereign Virtue”:  “Equality must be understood in terms of the equal concern for its citizens that any legitimate government must show  – equal concern is the sovereign virtue of political community: without it government is only tyranny” and equality of resources or opportunities, giving everyone a fair start in making something of their lives.”

The concept of “equal concern” for all is not about providing everyone with the same standard of living but a desire to provide everyone with the same opportunities. It is up to the individual how they exploit those opportunities.

Anthony Grayling gave an excellent talk to our students. He described how we only have around 1,000 months to live and 2/3rds are spent sleeping and shopping or similar. That leaves just 1/3rd of our lives to do something meaningful. He believes that we should use our time in education to broaden our knowledge, ask questions, to develop the enquiring mind.

This was brought home by Sir James Dyson’s comments about education – where he decried the reading of French lesbian poetry as his example of a liberal, humanities-based education rather than one focused on science and engineering. Michael Gove defended the former. Anthony Grayling provided a very good set of reasons for ensuring that the humanities gain equal concern.

At Ashmole Academy, we have developed the ability to help students pass the exams they need and at the right level to gain acceptance to Russell Group Universities (and a large percentage do this in science and maths) but also produce individuals ready and equipped to face the world. Ashmole is non-selective and provides equal concern for all students – providing that equality of opportunities that gives everyone a fair start in making something of their lives. If only that was true of the whole education system in this country – where there is a major disparity between independent (alpha schools) and maintained sectors (although we believe Ashmole now challenges that assertion) and between good maintained schools (beta) and those who struggle (epsilon) for any number of reasons – see https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/2012/05/13/the-fight-over-education/  We do not have equal concern yet borne out by the equality of opportunity.

Equality of Opportunity

However, in the UK we are blessed when compared to the range of destructive problems that exist in countries like Afghanistan. The problems are well known but the solutions are tough to consider let alone implement. In 2014, US and UK troops are expected to leave and it is there will be a major exodus of the brightest and best as the Taliban threat grows.

Sophia Swire has been working in Afghanistan for some time to improve the lives of those working to make the most of their lives. I met her at Global Witness – an anti-corruption NGO – when she was working with the World Bank. The Future Brilliance task is to develop young Afghans to benefit from the huge potential that their natural resources offer them by building their skills and business base within a code of ethics and good governance.  The US and UK are now working to provide financing in the next two years to help this process before they pullout – to work to get traction amongst the people who have been traumatised by the Taliban and by war and, to an extent, by aid programmes.

What is clear is that the country is also beset by corruption and a weariness that people struggle to shake off. This weariness is because the various governing classes, whether politicians, tribal chiefs or Taliban, have a view of leadership that we find out of date. There is no equality of concern. Concern is primarily for those already in leadership positions and a country that develops this manner of leadership will not break out from its current trauma.

Beyond this, of course, Afghanistan has a view of women (in general) that we see as 16th Century. Religion-blamed customs keep women from education and business in most cases. Like Malala, the young girl shot by terrorists in Pakistan, young women struggle to be allowed any freedoms – whether for the right to be educated or to enter into business. Again, customs deny equal concern for its citizens.

As A C Grayling highlighted in his book “Liberty in the age of Terror”, in the West, we have fought hard for centuries to secure basic human freedoms such as those enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In this country, we have witnessed the strain that terrorism has wrought as freedoms have been whittled away for the cause of security. But, human rights have to be based on equal concern for all. In a world that is now so interlinked, it is impossible to close our eyes at the problems in other countries. To a large extent, their problems are ours. Terrorism affects us in the UK in heavier security that reduces our freedoms. It is better to also work towards improvements in those countries where terrorism is bred. Acknowledgement human rights and of economic improvement are crucial not via handouts and aid (except in emergencies) but through the use of focused assistance to bolster the ability to help themselves and to relentlessly work to rid the country of corruption.

To succeed, government has to show equal concern for all its citizens – to provide the fair start – and it has to start with education (both boys and girls) and lead into business and wider, governmental responsibilities.

In the UK, education for all must be an equal concern as we struggle to get our worst schools anywhere near the level of acceptability. The same struggle (but, with horrendous consequences of failure) exists in countries like Afghanistan. “Equal concern is the sovereign virtue of political community: without it government is only tyranny.”  Whether in education at home or in the fight against terrorism abroad, the same ethical principle is true. In the global economy, it is essential that everyone has “a fair start in making something of their lives.”

Governance – From Osborne to Diamond – where is it?

If we wanted to see bad governance issues at their most raw – in all sectors of society – then maybe this was the week.

First – Corporate governance was shown to be completely awry at Barclays, where Bob Diamond’s testimony showed so clearly that non-execs that should have been applying governance strictures were so out of the picture.

Second – the public sector and education, where Michael Gove in a strange speech at FASNA (Freedom and Autonomy for Schools) said he knew what “good governance” looked like (fascinating to hear a politician talk about good governance!) and criticized many existing school boards as:

A sprawling committee and proliferating sub-committees. Local worthies who see being a governor as a badge of status not a job of work. Discussions that ramble on about peripheral issues, influenced by fads and anecdote, not facts and analysis. A failure to be rigorous about performance. A failure to challenge heads forensically and also, when heads are doing a good job, support them authoritatively.

Third – charities, where governance was held up at an ACEVO (Association of Chief Executives in Voluntary Organisations) conference to be a critical problem and the split between Chief Execs and Trustees very problematical (nearly 30 are seeking urgent advice from ACEVO on this issue).

Fourth – Government via the astonishing spat between Messrs. Osborne (our Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Ed Balls (his shadow) over banking and LIBOR – or worse, their obvious hatred for each other.

Across the nation – Governance in doubt

We clearly have a crisis of governance across the nation and in all sectors. Government, public sector, corporates and Third Sector all exhibit problems where real strains are showing and proper governance is often missing.

Gove’s comments (which show political mannerisms at their worst) can be spread across all areas if we want to.

The role of non-executive directors, trustees, governors or similar is crucial in organisations. Their importance is completely under-estimated in the same way that the importance of backbenchers in Parliament is. This showed so clearly in the Osborne / Balls playground fight this week and showed how dangerous it is when the Executive is a major part of the Legislature (as we have it in the UK) and back-benchers are unable to confront the over-weaning egos of the front-benchers.

The example shown here – of a senior government minister and his shadow in opposition – was appalling but, unfortunately, does shine a light on society. When recession strikes, the worst examples of society come to light.

What’s going wrong?

Much is actually right in sectors of society that organize themselves into such oganisations such as companies, public sector bodies and Third Sector organisations. But, there is a crucial link that is not sufficiently understood and where traditional rules don’t really work anymore – and, where they do work, are rubbished by politicians pursuing a political agenda.

The link is the one between senior operational staff and Boards. It is the crucial link in any organization.

Corporates

The danger here is the risk that Chief Executive Officers who have got where they are because they are good at what they do but also because they act like steamrollers, often force Boards to concede issues with too little scrutiny. Time is of the essence and information hard to take in when you are a Non-Executive Director (NED) maybe at many corporations and spend a few days a year on each.

The law now lays a heavy burden on NED’s but there remain many who want to bring their skills and knowledge and experience to companies. Most are acceptable to the CEO if they have good connections /networks. Beyond this, they are begrudgingly provided with data and fill remuneration and audit committees and the like, fulfilling a role but often not really involved with the central and driving forces behind the business. Government tinkering with the laws has prescribed the areas of involvement that the law requires and where NED’s have to focus. Areas that are fundamental, like strategy, culture, and ethics, are more likely to be left outside.

The danger becomes real in companies like Enron – which imploded under a Ponzi scheme that should have been obvious to all on the Board. It is endangering one of our best-known banks as it did with RBS and Lloyds-TSB.

Name the major scandals in corporates and then describe the efforts of NED’s to make things right – whether in newspapers and phone hacking, oil industry and health and safety, mining and corruption.

Public Sector

I use the example of schools / academies to show the reverse. Michael Gove, in seeking to set up an array of different schools so that the good ones can “emerge”, is in danger of wrecking education and the potential for good that exists in those schools / academies.

Of course, he was speaking at the FASNA – so, was amongst friends. But, his injudicious language threatens to throw out the good with the bad. I am a Chair of Directors / Governors at an excellent Academy and Gove runs the risk (as all “leaders” do) of demoralizing just the people he should be motivating.

In pursuing his political agenda, he shows he is full of ideas but not allied to the skills of a leader. Schools boards / or governing bodies are full of people who (unlike in corporates) are unpaid and fill positions out of a desire to help kids and the staff that run the schools. Gove is at least ten years out of date with his picture of local worthies – it is not just an insult but shows Gove to be stuck in the 1970’s at best.

At schools, the link between Head and Governors / directors can be bad (as it can in any situation) but is often very good. The role of the board as “critical friend” is enshrined in all that is done and the Head (and some of his / her staff) are on the Board as well. This creates a team that motivates each other to work together and develop a school for its students. Where it works (and it usually does to some extent), it provides enthusiasm as well as governance, skills as well as motivation – on both sides, operational and governance.

Of course, Gove has some insights as schools in difficult areas will have trouble finding the skills needed to fill a board. But, this is down to the location and the need to ensure that they are supported within a structure that works. This is a key area and where successful schools can certainly help.

But, Gove should not ridicule the governance structure in schools – it may be the one area that does work!

Third Sector

Now, I work in this sector as a CEO. I have a good Board but having been in the sector for five years or so (my previous 30 were in the corporate one), it is clear that there is a crisis and it is between CEO’s and the Board.

There is a divide that is unnecessary and needs to be fixed. My concern is that it won’t be because the mind-set of third sector participants is that the charity sector is precious and that there needs to be a separation between boards and operations.

The separation is, I am repeatedly told, because of conflicts of interest. These conflicts, if a CEO becomes a Trustee, means, for example, that the roles are somehow confused and that the Chief Exec can no longer properly comment on staff salary issues because of conflicts of interest (see NCVO website).

The Charities Commission is completely confused. Two requests for information on this yielded completely different responses in the last couple of weeks – both suggested a board would need to ensure no conflicts of interest but while one said they would need to approve the appointment and one did not, neither could attest to the specific conflicts that would be in evidence.

What this means is that the separation (which does not happen in Education – and a school is no less precious) is maintained for little reason and the huge benefits – teamwork, joint motivation, openness for example – are lost in the preciousness.

It needs to change and fast.

Governance and Government

Our government shows itself adrift in its response to good governance by the way it shows itself in parliament. Having the Executive commanding the legislature is bad enough but requires a more magisterial quality. Osborne and Balls would not know that if it hit them between the eyes.

It is important that organisations are properly run. They have an enormous impact on society and are a key part of it. It can be argued that civil society has lost its control over organisations as government (our supposed defenders) has clearly shown no tendency to take itself seriously. Osborne and Gove are poor exemplars.

There may be no excuse for the rioters of last summer in England, but the tendency of organisations to show lack of leadership is troublesome and leadership is needed.

The future of Governance

Sectors of society like the three (or maybe four) mentioned above work in silos and come up against each other from time to time. There is much in common and governance issues affect each and all of them.

Governance is the method of governing – it applies to us nationally, internally and within organisations to which most of us belong. Good governance is crucial to the way society works but it is under threat.

The future of society depends on good governance and we now need to unravel the workings of a hundred years of legal doctrine to develop improvements throughout all the sectors of our society.

We need structures that combine strategy and operations, directors / trustees / governors and business / organizational leaders, but where the non-executives are provided with the skills and time to address the concerns that society has.

At the same time, Chief Execs need to be able to explain the key drivers that make (in their view) the organization work and non-execs should be able to investigate for themselves.

Gove wants Ofsted to rigorously assess governors in the way they monitor Heads. Fine (if they had any understanding of what that means and the ability to do it) but who is doing this in corporates – maybe the auditors or some other independent body for any publicly listed company?

Finally, different sectors should not be isolated from each other. NEDs, trustees, governors have a lot in common but all operate to completely separate rules and guidelines. It is time for some common dialogue as civil society (which includes everyone) is getting pretty sick and tired of the mess that organisations are in.

Education and Examinations – back to Plato

In the UK, a leaked document from the Department for Education proposes that we go back to the 1950’s and separate kids at 15 or 16 into two sections of society: those who can and those who can’t. I guess this may be better than the separation at 11 that took place then (the UK’s “11 plus” exams) but not much. Hearkening back to a “bygone age” of seeming perfection is often the norm for conservatives – there to preserve rather than illuminate – but, the mistake is that we have lost the meaning of education.

Education as a Feeder system for the Economy

To educate is to develop the faculties and powers (of a person) by teaching, instruction, or schooling.

Going back to definitions may be important. If the crucial objectives of education are to develop “faculties” and “powers” – which parents are doing from the time a baby is born – why has the education system decided not to do this? Why is it that the education system devised in the mid-20th Century has, through national curricula, worked to establish something different?

In all the discussions and discourse on education that reaches most of us through TV and newspapers, the focus of education is not about maximising the powers and faculties, but about developing certain skills in order to make pupils employable. How this has come about is debatable but is likely to be as a result of economics and the view of governments that it has to feed the economic system.

Now, this is not completely unreasonable and it is not as though citizens want everyone to be a Plato, a Socrates or even an A C Grayling. Economics applied to most citizens means that we want to develop ourselves sufficiently to have a decent job. University degrees in subjects that are not job-focused are decried because they dare to deviate from the GDP-focus that dominates all our lives.

We are continuously subjected to the competition between the newly developing nations and their own devotion to exams and economic prosperity as the new mantra. “Communist” China is now held up as the beacon – we are, in effect, at war with the soldiers now the pupils in our schools and universities who are in competition with their counterparts in China. It is not just league tables to compare your local schools; we are now homogenized into comparisons on a world basis against the maths and science students of China and Singapore and Thailand.

Across the world, education has made Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World a closer reality.  We now have schools / academies split into alpha, beta and epsilon (through the division of private sector, and maintained sector split by geography / location). We have exacerbated the problem (if we agree it is one) by the almost complete drive to make our children the feeder for gross domestic product (GDP) growth. This is leading (in the UK) to Michael Gove’s attempt to split our kids into two sectors – those who can and those who can’t – by type of exam taken at 15 or 16. But, citizens are not being given the exam question that he is attempting to answer in this way.

What is the question?????

Gove wants a division of society into those who can pass exams at 16 and those who cannot. Why? Because there is a view that young people need to be divided at some age into those who can be management and leaders within the private and public sector and those who will be providers of services to them and the organisations that they manage and lead.

The 19th and 20th Century devised organisations, which have led to societies, which are now run by government and private sector priorities. Government is supposed to be (in a democracy) at the will of the people but is now a mix of career civil servants and career politicians (especially the case in Europe but true in most developed societies).

The private sector (which has been the source of so much wealth creation and so much that is good) has through competition developed an amazing monopoly over our lives. Economics never envisaged a duopoly of forces that would dominate in this way. The accommodation of the private sector by government and vice versa is how our societies are now run and education is seen more and more as the provider into these monolithic power centres.

So, the question we should be asking of our education system is whether we wish to have our kids taught in order to supply the system in this way and in addition to suffer the effects of the Brave New World of demarcation into alpha, beta and epsilon schools AND even more between top tier pupils and service providers  OR whether we wish real education to take place? Huxley’s dystopian vision (or Plato’s world view that we should divide children at an early age to educate those who will rule early and divide the rest) was based on a top-down philosophy that is outdated and pretty totalitarian. In any emergent society (and human occupy the same emergent plateau as any other living creature), we should ensure that the best opportunities are provided wherever possible and at any age. This is possible in a developed society and where our gross domestic product should be directed.

If education is really to develop the faculties and powers of an individual through teaching, we should continuously ask what these faculties and powers should be and then whether we are providing them (and, if not, how we should be).

Faculties and Powers in the 21st Century

We have reached the stage in our economic development (we probably did many years ago – as Galbraith’s “The Affluent Society” so well testified) when rapid and continuous economic growth as measured by current measurement systems is no longer rational. We are wasteful of resources and wasteful of our freedoms in the pursuit of more goods. The challenge to society is how it remodels itself in the light of diminishing economic utilities and diminishing returns for this wealth as well as the potential calamities that divisive wealth distributions (between the top 1% and the rest) are creating.

Jobs are central to economic well being and naturally feature in our minds as one of the most important priorities in our lives. They aren’t the only ones, though.

Equipping our children for the difficulties that the 21st Century society has on offer as well as for the opportunities that it provides is the most important requirement for education.

I have been involved with Education and the system for over 20 years as a pro-bono School / academy Governor and as a Chair of Governors for the last eight of those years. I have seen successive governments in the UK pass the buck on education as different theories are tried and children used for experiments. What Michael Gove is now stating is that all the changes made over the last fifty years have not allowed us to progress and that we should go back to where we were.

The trouble is that the assessment is mistaken. There is little in the proposal about exams and divisions at 16 that would provide any confidence that our children will be better educated as a result. The imperative is to equip them with the faculties and powers to make decisions, be real and pro-active members of society and to make real contributions. Some of that is about the ability to work. We are leading much longer lives, though, and young people will go through a variety of careers and need to use many of their skills (inherited and learnt) as a result. There is little chance of having one job for life any more – change is too fast and we need to change to keep up.

Where is this faculty being learned if we are determined to divide up our kids at such an early age and send them off into the world without the faculties and powers that will best equip them for that world?

Employers bemoan the low level of maths and English taught in many schools and this needs to be improved; we have too few scientists and that needs to be changed. However, employers look to the short term and to their current needs. Economics is very poor at forecasting (as the banking disasters of 2008 to now show so clearly). Therefore, friends in Government must not only listen to employers groups and change our education philosophy as a result to their advantage only.

Education must be centred on providing the faculties and powers to enable young people to make the most of themselves in society – not just to gain immediate employment when 18 (the age when young people will soon be obliged to stay at school in the UK).

Civil Society as the Bridge Between Private and Public Sector Monoliths

Most of us work in the private or public sector. I don’t these days – I have worked in the so-called Third Sector for the last five years – for NGO’s and charities. But, the Third Sector is not just about charities and NGO’s. As a School / Academy Governor, I play a civil society role in a public sector school / academy. I don’t see myself as being in the public sector.

We all live in society – some of that in work and much outside. A good education is the crucial foundation for anyone to enable them to take best advantage of what life has to offer. Getting a good first job is important but not everything. Each individual’s contribution to society (whether local, regional, national or international) is important and a good education which stretches an individual’s faculties and powers at an age when our brains are most able to grow, develop and take on new ideas is essential. This is the fundamental notion that the best societies don’t work on a top-down basis (the essence of totalitarianism – a Brave New World) but provide the opportunities to those who can best use those them – and at whatever age.

Education is core to our well-being. We should have learned much since Plato opened the first Academy in 387BC in Athens. The essence of education has to be that it is a central provision of society and that it has to be there for all to take full advantage. Arbitrary divisions at any age from the top-down perpetuate societal divisions and hinder society’s ability to grow – its emergent properties are stymied by the imposition of extra rigidities.

Further, the division of our schools by location would drive us backwards not forwards as many schools in economically poorer areas will continue to be second-tier (compared to the better maintained sector schools and remote, third tier compared to the private sector) and will never have a chance to recover that position. Plato’s division of society (or Huxley’s) will be set.

Those of us who can stand aside from public or private sector top-down views of society don’t need to accept this position. Our children should retain access to the best throughout their lives. A two-tier exam system on top of a three-tier education system is out of date and condemns too many, too early.

The fight over education

19th or 20th Century dogmas are both wrong.

Michael Gove has a challenge and is enlisting 19th Century ideals to battle the 20th Century ideals that face him in our school system.

 

The Education “Challenge”

 

The challenge seems to be that forces that became dominant in the 20th Century – collectivism amongst school teachers, health and safety concerns, equality issues, access for all, centralised curriculum, centralised examinations, huge access to tertiary education (universities), building programmes, comprehensive education “norms” and belief systems – have, from Gove’s standpoint, gone too far.

 

While he believes that education should be always excellent, always accessible for those that strive, always providing a route to further and higher education, he feels stymied by what is seen as a Labour agenda from the 1960’s: public sector control over public assets and, worse, a public sector mindset.

 

That mindset means that equality risks being the bye-word for dumbing down – as expressed in views that exams are made easier so that everyone passes, that no-one is a failure, that competitive sport is old-fashioned and everyone should be a winner.

 

This simplistic notion of the maintained (government) school system is now rivaled by simplistic notions of what works better.

 

The Government Education Response

 

The Coalition response to the Challenge (or really the Conservative Gove response) is to throw 19th Century attitudes at it. The key to Gove’s rebuttal of mid-20th Century dogma is mid-19th Century dogma.

 

First, it is a market approach to the problem. The assumption is that the market knows best so bring in competition and all will be well. Some years ago, I wrote to Michael Gove when he was in opposition. As a Chair of Governors of a successful secondary school, I proposed, through my MP, that Government treats each of the 3,600 Secondary Schools as independent organisations in a way that business would not. Business would try to work out how such a range of “subsidiaries” would benefit from joint buying, better systems, better management and learning opportunities for critical IT staff and so on. Gove responded that he rejected this as each school should be seen to compete with each other and that it provided parents with “choice”. Only someone with no business sense whatsoever would say such a thing.

 

So, choice (like shelves of cornflakes that no-one can choose between) is the solution and we have old-style Academies, new-style Academies, grammar schools, independent schools, church and other faith schools, new free schools, chains of academies. The range is growing and is beginning to grow out of control.

 

When presented with a business-like way forward (such as above and also through the James Review on school buildings presented last year and which appears to have been dismissed), Government shuts up shop and develops ostrich tendencies.

 

Gove’s other 19th Century demand is to go back to reading our history and learning by rote; through progress via examination (no more modular teaching); through a private school regimen that comes from his background and his history. To this is added the rigour of school uniforms and standing when teacher enters the room. Sir Michael Wilshaw, now Head of Ofsted, is his main supporter in this area. Sir Michael’s approach (vindicated in several tough schools) is forthright and to the point – poor teachers should be expelled, poor schools turned around fast or taken over.

 

Gove is also pulled between business demands that pupils should be armed with the ability to be business fodder and the wider aims of education (which he understands well) and which provide our young people with the abilities to play a full part in the world they live in. Here, maybe there is a link between the 19th Century and the 21st, which Mr. Gove should consider deeply.

 

The Private vs. Public argument – the wrong argument

 

This is all typical of our outmoded politics and the strained linkage between the private sector and the public sector.  The private sector allows those who can pay to be separate from the rest. My previous notes on this: The Brave New World of Education (I and II)  – see https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=153&action=edit

 

discussed how education was splitting into 3 – the private sector (alphas), good parts of the maintained sector (betas) and the rest (epsilons).

 

The response has been to play off the private sector and private sector attitudes against the public sector responses of the mid-1960’s.

 

Of course, the reality is that there is really hardly any competition between the private and public sector. Private education is for sale, goes to those who can afford it and it is only at the margin that a competition with the maintained sector exists. The vast majority of private sector parents never consider the option of not paying except between different independent schools – i.e. the competition is between private schools. Those that do are part of the “squeezed middle” – often moving to areas with good secondary schools to obtain at least the “beta” education on offer.

 

In the maintained sector, it is similar. A new building for a comprehensive school will immediately increase the demand for that school – but the demand is mainly drawn from other maintained schools in the catchment area.

 

Overall, competition is irrelevant to the question that is central:

 

What do we want from education for all our people?

 

Education for What?

 

In the 19th Century, we had two systems: one for the wealthy and aristocracy which educated our leaders; one (minimal) for the rest.

 

We retain the systems today and it has been hard to break the duopoly. However, we now have three systems within the two stated: private (alpha, still educating our leaders) and public (split by postcode into beta and epsilon).

 

What is needed is to generate a school system based on what society needs – not what entrenched groups may want. We do need to break the status quo.

 

If we (or at least most of us) agree that education should provide (from nursery to primary and through secondary) an education that provides accessibility to all, opportunity to all, does not shy away from the fact that we are all different, understands that education and opportunity should not be down to where you are born or the wealth of your parents, and persistent excellence in teaching, motivation and discovery, then the varied types of schools we now have should be joined in working to achieve this.

 

Students should not be born to lead or born to stack shelves. We should be opening up the doors to those who may have talent and desire to succeed and that means that those doors must be kept open continuously (not just at 11 and 16).

 

What is the answer?

 

There should be just one type of school – let’s call it an Academy as the Greeks (despite current problems) were intelligent enough to have the first and for many years the most prestigious.

 

All private sector and public sector schools should be converted to Academy status.

 

For the time being, funding will be retained as now – private to independent and public to maintained sector.

 

A team of from the private sector, maintained sector, civil society and government (not a government committee) would work to establish what education is supposed to be for: maybe a two-year review which will, undoubtedly be full of disputes and arguments, but will lay the foundations for the UK’s (if Scotland and Northern Ireland are willing to be involved) future learning – a model for the 21st Century.

 

The move to a common Academy system with two main groups within it (private-funded and public-funded) should be a forum for mutual learning via the needs of civil society, private and the public sector.

 

From this, we need to learn were the private sector (business) can work best – for example, provisioning of facilities and services (where the public sector is normally worse and too bureaucratized).

 

We should be able to build more cross-fertilisation that is happening on occasion now within private sector groups that adopt maintained schools – the smaller accumulation of knowledge across the divide that Haberdashers (for example) is providing.

 

We should also be able to explore how systems work in different environments – how to change the postcode lottery where it isn’t necessarily the teachers or the students, but the low aspiration levels of the communities.

 

Private / Public sectors and Education

 

Coming together in this way – and meaning it – rather than all-out competition in an area which cannot be completely market dominated nor purely public sector would be fit for the 21st Century. More than that, it would begin to frame the dialogue about what education is really about without (a) depriving the private sector of its rights to be different and (b) depriving the maintained sector (the public sector) of its right to improve. Moving the sectors to work together nationally (rather than merely at the local level) and ensuring that it is not just Government that can dictate what education is there to provide is essential in the 21st Century. Politicians are no longer the ones who know what to do. They do not represent public opinion and rarely shape it. Civil society needs to be better represented in the areas that count for the most and education is one area that cries out for change of this type.

 

Additionally, what is likely to emerge from this but a framework for a national education system with the potential to have the best of private and public education – but, for the benefit of those in the middle (the people who are being educated and their families).  A framework where private sector and public plus representatives of those whose education we are discussing (the educatees and parents and guardians) can continuously evaluate the benefits of particular models and judge progress.

 

A new model for the 21st Century is one where all sectors of the population work together rather than compete. The nation’s education is important enough for something really radical to take shape. Education is broken – it needs fixing but not piecemeal and not school by school.