Monday, 10 September 2012

12 steps to education heaven?

Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools by Andrew Adonis (Biteback Publishing Ltd, London, 2012)

Andrew Adonis was the principal driving force behind the education reforms of New Labour, his main contribution being the development of the academy system to improve the standards of failing comprehensives. This book describes how and why he arrived at this conclusion, and what he believes is the way forward. 

The child of a Greek-Cypriot immigrant brought up in a Camden Children’s Home, Adonis’s father and social worker gained him a place at Kingham Hill Boarding School in Oxfordshire.  His final headteacher David Shepherd urged him to try his old college Keble in Oxford, where he studied history, before eventually becoming a historian and lecturer himself.

Andrew Adonis became an education advisor in Tony Blair’s Labour governments after 1997, and inspired by his early experiences writes in the foreword:

“All this gave me a burning sense that education matters fundamentally. That inspirational teachers, and all who work with children, matter fundamentally. That institutions matter fundamentally. And that values, sometimes through religion, matter fundamentally.”

Lord Adonis puts forward a twelve point plan for reforming schools in England. There are a number of ideas in here which I can agree with, subject specialism for teachers through most of the school system, greater democracy and citizenship (including votes at sixteen), greater provision at the pre-school stage, and streamlining of governing bodies.

He doesn’t hold back, stating that in the eighties and early nineties comprehensives were ‘palpably and seriously failing.’ But he also holds himself up as a radical who is fighting against the tide, quoting Machiavelli from The Prince, “For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institutions and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new ones.”

He embarked on his mission to transform what he saw as the ‘secondary modern comprehensive,’ schools he believed little better at best, and in too many cases no better, than the secondary moderns they had replaced. But he faced obstacles, especially from those involved in schools on a daily basis. His concern was, “How to end the bureaucratic levelling-down culture within the teacher unions, the local education authorities and the education department itself?”

He felt the Thatcher government’s Grant Maintained Schools had failed because they had weak leadership, were in the firm grip of Local Education Authorities and ‘militant’ NUT involvement. They were not improving, the initiative placed little emphasis on setting up new schools and there were no new governance models.

Indeed, it was the little known City Technology Colleges (CTC) that impressed him, the key being they were independent, had sponsor/promoters, were not for profit, and non-fee paying. That they had been largely ignored by the outgoing Conservative government, meant that Labour in 1997 were not under any pressure to abolish them, which seems to have suited Adonis down to the ground.

                                Thomas Telford School a CTC that inspired Andrew Adonis
Quality of leadership is vital in any organisation whether school, business or government for that matter as he rightly says about comprehensives, if these things weren’t already in place before taking on CTC status, then merely renaming them wasn’t going to solve the problems.

Adonis seems to see academies as the only way to improve educational standards in underperforming schools saying, “It is urgent that all underperforming schools, primary as well as secondary, become academies.”  

However, he is uncritical of how the coalition government reversed the policy, when instead of concentrating on the failing schools they set about turning outstanding schools into academies. Although this was the end game of Adonis’s policy he fails to defend it, as there remain some 650 failing comprehensives which you’d expect him to believe were the priority.

One of the big concerns with academies was how they would affect surrounding schools, taking away funding for these big new projects. He is very dismissive of these, saying that the evidence shows surrounding schools raised their standards to compete. However, he doesn’t say how these schools were doing before the academy came into being, whether they were good schools, or improving, as otherwise they would have been academy candidates themselves.

Adonis does not really acknowledge the doubts that parents and indeed many educational professionals have with sponsors,  principally that as academies are outside of local authority control, these sponsors could have a counter-productive influence on the curriculum and the running of the schools.

He also doesn’t really address another reason for opposition and how experience, as well as ideology will have affected views. He writes extensively about the failures of past reforms but doesn’t consider whether this is what worried opponents, another expensive and complicated reform, that would do little or nothing to improve education or the life prospects of children.

Sir Michael Wilshaw now Ofsted chief was head of Mossbourne Academy which replaced the closed and failed Hackney Downs School.
Andrew Adonis supports the free schools which Michael Gove has introduced, seeing them as, ‘academies without a predecessor state school.’ He completely avoids telling us that free schools can be established in any building that is not necessarily fit for purpose, and that they do not have a requirement to hire qualified teachers. 

He does not mention at all the New Schools Network which has the sole responsibility for deciding whether a free school has a viable business plan and as we have seen in recent weeks, there are faults, as schools can have their funding withdrawn very late, meaning parents and local authorities have to find places very close to the new term. Whatever you may think of the academy system, and the way it’s set up, Andrew Adonis can’t be accused of not caring about, or thinking about how it should work, and went about it with rigour.

One theme that Andrew Adonis keeps going back to is the small number of graduates that come into teaching from Oxbridge and the Russell group universities, seeming to believe that only top graduates make good teachers. He heavily promotes the Teach First model, a private charity which selects apparently quality graduates from the top universities. They are then put through an intensive period of summer training, then placed in schools in deprived areas, on a two-year placement. 

The principles of Teach First are laudable, and they seem to be very good at what they do, though currently it is they, and not the school, that pick who goes where, which Adonis feels should change. If I have one bone to pick, it’s that in his promotion of Teach First, Lord Adonis should declare an interest and mention he’s a founding ambassador and trustee of the charity.

As a member of the Labour Party and someone who works in education, I was very keen to read this book and I certainly found it very interesting.  The journey to academies is painstakingly described, but he does tend to gloss over some of the problems, and like a true evangelist, focusses on the positive, whilst downplaying the negatives.

The idea of Andrew Adonis’s I am most enthusiastic about is that specialist teaching should not only be guaranteed, but should start sooner. I wouldn’t go as far as to start it in year one, I think for the first three to four years of schooling other things are as important as academic education. I would start specialising at year four, or five at the latest, and encourage a middle-school system. Many academies in the early days set themselves up for the 14-19 range, and this would be ideal I believe.

The Conservatives in government will love this book, because it supports their ideas that it is by involving those considered the drivers of the economy is the best way to go. The left will generally hate it, especially those who were against the academy idea from the outset, as it confirms all their prejudices, not only about New Labour but also about the possible dangers of allowing companies to take over schools.

The twelve point plan is somewhat utopian, especially in the idea of schools as community hubs, but it is only by aiming for the best, and constantly striving for it, that you have any chance of attaining it. I admire Andrew Adonis’ zeal, and his genuine goal to improve the education in English schools. He tends towards a one size fits all approach, which is ironic as that doesn’t seem to be his intention. Schools can’t all be the same, because the children aren’t. 

The book sells itself as a series of radical reforms by a ‘professional optimist,’ something anybody seeking to reform education in England needs to be.

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