A Reply To Fiona Millar’s Latest Exercise in DenialismApril 10, 2012
I should probably leave this alone. I have marking to do and other blogposts to write. But this article in the Guardian deserves a response and I have been banned from their comments for reasons unknown, so I’ll say it here.
I have a certain sympathy for Fiona Millar’s principles. A good quality of education should be provided for all, without any assumptions about what “kids like these” are capable of. I support the comprehensive principle when it means aspiring to a high quality education for everybody regardless of background. Unfortunately, this “levelling-up” vision is often replaced with a “levelling-down” vision in which the political principle at stake is that the children of the better off should be deprived of a high quality education in the hope that this will somehow benefit everybody else. Most advocates of such a position soon abandon it when their own children are the ones to be levelled down. Fiona Millar cannot be criticised on this score. As I understand it, she has sent her children to the local comprehensive. This is also, as I understand it, something she has in common with some of the other founders of the Local Schools Network.
The big issue I have with the Local Schools Network is the way that having, at the very least, foregone some significant educational opportunities for their own children, they try to pretend that they haven’t. This was highlighted to me by a recent Telegraph article about state schooling. There is a noticeable contrast between two educational progressives who sent their children to apparently very poor state comprehensives.
On the one hand, we have Matthew Taylor, of the RSA admitting that there has been a cost to pursuing his principles:
“There’s no question in my mind that my children have done perfectly OK, but they would have done better at [nearby public school] Dulwich College. The facilities aren’t as good and they haven’t had the same level of academic reinforcement from their peers. Working hard and achieving gets you stick from other kids.”
On the other hand we have the denialist account from Francis Gilbert of the Local Schools Network claiming that when he tried private schooling:
“There was an over-academic emphasis, with four-to-five year-olds sitting in silence and being made to read, when there is a lot of evidence that play is more appropriate at that age … I had a visceral feeling those lessons were not appropriate… [When his son was moved to the local state school] He benefited from learning by doing things, which is promoted in the state system, as opposed to the drilling and rote learning he was used to”
Or, in other words, if private schools cause you to learn more, than learning must be a bad thing.
The Local Schools Network is a group of privileged middle class people trying to persuade other privileged middle class people that state comprehensives are a good place to send your kids. Any argument; any claim; any ideology; any lie, is considered acceptable as a tactic to persuade. It is simply a philosophical dispute within the middle classes about principles. Like much of the London-based, middle class left, they simply do not comprehend that there is a world beyond their social class. In their world a bad local school means extra money on private tuition or the embarrassment of abandoning your ideology; in the world beyond it can mean a guarantee of continuing poverty. In their world a good local comprehensive is a chance to save money and retain the right to be self-righteous at dinner parties; in the world beyond it means a route out of poverty. In their world it is a matter of high principle to put on a brave face and deny the manifest failures of our broken education system; in the world beyond it means writing off working class kids as basically not suited to the kind of education middle class people want for their own kids.
It is this acceptance of a second-rate education system for working class kids, and the denigration of anybody who suggests that they deserve better, that makes the Local Schools Network and its philosophy of high-minded denialism so dangerous. Fiona Millar’s Guardian article collects several of those denialist arguments and excuses for denigrating achievement together.
The first argument is simply the ad hominem that would be aimed at any dinner party guest careless enough to mention that they were considering avoiding their local comprehensive. The idea that the comprehensive system has failed is “usually promoted by people who have never been in a comprehensive school, don’t use them for their own children, or who read the Daily Mail”. This actually tells us more about Fiona Millar’s social circle than the argument in question. Comprehensive schools are full of teachers who send their kids to the local private or selective schools because they know the system doesn’t work. Working class areas are full of people who regret how the local comprehensives failed them and their family. These are simply not the people she mixes with. She only ever meets people who, having realised the system is failing, are able to steer clear of it. The millions stuck with it either personally or professionally are too far removed from her. It is more likely that somebody has read about schools in crisis in the Daily Mail, than seen it with their own eyes. Just in case there is any doubt that, to her, the issue is not what schools are like in reality, but what principles you adhere to, she responds to the point about what comprehensives are like in real-life, with an explanation of what the word “comprehensive” means in theory. More extreme denialism then appears in the form of a claim that standards have risen, as if O-level results or university entrance in the 60s is remotely comparable to GCSE results and university entrance now.
The second argument is a claim that since the eighties local authorities don’t run schools. Schools did become considerably more autonomous at that time. However, the power of local authorities to wreck schools cannot be underestimated. I have worked in an authority where schools were told to exclude no student at all, no matter how badly behaved they were. I have worked in a school which went into chronic decline because the local authority would no longer support the federation that had been overseeing its improvement. I have sat through so many INSET sessions where local authorities sent idiots to lie to us about what methods of teaching work best or how best to deal with disruptive children. I am more concerned with standards than structures and, of course, things have changed recently, but nobody can really doubt that local authorities can have a decisive influence over schools. Weak headteachers invariably listen to local authorities first.
The third argument is the usual Local Schools Network preoccupation with statistical measures of which types of school do best. They have some carefully selected statistics suggesting academies are, on average, no better than non-academies. The DfE has some equally carefully collected statistics suggesting academies are, on average, slightly better than non-academies. The idea shared by both is that once you have your statistics about what happens on average you are fully qualified to make decisions in specific cases. Back in the real world, the success of schools will depend on the competence of the people running them, be they SMT, academy chain or local authority and anybody making a decision about the running of the school because of what happens “on average” will discover too late that it turns out that the people they have given control to may actually be far below average. If she’d oppose a school joining the ARK Schools chain, then she’s seriously misguided. If she opposes a school working with the RSA, then I will cheer her on.
The fourth argument is, I think, an attempt to quell the hype around Michael Wilshaw, the man in charge of OFSTED. She points out that Mossbourne Academy, the school he is famous for running, in on the site of the infamous Hackney Downs school which was shut down in 1995, but is not the same school. This is true, and some newspaper reports have incorrectly tried to suggest he “turned around” a failing school, so this is a fair point. However, we should not forget that defenders of Hackney Downs claimed that its location was a key part of its problems. Nor should we forget that even the Guardian admits that in Wilshaw’s first headship (at St Bonaventure’s Roman Catholic school in Newham) he “transformed … a struggling school into an outstanding one”. Regardless of whether it was a turnaround or a new school, Mossbourne is an example to others. If it is only allowed to be an example of what new schools can do rather than what academy conversion can do, then I’ll expect her to keep that in mind next time she discusses free schools.
I would rather have written all this in the comments on the Guardian article, but as my posts to the Guardian website are “premoderated” it is unlikely that anybody would have got to read it anytime soon. Please feel free to post a link to this there. And while you’re there, please also feel free to mention what your experience of comprehensive schools has been like. I wouldn’t want Fiona Millar to think you were reading this blog because it chimed with something you’d read in the Daily Mail.