Schools that really do work for everyone – Janet Dobson

Prime Minister Theresa May has once again been talking about ‘burning injustices’, referring to disparities in regard to things like educational outcomes and employment. There are many factors involved here but the secondary school system must surely be one of them. So what’s wrong?

Over the last twenty years, vast amounts of money and effort have been devoted to promoting differences between schools, driven by the desire to create a competitive schools ‘market’ and ‘enable parents to choose the school best suited to their child’, as the rhetoric goes. In theory, therefore, secondary provision should now be much better matched to the individual needs and abilities of young people from all backgrounds.

The trouble is that the theory doesn’t work. Choice of school will always in practice be limited, even in cities. If the language specialist school in your area is a girls’ school, it will not be a choice for your son. If your preferred school is a Catholic school, your child will not stand a chance of a place unless you are Catholic or it is undersubscribed by Catholics. If you think a popular community school or a new ‘free’ school is the one best suited to your child, you may find other chlldren have priority because they live nearer.

And if we’re talking about social justice, it’s important to remember all those whose parents are not active ‘choosers’ of schools. They include children who do not live with their families and have no parent to look out for them, children from homeless families who are moving around and thousands of others with difficult lives.

If the aim is to provide a good education for everybody’s child, then we have to focus our resources on making every school an effective school providing diverse learning opportunities, rather than creating diverse types of school in the name of competition and choice. Some schools created in the last few years have closed again, others have failed to fill all their places. This has involved huge amounts of public money, as have the structures supporting such initiatives.

Real choice of subject and activity for all pupils can be provided within schools and by schools collaborating with others. Such collaboration may involve neighbouring schools, FE colleges, employers, universities and local organisations like sports clubs, drama groups and Saturday music schools. Only thus can every child discover what they enjoy learning and what they’re good at and gain the knowledge, skills and qualifications they need for the next stage in their lives. Where gaps in provision are identified in local areas, particularly post-16, they need to be filled in a planned and agreed way to ensure take-up and cost-effectiveness. This goes against the grain of a competitive ‘market’.

The introduction of market dogma into education has weakened the attention paid at national level to the diversity of children’s circumstances. It has put pressure on schools to burnish their ‘brand’ by recruiting the children most likely to succeed and losing the ones who aren’t. At the same time, the framework of national policy on the curriculum and examinations constrains what they can do to cater for all their pupils. And reductions in funding since 2010 have made it even harder.

This does not mean that most heads and teachers are not striving to fulfill the ideal of opportunity for all, whether the sign over the door says ‘academy’, ‘community school’ or whatever. The prospectus of Passmore’s Academy, a co-operative academy made famous on television in Educating Essex, states:

“At the core of our philosophy is that every individual counts; the care for and education of students must be at the heart of every development.”

It is a philosophy that needs re-emphasis in national policy but was not very evident in the Consultation Paper entitled ‘Schools that work for everyone’, launched by the Department for Education in 2016. It stated the ambition to extend opportunity to all but, like many books with seductive titles, its content proved disappointing.

Achieving the goal of ‘more good school places’ (rather than ‘all good school places’) was seen to involve the establishment of grammar schools. Recognising that better-off children predominate in those which still exist, it contained the extraordinary question:

“What is the right proportion of children from lower income households for new selective schools to admit?”

This takes us back a hundred years, when a strictly-limited number of children from poorer families were allowed into fee-paying grammar schools on scholarships. More to the point, it indicates a poverty of thinking about how all children, from whatever social background, can be enabled to achieve the best they can.

Getting to a situation where every school is a strong school enabling all to flourish requires a combination of strategies at different levels. However, it must surely mean focussing resources and effort directly on that objective, not on pursuing divisive developments that will not help to achieve it.

The Labour Party’s draft 10 point charter for a National Education Service which appeared last month (September 2017) is refreshingly devoid of market jargon and emphasizes collaboration.

Let’s hope we’re going to see a new vision for secondary education, one which starts with the needs of the child and not of ‘the market’.

October 2017

Janet Dobson is Senior Research Associate, Migration Research Unit, University College London and director of national research on pupil mobility and implications for schools.