It is nearly the end of 2011, so time to look back and think about what has happened to education in England during 2011. When thinking what to write here, one theme struck me as paramount, namely the rampant politicisation of the education agenda. It seems that every single facet of education from the way schools are funded, to the buildings they inhabit, to the exams the students take, to the pensions the teachers have to live on after years of service have been subjected, this year, to a ramping up of political pressure.
Of course education has always been politicised, it is state funded from general taxation and each political party quite rightly has its own beliefs on the best way of spending that money. The series of decisions in the 20th century to make schooling universal were political in nature. Since that time, any further decisions about what happens in education have been entangled within political structures and caught up in the nuanced (and not so nuanced) party politics of the day. But it seems to me that since the coalition has come to power and begun running education in England and Wales this politicisation has intensified and crucially it has become more divisive.
So what is the nature of this politicisation and how is it being manifested? Firstly it is related to the evidence base used to frame national debates about educational standards. Paranoia about standards in free fall as exams become ever easier was part of the wallpaper during the New Labour years, and that motive has not disappeared. But there is now a new kid on the block in the form of the PISA programme which Michael Gove has used as the groundbass for nearly every speech he has made to show that standards in English schools have been falling relative to our international counterparts. Gove seized on the PISA scores which show England falling back from 7th (out of 32 countries) for reading in 2000 to 25th (out of 65 countries) in 2009 (1). Once Gove sat down in the big chair at the department for education he had of course to trash the previous administration’s performance in education. This, for once, is not solely the fault of Gove, but rather a function of the black and white, yabooh politics which seems to be as British as ‘Fish and Chips’. No Secretary of State in an incoming government which has been out of power for 13 years could admit to achievements by their predecessors. Instead a narrative of rapid decline and an imminent crisis with millions of illiterate school leavers flooding the streets had to be quickly sketched out so the right wing press could portray the coalition reforms as saving the nation from sure destruction. But the PISA data, just like any data, can be contested, and in October even the TES accused Gove of cherry picking PISA data by not entering English schools into the Problem Solving tests (2). Commentators are split as to whether English pupils would do even worse on the problem solving tests than they do in reading, maths and science, or whether they would actually steal a march on other countries by showing some flair for problem solving and lateral thinking. We will never know the truth, but as John Bangs states in that article, if you are going to use PISA as the benchmark then you can’t start ‘pulling back’. The exam system has been further tainted late in 2011 by revelations that exam boards were coaching teachers on the content of exam papers.
The second major locus of politicisation in education is on supply side reforms to schooling, namely the free schools and academy agenda. This is the coalition answer to what they see as years of failure prior to their taking office and can be summed up in the word ‘autonomy’. Gove constantly talks of the need for autonomy and how this can raise standards in schools. ‘Autonomy’ has become a rather totemic word, seemingly imbued with magic powers and resisting attempts to unpick exactly what it might mean and crucially how Local Authority schools lacked ‘autonomy’. Reforms in this area have been radical and far reaching and the impact will be felt for many years. In the very early days of the coalition, the academies bill was passed but not given the usual period of scrutiny for a major bill. The chair of the Education Select Committee lamented this rushing of the legislation (3), and he is a Conservative himself so unlikely to be rocking the boat unless he felt very strongly about this. Using governmental powers reserved for times of terrorist attack to force through education reforms is itself a highly suspect act and not allowing proper debate of the changes was an affront to the democratic principles and standards of the country which traditionally the Conservatives have purported to support and uphold. The result of the bill was to create a dash for schools to become academies as not only the rules but the whole philosophy behind the principles of academies was changed overnight. New Labour created the academy programme to allow sponsors to take on schools which had been failing; but Gove opened up the process to any schools with ‘outstanding’ OfSTED ratings and dropped the need for a sponsor to work with the schools. At the same time the concept of the ‘Free School’ was launched. From a legal, technical and financial perspective a free school is an academy, but groups (such as parents, or academy chains) can apply to create a school where none existed before. The word ‘free’ in ‘free school’ is a piece of political bunkum without parallel. Free schools are anything but free in terms of cost to the tax payer. There have been repeated attempts to get information about the costs of setting up a free school, but these appear to have been successful (5). Many people have strong suspicions that free schools are in fact very very expensive schools, hoovering up bucket loads of cash when budgets to other schools have been under attack. Free schools do appear to be free from having to teach the national curriculum, but late in the year a story broke that the Secretary of State was requiring academies and free schools to teach promote marriage and protect students from ‘inappropriate teaching materials’ (4). Failure to toe the line and teach this conservative cultural agenda could lead to a school’s funding being cut. So essentially the Secretary of State now has direct control over what is taught in schools and the legal and technical powers to close any which do not comply. When schools were funded at arms length by government with the local authority acting as proxy this threat was not possible and schools were somewhat protected from caveats from Whitehall. So the word ‘free’ in free schools has more spin on it than a Federer serve, it is slippier than ; it is a word which has been hideously interfered with and abused in the most cruel and unusual way. As a result the word insults the usual way in which we bring semantics and syntax together to make sense of language.
The final way in which education has been overtly politicised is a very cunning move on the coalition’s part. Free Schools and academies float free of local authority control so they sit within a local community where people are as likely to object to them as they are to support them. The localisation agenda here is used to create conflict within communities as supporters of either the LA schools or the academies/free schools do battle as to what types of schools will serve their communities. Opposition to academies is nothing new, but a new phrase ‘forced academisation’ entered the educational lexicon this year to describe a school being forced to become an academy against the wishes of the local community, the governors and/or the staff. One wonders if politicians who take to platforms to protest their profound desire to improve the ‘life chances’ of young people bother to reflect on how the creation of so much conflict at a local level was a help or hindrance to improving educational outcomes.
We should expect more rather than less direct political intervention in the coming year and further polarisation over the types of schools which are seen as successful or desirable. I end the year convinced of one thing namely that education is far too important to be left to politicians; and hoping for another namely some vestiges of objectivity creep into these debates.
1: DFE (2010) Secretary of State comments on PISA study of school systems, [online] available: http://www.education.gov.uk/inthenews/inthenews/a0070008/secretary-of-state-comments-on-pisa-study-of-school-systems date accessed 13th December 2011.
2: Times Education Supplement (2011) Mr Gove fixes new PISA problems by ignoring them [online] available: http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6115609 date accessed 13th December 2011
3: BBC (2010) Academies Bill rushed through Claim [online] Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-10664722
4: Daily Telegraph (2011) Free Schools and Academies must promote marriage [online] Available: http://tgr.ph/uPlItc
5: Whatdotheyknow.com (2011) Costs for Current Free School Projects [online] Available http://bit.ly/vuCJtc.
Image is Creative Commons. Provided by user: ‘regional cabinet’ on Flickr. Amended by author by the addition of a speech bubble of parodic nature in response to the news tht the Secretary of State wants free schools and academies to promote marriage http://bit.ly/rEz5y2.