Anthony Seldon the Master of Wellington College has written a piece for The Daily Telegraph titled “The Grades are down, well done to you all“. In this piece he celebrates the reduction in the pass rate for GCSEs and hails this as a victory for Michael Gove and Nick Gibb (the schools minister) and their determination to halt the grade inflation which he argues has robbed the GCSE of its validity.
The level of patronisation in the early part of the piece is extreme. Seldon scripts it as if he were giving the send off at a speech day where the glittering riches of the Wellington clientele gather on the immaculate lawn to celebrate all that is great and good about themselves. But for the thousands of ordinary, working class kids who failed to get a C at GCSE because the exam boards changed the grade boundaries in the middle (yes the middle) of the assessment period, this tone of paternalistic self-congratulation and barely concealed gloating at the fall in pass rates is likely to ring hollow.
Seldon’s cheerleading for the Gove regime at the DfE is a real toe curler too. Especially as he parts company so early with any of the actual facts about what Gove is doing to state education. He soon settles down into parroting the frequently held opinion that academies and free schools are: ‘given freedoms enjoyed by their independent-sector colleagues.’ Seldon is reproducing exactly the Gove mantra here that bog standard schools are in the thrall of the Local Authority and are unable to innovate or even change as they are held down by the dead-hand of local bureaucracy. I simply do not believe this to be the case, and I don’t think heads (from either LA schools or academies) believe so either. If heads at community schools felt stifled in their attempts to innovate I rather think that a few of them would have popped up by now to tell their story. Conversely most schools which have converted to academies have done little radical in the way of innovation. Changing the uniform and logo don’t count here, I mean innovation which actually uses these much vaunted freedoms in creative and genuinely new ways. Some academies of course have innovated, but many of the ‘dash for cash quick convertor academies’ have simply undergone a change of name and legal status and business has remained much the same.
By linking Academies with the independent-sector, Seldon faithfully and masterfully reproduces another central plank of the Gove master narrative on schools, namely that the social class of the students is irrelevant when it comes to results. Gove is impatient of arguments which cite poor social backgrounds as an excuse for educational underachievement (and nearly all educators would join him broadly in this assertion), but in seeking to remove social class so completely from the picture the argument becomes futile. Some schools in poor areas have students who come to school hungry; the growing evidence of school age children who rely on food banks (http://bit.ly/RKuSDs). Students may also come from chaotic home backgrounds, have to cope with domestic abuse and drug and alcohol addiction from parents and carers and many of them will be carers for members of their family. Many will not have a space in the home where they can study or store their books, and access to a computer and an internet connection, something which the middle class now see as vital as having an inside toilet, may also be lacking. Middle England is hurting too as the recession deepens like a coastal shelf and job losses, house repossessions and a general lack of security amongst white-collar families is something that state schools are dealing with on a regular basis.
Fees at Wellington begin at £27,000 per year.
Seldon and Gove’s arguments, which eradicate social realities from schooling, are a subtle yet vicious form of class warfare. By eradicating social class from the education picture, despite overwhelming research evidence that it has a massive impact on achievement, Gove and Seldon can settle back with their glass of Pimms and look smugly at other schools and ask ‘why are they not achieving what we are?’. The truth is that the social class of students and their socio-economic status is not an excuse for poor performance, it is a sodding REASON for poor performance and many schools in the state sector manage to take students from poor backgrounds and raise their attainment way beyond what it should be by dint of creative teaching, pastoral interventions and hard work. And this has little to do with whether they are academies or LA schools. Wellington has almost unlimited resources to throw at any educational challenges which may come its way, one-to-one tuition to bring stragglers back up to par, extra lessons and so on will all be a natural part of the regime. Luxuries which state education cannot afford.
Towards the end of the piece Seldon reveals a little more as to why his joy at the lowering of success rates for GCSE is so unalloyed. It turns out that students at Wellington don’t actually bloody do GCSEs anymore. Instead they follow the middle years International Baccalaureate where teachers ‘set their own tests under a framework overseen by the IB’. No wonder Seldon can be so upbeat about the whole GCSE debacle, his merry band of 1%ers have totally escaped the shit-storm created when Gove pressured the exam boards to rejig the grade boundaries and they are progressing into the sixth form before you can so much as say ‘ya, ya ya’, and ‘here’s another cheque for 30 grand bursar’. Seldon urges other schools to follow this IB programme in the same way as a posh uncle would urge you to take up lacrosse. So far out of touch with Gove’s real agenda of centralised control is he, that he honestly believes that state-funded schools could get away with switching to an exam regime where the TEACHERS write the exams for the kids. Now I am not a betting man, but if I was I would stake my house on the fact that Gove would never allow teachers at state schools to set their own exams for students at age 16 and have these results as the basis for league table positions.
As Jane Austen may well have written: “Seldon, very Seldon, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; Seldon can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken.”