TIME FOR A GAME CHANGER: A ROYAL COMMISSION ON EDUCATION IS NEEDED
Opposition to the 2016 Education White Paper, “Education Excellence Everywhere”, has been vocal and widespread, and rightly so. Even some Tory MPs are unhappy with compulsory academisation. Yet the Government has said there will be no U-turn. We must take this seriously. As SOSS pointed out it in its autumn briefing, the Coalition government explicitly claimed to be engaged in a School Revolution. The Conservatives are now simply accelerating it. This White Paper brings together the whole gamut of right-wing dogmas and is attempting to achieve a complete sweep across the whole English education system.
The situation calls for a Game Changing initiative. While opposition has rightly focussed on compulsory academisation and the removal of obligatory parent governors, there is more to the White Paper: one commentator counted 87 items of Government intent, all starting with the phrase “We will …”.
Initial Teacher Training (ITT) is to move from the present shared responsibility of universities and schools to schools only, with serious implications for the pedagogic knowledge of future teachers. There is no evidence that removing higher education from ITT makes for better teaching. This decision is typical of a political approach in which evidence is not recognised as a key issue and objections are sidelined. This recalls Michael Gove’s denigration of objectors to his policies as “The Blob”.
Some of the White Papers’ proposals may be worthwhile but they all merit careful scrutiny and debate by the full educational community before any are enacted. In addition to those mentioned above the proposed changes in QTS, the intent to “embed a knowledge-based curriculum as the cornerstone of an excellent, academically rigorous education to age 16”, the policy of “more robust and rigorous GCSEs and A levels”, the reforms promised for primary school assessments; and “the development of the character traits and fundamental British values that will help children succeed”, are all issues which require careful discussion by parents, teachers, business and professional people, academics and other interested parties before government decisions are taken which will affect the millions of the nations’ children.
Undoubtedly there is common ground between Government, teachers, parents and the wider community that education matters and that children should get good schooling. But the authors of this White Paper show a frightening level of ignorance about what others think good schooling is and how it is achieved. They are driven by ideology, not by debate. In particular the contention that academy trusts will provide better schooling than local authorities is not substantiated by evidence.
The brutal reality of the government’s “School Revolution” is that opposition so far has not reversed the direction of travel, nor even slowed it down. As the Education Select Committee noted last year, independent reports demonstrate a sustained lack of evidence that becoming an academy leads to improvement in standards, with government spokespersons resorting to anecdotal improvements in individual schools. Even this has now been abandoned as Schools Minister Nick Gibb at the ResearchEd Conference on September 5th last year accepted that academies are not necessarily better than maintained schools. The National Audit Office has reported on financial problems in academies accounts, as has the Public Accounts Committee, with little effect.
So, sadly, conventional evidence-based campaigning is ineffective. Studies such as The Truth About Our Schools (Downs and Benn, Routledge, 2015) and Bad Education – Debunking Myths in Education (Adey and Dillon, Open University, 2012) have not swayed government thinking. Nor have anguished letters in newspapers: The Guardian, for example, has had batches of letters under these headings over recent months: “The many reasons why there’s a teacher shortage” (13 October 2015), “Schools don’t have to be exam factories” (1 March 2016), “Academisation and a school system on the brink” (25 March 2016), “Primary testing regime needs greater scrutiny” (2 May 2016). Sound arguments, some of which now come from inside the Conservative Party itself, make no difference to a government that ignores these challenges.
The Labour critique of the White Paper in the Commons debate of April 13th focussed on forced academisation and the removal of parental governors, both valid targets. But, as noted above, the threats of the White Paper are wider. A way of uniting the various opposition currents and forcing a suspension of the White Paper could be to demand a Royal Commission on Education. There have been no Royal Commissions on Education since the Clarendon, Newcastle and Taunton commissions of the nineteenth century. Politicians may prefer to operate in secret – the White Paper came as a surprise even within the Conservative Party – but state schools belong to all of us and are not the property of politicians. Parents, teachers, academics, business and professional folk, as well as politicians and others, have a stake in state schools and any major changes should be approved by their representatives in sober dialogue with government ministers.
A Royal Commission would require a temporary halt on change in our education system and would open a forum for reasoned evidence and rational argument. It would be a Game Changer.
Of course, it is governments that set up Royal Commissions, so the initiative would need an energetic and subtle campaign to see it happen. Is it not time for the People to regain control of our education system, using the precedents of the Victorians to open a 21st century agenda,
May 2016 Michael Bassey and Trevor Fisher