Getting engaged (2)

I’ve already has a brief look in an earlier blog at aspects of the criminal justice system, where the wrong conclusions have been drawn, and the argument for more prisons and prison places has driven the debate. But we also read in both the Economist and Prospect about attempts in the USA and now in Glasgow to implement a much more locally-based approach to dealing with macho street culture by calling in and engaging with local gang members. With significant reductions in violence and murder it’s a policy which is already proving how much more effective engagement (however difficult) can be. This is just the kind of approach I would expect Cameron and his team to be arguing, but instead we’ve a focus on incarceration. Good for the grass-roots, bad for making any real progress with the issues of crime reduction.

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Turning to education we have Michael Gove, who to his great credit has put himself and his policies on the line, out there, radical, and at the core of Tory thinking after their expected victory, which isn’t to say that there isn’t something wild and worrying, and overly top-down, about much of what he has to say.

Why wild?

Giving parents the right to set up new schools, for one. In an area where provision needs to be planned and balanced, intended for the good of all, reliant on experience and employing best practice, this seems quite simply to be dangerous. Parents have expectations of the best for their children but they have no insights into education as such, other than what their own education has given them. They don’t normally have expertise to bring to bear, and if they have ideas about education they are as like as not to be doctrinaire, backing their own ideas and assumptions. The most vociferous parents are likely to win out, without any regard for what the real best interests of children and schools may be.

Most parents don’t want involvement in the running of schools. They recognise their own limitations of time and experience. They are willing to trust the experts in teaching and also in school administration, which as anyone who has ventured near it knows, is a complex matter.

It is not as if parents can bring business skills to running schools, or explore different approaches to education, as academy schools are doing (an area of some controversy in itself) at the moment. The only justification can be that parents have somehow a better idea about how to run schools than the current powers-that-be. We may think as passengers we could run Network Rail, or South West Trains, or as patients run the NHS, or as tax payers run the Inland Revenue…. I don’t wish to take the point too far, but while parental input is vital to the effective functioning of the educational system, they shouldn’t have any involvement in running it.

Finally, it’s a recipe for chaos, with a variety of different schools, run differently, with the ethos varying from school to school, some self-managing, others under local authority control… I’d argue passionately for experimentation in the school system, but not in this fashion.

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Behind all this lies another Tory shibboleth, more recently borrowed by New Labour, and that’s freedom of choice. I’m in favour of freedom of choice. The threat of reduced rolls and the reduced income that follows is a very real one: no school can afford to be complacent about standards, achievements or ethos. But notions of parental freedom can’t extended to setting up schools. It would be a freedom only a few parents could enjoy, and the benefit of the few could easily be outweighed by the detriment of the many.

As a final point, evidence of the performance of academy schools suggests that newness and new finance may be more the driver of improved performance than anything else.  There may well be an initial surge in performance in parent-established schools but there is little to suggest that as an educational model they would longer-term be in any way superior to other schools.

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An area where Michael Gove is listening to parents, and to teachers, is on the subject of inclusion, whereby a small minority of children with little or no interest in learning can seriously impair the education of the majority. Teachers need to be able to create an ethos for learning, and that in many classrooms with disruptive pupils foisted on teachers can be difficult if not impossible.

On SATs he may be listening to the more vociferous elements in the teaching profession, but not so much to parents. He  should be taking on board the pressures testing can put on both teaching and pupils, but not to the extent of replacing all external assessment before GCSEs by teacher assessment, as the headteachers’ association, the NAHT, and the NUT more predictably, argue.

Parents need more than teacher assessments to judge a school. There’s a conflict here between interest groups at grass-roots level, between the providers, the teachers, and the customers, the parents.

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One more policy statement to end with: the right school will have to opt out of local authority control. We’re back to the directly-supported schools of twenty years ago, back to a twin (and more)-track approach. For just how long does Michael Gove plan to persevere with the muddle of academy schools, opt-outs and local authority schools? How does he expect to keep local authorities, clearly seen as out-moded and incompetent, motivated? Has he thought how governors who put in so much time will consider being sidelined?

(We hear much of the Swedish model but opted-out schools there only make up something like 10% of the total. Is Michael Gove anticipating something on a much wider, more radical scale? The implication of his policy is that he is.)

Stripping out local authorities and governing bodies and replacing them with ‘parent councils’ or similar, which will be toothless, runs counter to the arguments for genuine local involvement and accountability.

Local authorities shouldn’t be dismissed as obstacles. Barnet is one council which is trying to make grass-roots involvement more a part of local government. However controversial and maybe misguided it may be, it is at least asking some of the right questions.  Reform of local institutions where needed is likely to be a more effective way forward than ditching them altogether.

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