The English education system is bewilderingly fragmented. Depending on their postcode and in some cases on their ability to pay, a parent can now send their child to any one of the following: a state-run comprehensive, an academy, a “free school” (of which there are 79), a grammar school (of which 164 remain), a fee-paying private school, a city technology college, a maintained boarding school, or a faith school. Parents, it is said, want nothing more than a good local school for their children but it is less clear than ever what one of these should look like.
What is certain is that our education system remains profoundly unequal, a standing rebuke to our deluded self-image as a meritocracy. While England’s private schools educate just 7 per cent of school-age children, they account for more than 40 per cent of Oxbridge undergraduates. The privately educated dominate the professions and public life; look no further than the present cabinet for evidence of this. Our educational and university admissions systems privilege the already privileged.
On page 20, Andrew Adonis, the cerebral Labour peer and former schools minister, outlines his plan to end our system of educational apartheid. Every successful private school, and private school foundation, he argues, should “sponsor an academy or academies”, the model of secondary school – state-funded but outside local authority control – that has become increasingly dominant during Michael Gove’s period as Education Secretary. According to Mr Adonis, the private-state divide will be progressively eroded as fee-paying schools either take on responsibility for “the governance and leadership” of academies, or become academies themselves.
His essay offers the left a creative way to think about the education divide and to reframe the debate around academies. City academies, as they were formerly known, were introduced by the Blair government in 2000 to replace failing schools in socially deprived urban areas (the prefix “city” was dropped when the policy was expanded to non-urban areas). The policy was, by any reasonable measure, a remarkable success, with average GCSE performance in the new schools rising by more than 50 per cent compared to their predecessor institutions. Schools such as the Mossbourne Community Academy in east London, which replaced the failed Hackney Downs School in 2005, are now among the most oversubscribed in the country.
When Mr Gove became Education Secretary in 2010, he turned the policy on its head by announcing that any “successful” school could apply for academy status. Consequently, the number of academies has risen dramatically from 203 in May 2010 to 1,957 at present, so that they now account for more than half of all secondary schools. Mr Gove has taken ownership of the policy, leaving Labour uncertain how to respond, not least since a faction of the party was opposed to the creation of academies to begin with.
For this reason, with some qualifications, Labour should explicitly reaffirm its support for academies and education reform. In his interview with the New Statesman last week, Ed Miliband was right to question the concentration of power in the hands of the Education Secretary but also to challenge those who believe that academies’ powers should be “sucked back to local authorities”. Having declared that for-profit schools “could” be established under a Conservative government, at a time when the limits of the market are more visible than ever, Mr Gove has shown why it is right to be sceptical of his long-term agenda. But rather than slumping into mere oppositionism, Labour should present itself as the only party committed to both bold reform and greater fairness in education, and seek to achieve such excellence in the state sector that fee-paying becomes unnecessary.