A book that exposes education's class warfare to us all

That’s a telling sentence from this summary of Britain’s schools, what’s good about them and what’s bad about them. Most of what’s bad has been caused by the tinkering of successive education secretaries.

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Education Under Siege: Why There Is a Better Alternative
Peter Mortimore
Policy Press, 328pp, £19.99

Everything the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, dislikes most is summed up in Peter Mortimore’s slim frame. Gove knows that behind his dark suit and tie – behind the smiles and the elaborate politeness – lurks that most loathsome of creatures: an education expert, a man who has spent his life seeking out the best information obtainable on how children learn and how we can best help them. Such a person, Gove has discovered, is convinced that research-based evidence is more valuable than the gut instincts of a senior politician, however clever and well-educated the politician. Never mind that Mr Gove can boast in support of his opinions not just his education at a fee-charging school but a degree in English from Oxford, years spent writing leaders for the Times and constant exposure to the intellectual capital of clever chaps in Tory think tanks; Mortimore will persist in asking for the research behind his opinions.

What this has taught Gove is that such experts are at best untrustworthy and at worst Marxist moles, determined to undermine Britain by denying proper education to the next generation. Not only is education policy best made without them but teachers should not be exposed to their wiles – hence Gove’s decision to allow his pet project, free schools, to appoint unqualified teachers, though the local authority schools may not do so, and the destruction of British teacher education that Mortimore draws attention to, not just under Gove but also under his predecessors.

Education Under Siege is Mortimore’s reply both to Gove and to New Labour’s education secretaries. Mortimore would not put it like this – his prose is restrained – but he seeks to rescue the British education system from the reactionary harrumphing of not only Michael Gove but David Blunkett, too. Thus, for example, he quotes Gove throwing away the history curriculum drawn up for him by eminent historians and history teachers because history in schools “ought to celebrate the distinguished role of these islands in the history of the world” and “portray Britain as a beacon of liberty”.

As a historian, I’m horrified by this. History teaching worth the name doesn’t celebrate anything, any more than mathematics does; nor does it portray Britain in a particular way. That sort of history teaching belongs in Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia, not here. Mortimore, again, is more restrained than I am, simply noting: “Many other countries have also had distinguished roles and we have had our share of shameful actions.”

That’s a telling sentence from this summary of Britain’s schools, what’s good about them and what’s bad about them. Most of what’s bad has been caused by the tinkering of successive education secretaries: British education is now centrally run from Whitehall in a manner no one would have thought possible 30 years ago.

As Mortimore puts it: “Since the 1988 [Education Reform] Act, education ministers have awarded themselves numerous new powers.”

His list of dreadful ministerial mistakes, going unchecked because the secretary of state always gets his way, includes Kenneth Clarke’s decision to get rid of the inspectorate system, which had helped thousands of schools recover from crisis, and create the more oppositional Ofsted system instead; Estelle Morris’s attitude to state schools; David Blunkett’s betrayal of his promise on selection; and “Michael Gove’s expenditure on free schools at a time of austerity”.

British education, he writes, has strengths but the system is poor. “It is based on too many false claims: that private is always good and public is generally bad; that 11-year-olds can be adequately judged; that frequent testing, by itself, ensures learning; and that people care about only their own children.”

“Since 1988,” writes Mortimore, “our education system has systematically been transformed into a market economy – as though schooling is similar to shopping or using an estate agent.” That, combined with the growth in the power of faith schools, has led to a situation in which a Jewish mother I know is now taking her child to Mass at the local Catholic church every Sunday and has had the child baptised as a Catholic to get a place in the Catholic school that parents in her area have come to believe is the “best”. Such is the world of doublespeak our education system has become that this is done in the name of parental choice; just as the increase in ministerial power has been engineered by ministers who accuse their opponents of believing: “Whitehall knows best.”

Mortimore, a former director of the Institute of Education in London, has written a short, clear and luminous book that is devoid of education jargon. It is not just a book for experts – anyone can read and understand it and come away with a much clearer idea of how our school system works, how it got that way and what needs to be done to rescue it.

Francis Beckett is the author of “What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do for Us?” (Biteback, £12.99)

This article appears in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?