Leader: The end of the comprehensive

The plan to transform schools into academies is just the latest evidence that this government has no coherent education policy.

NS

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Given George Osborne’s persistent failure to meet his own savings targets, it was little surprise that he diverted attention by folding into the Budget what is perhaps the most significant schools ­reform since Anthony Crosland instigated the comprehensive revolution half a century ago. Whatever the Chancellor’s motivations for announcing that the government plans to remove all schools from local authority control and turn them into academies, the measures he outlined are profound.

There are 3,381 state secondary schools in England. Just over 2,000 of them are academies. When the coalition came to power in May 2010, only 203 schools had that status. By 2022, every secondary and primary school in the state sector will be an academy – exempt from the National Curriculum and national standards on pay and divorced from the relevant local authority. This muddle-headed idea betrays the absence of pragmatism at the heart of this government.

Not for the first time, George Osborne and his party are guilty of ideological overreach. Just as the Conservatives rightly decry demands on the left for wholesale nationalisation that owe more to instinct than to evidence, the right must be held to account when it puts dogma before dispassionate policymaking. The evidence on the performance of academy schools is recent and inconclusive. The first wave of academies, set up under the New Labour government, was generally successful. Many failing inner-city schools used their new powers to find innovative ways of improving attainment and there have been notable achievements. However, it is too soon to assess the impact of the “converter academies” – maintained schools that, since 2010, have taken advantage of the financial incentives introduced by Michael Gove when he was education secretary to convert to academy status. As Peter Wilby, an expert on state education, writes in this week's issue, the benefits for pupils are opaque.

Apart from the government’s evidence-free haste, there are two peculiar edges to the new scheme. First, full “academisation” jars with its apparent devolution agenda. It is a mischaracterisation to assert that non-academies are under local authority “control” but there is a relationship of accountability. Academies, by contrast, are funded directly by central government and are accountable only to their governors and to a distant secretary of state for education in Whitehall.

Second, even if this move does not quite represent the end of Mr Crosland’s comprehensive dream – most academies are, after all, comprehensive in intake – it is peculiar that just three years after Michael Gove rewrote the National Curriculum with an emphasis on British history and Shakespeare, the government has, in effect, abolished it, since academies are largely free to set their own curriculums. In 1987, ­Kenneth Baker said that the government “can no longer leave individual teachers, schools or local authorities to devise the curriculum that children should follow”. The former education secretary has lived to see his insistence on minimum standards undone by a Tory government grasping to be seen to be doing something other than tearing itself apart over Europe.

England’s schools face many challenges. For the past four years, the government has missed its targets for new teacher trainees, with especially grave shortages in maths and science and in schools located in isolated and coastal areas. The attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers at GCSE level has widened since the Conservatives came to power in 2010. There remains a dismaying correlation between intergenerational poverty and educational failure, and the dominance of the privately educated in public life – what we have called “the 7 per cent problem” – is more entrenched.

Yet the government is focusing on a structural reorganisation with little hope of resolving these issues. Meanwhile, the English educational system is becoming ever more fragmented. We have private, fee-charging schools, academically selective state grammars and religious and technical schools, as well as comprehensives, academies and free schools. There is choice for the most fortunate but no coherent, consistent overarching policy.

What is happening in education is far from the only instance of the government fetishising dogma. In its five years under state control, the East Coast Main Line returned millions of pounds in profit to the Treasury – it was an unambiguous success both for the Exchequer and for passengers. It was returned to the private sector last year, for little reason other than that Conservatives abhor public ownership. 

This article appears in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue