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Finishing off the job on Britain's schools

Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools - review.

Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools
Andrew Adonis
Biteback, 256pp, £12.99

To observe Andrew Adonis as minister of schools between 2005 and 2008 was to witness a man on fire. “Who you need to speak to is X, Y and Z,” I can hear him hammering out with boyish enthusiasm, surrounded by officials and aides awaiting his next instruction. In his new book he writes of the need for radical ministers to “micro-manage constantly”’: he certainly personified that advice. It helps explain why he became the most powerful education minister in the past 100 years never to become education secretary – and indeed more influential than many who reached that summit.

Adonis was no ordinary politician – it is no surprise that he cites Douglas Hurd’s dictum that ministers who do best seem least like politicians. Adonis describes himself as “shy and uncombative”: his startled, donnish appearance and gentle manner make him unlike almost any other modern-day politician. But he was moved by the hope that “someone in power would do something about the jungle that passed for an education system, from which few emerged with anything resembling an education”. He was fired at an early age by this zeal, born of his experience of being brought up in a council flat in Camden Town and then in a children’s home. He went on to Kingham Hill, a boarding school in Oxfordshire, before going up to Oxford, where he realised he might be able to make a difference.

Adonis is three men in one. An academic historian, journalist (on the Financial Times and the Observer) and author of note, he is one of the very few intellectuals to succeed in politics over the past few decades. He is an innovator and activist, at Westminster as well as in local politics in Islington. He is also the instigator, alone or with others, of a variety of reforms, including Teach First, the charity that recruits top graduates to teach in difficult state schools; the National College for School Leadership, the Sandhurst of the teaching profession; and Tony Blair’s most important domestic reform, academies.

Adonis is a man of power. His heroes are his mentor, Roy Jenkins, as well as Ken Livingstone and Michael Heseltine: all men of action who, he argues, changed British policy significantly. Adonis devotes an entire chapter to how “to bring about radical change for the better”. He observes that most ministers (and most prime ministers, one might add) make little lasting difference. He is determined not to be one of them and one suspects his political journey is far from over.

The book is hugely stimulating on many levels. Adonis was concerned with education reform from the moment he joined Tony Blair’s Policy Unit in 1998 until his rather surprising switch to become transport minister in 2008. Adonis describes his quest to embed academies in Britain as “the most gruelling challenge of my twelve years in government”, recounting in often vivid detail his battles with local authorities, Labour politicians and parties across the political spectrum. His unpublished diaries, which promise to be as important a source for historians of New Labour as those of Alastair Campbell, illuminate the text throughout. He recounts how he converted first Blair and then Gordon Brown to academies, and how David Cameron and Michael Gove became apostles of the academy movement, too. The political adroitness that Adonis showed to win over such a divergent crew should never be underestimated.

The second part of the book is more polemical, examining, in a way that is unlikely to satisfy the sceptics, why the academy model is best for British children. He makes an unequivocal case for every independent school sponsoring an academy, a cause I and several others in my sector hold dear, but which is still failing to win over many heads and governors of private schools. Universities, too, he believes, together with many other powerful and successful organisations, could be sponsoring academies. The attraction of the model, he argues, lies in the replacement of the low-grade governance and leadership often seen in failing comprehensives, and their dependence on equally low-grade local councils, by vibrant new leadership and governance, allied to dynamic and proven organisations.

The book concludes with a powerful “manifesto for change”, a comprehensive agenda that Adonis says should be embraced by all political parties, as education is “too important to be subject to narrow political tribalism”. His aim is not only a vastly improved education system for all but also a stronger society with enhanced social cohesion. His objectives include at least 90 per cent of 16-year-olds achieving five good GCSE passes, a radically upgraded teaching profession and the spread of free schools and academies. He advocates an A-level Baccalaureate and a new “Technical Baccalaureate”. Most important of all, he supports the spread of the outstanding International Baccalaureate, with government providing financial support for schools to run it.

Adonis wants a longer school day, which is surely right; but also a longer school year and less time for holidays, which would be a mistake as holidays provide the opportunity for children, as well as teachers, to develop and study independently away from the regular drumbeat of the school day. He has little to say about trade unions, which have been such a conservative force in education in Britain, and which, at their worst, have championed the mediocre elements in the teaching profession, rather than aspiring teachers and the interests of children. Oddly, he has little or nothing to say about information and communication technology, which will revolutionise schools within a generation, or about creativity in education and the building of good character, all subjects that he could have developed more.

This is a deftly diplomatic book, which manages to be positive about everybody, a reflection of the personal skills and manners that allowed him to achieve so much. He is even nice about Balls and Brown, while managing to avoid any mention of Ed Miliband.

When Adonis becomes education secretary in 2015, after the likely Labour victory at the general election, we know now exactly what he will set out to achieve. He has already transformed the landscape of education but the revolution is only half complete. He was the most effective education minister we have seen in Britain in recent years; let’s hope he becomes an equally effective education secretary.

Anthony Seldon is Master of Wellington College. His next book, “Happiness”, will be published soon

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special