The historic announcement from the schools minister, David Miliband, promising an “academy” in every town, has been lost amid the usual clamour surrounding A-levels. Yet while A-level policies may smooth the path to the creation of a two-tier education system, it is Miliband’s announcement that will entrench it.
The A-level stories, and their subtext, are predictable. By the time you read this, the highest-ever proportion of good A-level passes will have been recorded; ignorant commentators will have trumpeted that A-levels and GCSEs have been “dumbed down”; ministers will have piously responded that we should “celebrate the achievements” of our children.
The Conservative Party will have demanded that we preserve the “gold standard” of A-levels – and, in the same breath, that schools of which the party approves (selective and fee-charging ones) must be free to ignore the exam system completely. Eton must be allowed to drop GCSEs. The London Oratory, where Tony Blair sent his sons and which selects its pupils by interviewing them and their parents, must be allowed to drop AS-levels.
Right-wing newspapers will lionise the head teachers with the best A-level results, all of them from grammar and fee- charging schools. They will print pictures of these heads, surrounded by their uniformed, clean and tidy pupils, and ask them how they did it. The heads will tell shameless lies. They do it, they will say, by traditional teaching methods, discipline, high expectations and none of that namby-pamby Sixties stuff. What they actually do is make sure they get nice, middle-class children, weed them as they go along, and then cull them at the age of 16. After GCSE, most grammar schools get rid of pupils who are not pretty well guaranteed good A-level results. Those they keep are not allowed to take subjects for which there is a risk they may get poor grades.
Ministers will have urged the “bad” schools, mostly inner-city comprehensives, to emulate these “good” schools. But what ministers will not do is to make it possible for them to do so. This could be achieved only by giving them equivalent amounts of money and putting an end to the system that forces them to teach the pupils the “good” schools reject. They will not do this because new Labour long ago accepted that it is building an education system in which, by and large, our children are divided by the school they attend into the masters or the servants of the future.
That is the arena in which Miliband made his announcement. The name “academy” is the result of decades of relentless verbal gentrification. Margaret Thatcher’s government decided that “school” had become an irredeemably downmarket word, and called its proposed new upmarket schools “colleges”. In time, “college” became as downmarket as “school”, hence “academy”. One day, that, too, will be debased, and no doubt the “conservatoire” will replace it.
New Labour began with “city academies”, and promised 53 by 2006. But now there are to be thousands of them, just called academies. These are schools that get a great deal more money than neighbouring schools because they are considered better. In addition, they get private sector donations, and the company that sponsors them also owns them and runs them. They are, in fact, private schools run on state money. Theoretically, they are mostly non-selective, but that means nothing these days. Theoretically, the London Oratory is non-selective, but no one thought for a moment that after interviewing all three of them, the headmaster would turn down the boy whose mother was a top QC and whose father was on the threshold of becoming Prime Minister.
The new academies, says Miliband, will test out reform of the examination system. One of the existing institutions has already, with ministerial encouragement, dropped A-levels and started teaching the International Baccalaureate instead.
John Major once called for a grammar school in every town. He failed to achieve this, but new Labour is on the threshold of doing so. It remains as true as it was in his day that if you have a grammar school in every town, you have to have a secondary modern school in every town, too.