Also elsewhere today, I’ve a piece for the Scotsman arguing that Andrew Adonis was the third-most important person in the Blair-Brown governments and that, by god, Scotland could do with some of his reforming zeal too. Most sensible people in England agree academies have been a success (though there’s still a long way to go); unfortunately most people in Scotland seem to think there’s precious little need for reform. This complacency is unwarranted.
Adonis has written a memoir – Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools – that should be read by every MP and MSP. It’s probably the most important political book of the year. I know suggesting Scotland might have anything to learn from how they organise matters in England offends “civic Scotland’s” unearned sense of superiority, but, nevertheless, the fact remains that English educational reform offers a way forward for Scotland too.
It is worth recalling how the English political and educational landscapes have been transformed. In 1995, the authorities closed Hackney Downs comprehensive in north London. The school was, by any standard, a dismal, even grotesque failure. Even abolishing one of the worst schools in England proved controversial, however. The Times Educational Supplement published a harrowing editorial complaining that Hackney Downs was the victim of “murder”. The paper despaired that “the school was labelled a failure and since failure is unacceptable, it must close. What crude logic!”
Crude indeed! Yet right. But Hackney, so long a byword for inner-city deprivation and despair, has become an unlikely success story. In 2004, Mossbourne Academy, one of the first independent state schools championed by Adonis, opened on the same site once occupied by Hackney Downs. Within five years, 80 per cent of its pupils were gaining five good GCSEs, including English and maths. It is, according to its headmaster, “a grammar school with a comprehensive intake”. No wonder Mossbourne became the flagship for education reform.
Across England several hundred under-performing schools have been or are in the process of being transformed by the academy revolution. The process is still incomplete and there remains considerable regional variation. Reform is a generational project. Many of these new schools are in London; Yorkshire and other parts of northern England are still waiting for the revolution. Importantly, London’s success also demonstrates that education reform is not a sop to the middle classes in their leafy suburbs. On the contrary, it makes the most difference where the need is greatest: amongst the poor.
Adonis recalls being told by a teacher in Sunderland that children once turned “left to get a job in a shipyard or right to go down to the mines. All those jobs have gone now. They might as well walk straight on into the sea”. Defeating that kind of defeatism – the soft bigotry of low expectations, as George W Bush memorably put it – is about as important a task as exists in contemporary politics.
Poverty is not destiny, either. A generation ago, Hackney’s GCSE results were half the national average; now Hackney pupils perform at or around the national average. Indeed, London’s schools, long the stuff of middle-class nightmares, are now, pound for pound, the best-performing state schools in England. In 2011, Mossbourne sent nine pupils to Cambridge University. In London there are now 164 comprehensives at which pupils from poor backgrounds obtain exam results that are better than the national average for all pupils.
[…] We pretend our education system is excellent but, deep down, we know it’s only really adequate. This despite many good intentions and pockets of excellence. We’re not as good as we like to think we are.
The comprehensive experiment has failed. Consider Scotland’s educational “gold standard” of achieving at least five Highers at grades A-C. There isn’t a state school in Scotland at which the majority of pupils achieve this standard. Not one. Even in East Renfrewshire, by some distance the most successful school district in the country, only one in three pupils will achieve five good passes at Higher. In Glasgow city itself, just 7 per cent of state-educated children leave school with five Highers in their pocket. This should be a rage-inducing national scandal.
Glasgow’s case is unusually dreadful but the national average is hardly much better. Just 12 per cent of state-schooled pupils achieve five good Highers. It is true that the percentage doing so in Edinburgh (14 per cent in 2011) might be higher if fewer pupils were “creamed off” by private schools, but the popularity of private education is an insufficient explanation for state-school failure. After all, in places without private schools – such as the Borders or Dumfries and Galloway – pupils do no better than their counterparts in the cities.
It is not surprising private education is so popular. The top-performing private schools such as the High School of Glasgow, Dollar Academy or George Heriot’s, routinely meet this “gold standard”. In these schools, more than 70 per cent of pupils leave with at least five excellent Higher passes. That is to say, the top independent schools are often ten times more successful than Glasgow’s state schools and five times more successful than Edinburgh’s. Some of this discrepancy may be explained by selection, parental support and other middle-class advantages, but that does not account for all the differences.
So independence from local government matters but school governance is even more important. But you’re more likely to get good governance if you also grant schools some proper measure of independence. (That, of course, is the SNP argument for national independence too. They seem reluctant to apply that logic to other policy areas, mind you.)
Whole thing here.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.