The most interesting part of the Times + debate entitled, "Are our schools fit for purpose?" at Wilton's Hall in Wapping, London, tonight was Michael Gove's response to my question about school admissions. I asked the panel, which consisted of former Labour Education Secretary, Lady Estelle Morris, curriculum guru Dylan Williams
, and Teach First's CEO, Brett Wigdortz
, what admissions policy would stop the social segregation that's happening at the moment in our schools. I pointed out the evidence highlighted in the Barnardo's Unlocking The School Gates
report which shows that in the top achieving secondary schools there are fewer than 5% of pupils on Free School Meals (FSM), and that the majority of FSM pupils are concentrated in a quarter of secondary schools. I emphasized the fact that in counties like Kent the Eleven-plus is a form of 'child abuse', and emphatically drives down standards overall as well as promoting chronic social segregation -- there are only a tiny proportion of FSM pupils in grammar schools.
Dylan William spoke first, pointing out that private schools do well because the children are from socially advantaged backgrounds and that it's this factor -- the fact that clever pupils help each other -- that increases attainment and not the quality of teaching; in fact, if you equalise "social factors", then private school pupils achieve 25% below the average attained by pupils in the state sector. Estelle Morris endorsed this by saying that the best teachers are in our inner city schools. Brett Wigdortz acknowledged that our schools are very socially segregated and it's a big issue that needs to be addressed. None of the panel talked about grammar schools.
Gove took a while to answer the question -- there were two others about English Baccalaureate to answer (see below) -- but when he did, he gave the appearance of being forthright but actually was quite disingenuous. He said that he supported a "fair banding" system where pupils of all abilities within a local area are dispersed fairly and equally throughout a family of schools. All well and good except for the fact that he felt "Academies" -- schools "free" from Local Authority control -- were the best illustration of this. He also went on to say that Free Schools would also lead to a fairer admissions system because they would have added financial incentives to take children on Free School Meals in addition to the Pupil Premium, which he acknowledged was not as big a financial incentive as he would have liked. While appearing to support "fair admissions", anyone in the "know" is aware that Academies and Free Schools are and will be their own "admissions authorities" and that, on the whole, as the Barnardos report shows so powerfully, it's when schools are in charge of their own admissions that social segregation happens. This will be particularly the case for the new Academies which are mainly in areas of social advantage; there's no indication that they will be opting for "fair banding" because the majority of them are "Voluntary Aided" schools where they select pupils by faith and use "aptitude tests" such as selecting pupils with high abilities in Music. Some of the "old" Labour Academies -- like the ones in Hackney -- select by fair banding, but there's absolutely no evidence that the new Academies will be imitating their example. Furthermore, as we have seen countless times on this site, Free Schools seem to have a strong agenda to segregate children, whether it's by social class or religion.
So it was yet another example of "double-speak" from Gove: saying that he's interested in integrating and unifying our fractured communities by school admissions, but actually implementing policies that do the exact opposite. The Labour Teachers
website reveals this quite well I feel. He's been very successful in persuading people about this; I've spoken to a number of people who think that Academies are the key to solving the social segregation issue because they are not fully aware of all the facts.
At the drinks reception afterwards, I spoke to a group wanting to set up the Wapping High School, a Free School for secondary children in Tower Hamlets, clearly disappointed to see that Gove had escaped early, and who all professed to their belief in social cohesion. Their agenda was clear though: they wanted to create a secondary school which attracted "middle class" parents in an area of social disadvantage. Interestingly, they explained they were not getting very far with their proposal because they weren't willing to contract an educational provider -- such as Ark, Harris etc -- to run their Free School for them. "The only game in town at the DfE is getting an educational provider; they won't listen to you otherwise," one of them said.
The debate actually concentrated mostly upon a central issue: the need to have good, motivated teachers in our classrooms. Every speaker -- including Gove -- said that our schools are fit for purpose -- there was no Birbalsingh/Toby Young hyperbole -- but we need to raise the standards of teaching. Dylan Williams spoke most eloquently on this -- showing that it's not the school a child goes to that's crucial but the teacher that he gets when he's there -- but Brett Wigdortz pleased me the most by praising the school my son is going to Bethnal Green Technology College because of its headteacher's relentless focus upon improving learning in the classroom. The school is one of the most improved in the country, despite the fact that over half its pupils are on Free School Meals: recruiting Teach First teachers has played a big role in this, but good leadership has as well. It is a Local Authority school. Gove most emphatically did not refer to it; speaking only about the high achievements of Academies.
He did a similar dodge when asked about leaving out Religious Education from the English Baccalaureate. A colleague of mine pointed out how facile his response was; he simply asked the audience to put their hands up as to whether they thought there was too much or too little religion in our society. Only a small proportion of the audience joined in with this ruse. Then he dodged the question by praising his questioners' passion and commitment and repeating his reasons for the Bacc in the first place. No reference to RE was made after that.
Estelle Morris's best moment
: when she caught Gove out about Free Schools "cherry picking" the cleverest poor pupils to get extra funding.
Dylan Williams' best moment
: pointing out that the teaching in private schools is rubbish.
Brett Wigdortz's best momen
t: praising the great work at Bethnal Green Technology College and showing that Local Authority schools are great as a result.
Michael Gove's best momen
t: admitting that "fair banding" is the best and fairest method of school admissions.
But I left the debate feeling that it's school admissions that's the ABSOLUTELY vital issue to address at the moment. There's huge consensus amongst all political parties and relevant groups that we need great teachers and how to do that, but it's making sure we end the overt and covert selection in our school system that's vitally important.