Praise for state schools is overdue – pity it’s just for a tiny number of mainly selective ones

Janet Downs's picture
‘What’s happening in our state schools is little short of a miracle. Staggering advances have been made by teachers and Academies freed from the heavy hand of the state.’

‘Staggering’ indeed, that the Daily Telegraph, in an article by Fraser Nelson, should praise English state education. Could it be the paper is acknowledging the OECD 2010 finding: UK state schools outperform UK independent schools when socio-economic background is taken into account*?

Alas, no. The ‘best’ state schools cited in the article are mainly selective or so-called comprehensives which manage to deter previously low-attaining pupils. And Nelson admits money, by way of buying a house in advantaged areas, together with all manner of hypocritical chicanery, can gain access to many of these institutions.

Grey Coat Hospital School is given as an example of a ‘best’ state school. Supposedly ‘comprehensive’, the 2014 GCSE comprised just 6 previously low-attaining pupils (4%) and 86 (57%) previously high-attainers. The Schools Adjudicator censured Grey Coat for its admission criteria in the year Michael Gove applied for a place for his daughter, its uniform is expensive and Schools Week found it appeared to request a fee with an acceptance offer. Not a typical state school, then.

Nelson highlights Mossbourne Community Academy. At least Mossbourne is comprehensive. But it was not, as Nelson maintains, ‘formerly the infamous Hackney Downs school’. Hackney Downs closed in 1995. Mossbourne didn’t open until September 2004. Nelson rails at those who fought to keep Hackney Downs open. But a TES editorial shows Nelson's criticism to be unfair. Hackney Downs was improving despite underinvestment, denial of a permanent head and extreme challenging behaviour by some of the pupils. Hackney Downs' closure, the editorial concluded, 'was not sympathetic euthanasia but premeditated murder by the [Conservative] Government.'

Mossbourne’s success, Nelson claims, is ‘vindication’ of the academies programme. It is indeed successful but it is not typical of sponsored academies. A Freedom of Information request by Henry Stewart confirmed sponsored academies are more likely to remain Inadequate than maintained schools. The National Audit Office found informal interventions such as local support were more effective (and cheaper) than academy conversion in improving schools. The Education Select Committee has told politicians to stop exaggerating academy performance. This caveat also applies to journalists.

Academization, Nelson maintains, has caused ‘council-run’ schools to raise their game. This is because, he says, ‘competition and choice are working’. But the rise in GCSE results over the years may have nothing to do with these market forces. There could be other reasons: some positive (better teaching, more hard-working pupils) and some negative (a greater use of equivalent exams, concentrating on the C/D borderline and teaching-to-the test).

The 2015 GCSE cohort whose results are being held up as proof that academization has worked started school in 2000 and the overwhelmingly majority have been unaffected for most of their school careers by reforms which (allegedly) increase competition and choice. In truth, academization has not offered freedom. Academies in chains have less autonomy than enjoyed by LA maintained schools. And all schools, academies included, are kept in line by league tables. State secondaries must conform to new GCSEs. It will be a brave state school which will offer exams which don’t contribute to performance tables. So much for being free of 'the heavy hand of the state'.

Why is the Telegraph praising state education? A possible answer is supplied by Barnaby Lenon, former head of Harrow and chairman of the Independent Schools Council, who attacked the comparison. ‘This government has been in power now for five years and they think it’s important that they show their reforms are working,’ reports the Guardian. His suspicions were confirmed by a Department for Education ‘source’: ‘We think the data is hugely welcomed and we think that it vindicates (sic) that our reforms are working.’

How long will it be before Education Secretary Nicky Morgan and assorted schools ministers trumpet the Telegraph’s analysis as ‘proof’ that Gove’s policies are taking fruit? It’s becoming increasingly difficult for them to trumpet academy success so articles about ‘staggering’ advances caused by market forces reform are especially welcome. But the only appropriate staggering is that caused by uncontrollable laughter.

NOTES: *See paragraph 53 in Viewing the United Kingdom School System through the Prism of PISA, OECD 2010
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