Friday, January 18, 2008

A school history lesson

The schools minister warns about attempts to break the admission code, which aims to prevent oversubscribed schools from cherry-picking the kids (and parents) with the best league-table potential and casting the dregs into the sink. Not everyone agrees with this aim.

Matthew D’Ancona rages at the “old fashioned public sector rationing system doing its bleak work”, the “crushing of diversity”, “the pseudo-egalitarian gesture and the Whitehall diktat”. He cheers for “choice and freedom”, although I’m unable to tell whether he means the freedom of schools to choose pupils to let through the door or the freedom of the parents who can afford it to choose catchment areas to live in. School performance, as we all know by now, is strongly dependent on intake.

This is just the latest small twist in an ongoing story. Let’s travel back in time.

One man who has done more than most to shape secondary education is Kenneth Baker, education secretary in the late 1980s. In 1999, he gave an interview to the Guardian’s Nick Davies. The blunt honesty that comes with arrogance and being safely retired made it fascinating:

[Baker] went ahead and rewrote the rulebook for Britain's schools - standard assessment tasks, league tables, national curriculum, parental choice, local management of schools and, later, Ofsted.

He knows a lot of people tried to say… that secretly the big master plan was to wipe out comprehensive schools by stealth. And now he's laughing because the funny thing is - they were right!

The introduction of parental choice was part of a much bigger silent coup. His real target, he says, was the comprehensive system of schooling itself. "I would have liked to bring back selection but I would have got into such controversy at an early stage that the other reforms would have been lost." But did he realise that the introduction of "parental choice" would polarise the system and effectively kill off the comprehensives? "Oh, yes. That was deliberate. In order to make changes, you have to come from several points."

The political appeal was simple: choice means freedom, and freedom is good. But the real objective was a lot more destructive. "I hoped it would open it all up and it would lead to the poorer schools literally having to close."

At first, he had wanted to undermine the system by introducing a formal voucher system, under which parents could spend their education voucher on the school of their choice, starving unpopular schools of funding. His predecessor, Sir Keith Joseph, had first floated the plan.

Instead, he combined parental choice with his new funding formula, which meant that the vast bulk of each school's budget depended entirely on the recruitment of children, whose parents were now empowered to choose their schools. "Well, yes, it's not a formal voucher system, but it's very tantamount! "In effect, it was a voucher system. I just didn't call it that. It was a subtler approach."

The attack on the comprehensives worked. … His reforms polarised the entire system between schools which gather the brightest children and the most funds and which are effectively grammar schools; and the contemporary equivalent of secondary modern schools, invariably in poor areas, where there is a concentration of disadvantaged children struggling for education on a reduced budget.

Ah, sweet memories. Halcyon Baker days…

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