Flow of Ideas
New Labour’s Policy for Schools: Success, Hype or Just Ploughing on Regardless?


Glenn Rikowski, London, 16th November 2007


Introduction

For the last couple of years I have always been keen to read articles by Jenni Russell in The Guardian. In my view, her article on New Labour’s policy for schools published a few days ago (Russell, 2007) surpasses anything of hers I have read to date. Russell has produced just the sort of wide-ranging and trenchant critique of New Labour’s policy for schools that we need today. New Labour has got away with too much for too long regarding what they have been doing to our schools ‘system’; though it hardly looks like any kind of system at all now given the fragmentation the plethora of school types has generated. In this blog I will expand on some of the key points of Russell’s article. I recommend highly to students on BA (QTS) and Education Studies courses that they check out Russell’s original article (Russell, 2007). For a more extensive account of what has gone wrong with New Labour’s policy for schools (and indeed colleges and universities also) I would recommend the latest book by Martin Allen and Patrick Ainley (2007).


They Know Not What They Do?

Russell notes perceptively that education policy was supposed to have been one of the great successes of the Blair era, and that Tony Blair trades heavily on this as he roams the globe in the guise of international man of destiny. New Labour’s glossed over education policy is also useful in relation to the domestic political scene as:

“Education is one of the few solid fields of success Labour ministers feel they can rely on when the government record is under attack” (Russell, 2007).

However, argues Russell, New Labour’s story on the progress made in the field of education has been hyped significantly. She reports on research from the University of Lancaster that casts doubt on the project of spending vast sums of money on specialist schools and the Excellence in Cities programme. These policies cost loads of money but have yielded only feeble improvements, Russell concludes. Worse, they tend to focus resources disproportionately on schools that have above average proportions of middle class kids; thereby increasing the social class and educational attainment gaps between schools.

Russell then moves on to the review of primary education being led by Robin Alexander, aided by 70 other academics. Findings from the first three reports suggest that the rise in standards in primary schools from 1995 to 2000 ‘is now understood to be largely a result of teaching to the tests, and not to a dramatic improvement in learning’ (Russell, 2007). The Qualification and Curriculum Authority (QCA) conducted research into the rise of primary schools standards and produced a report which found that they had been ‘overstated’, notes Russell. Teaching to the test also had the effect of narrowing down learning and the downgrading of subjects not being tested, something I witnessed when I was conducting research on Education Action Zones in the late-1990s. Russell also notes the increased stress caused by the intensive and extensive testing regime, which I have examined a short while ago (in Rikowski, 2007). The QCA report noted a small increase in numeracy standards, but that reading standards have been “more or less static since the 1950s” (QCA in Russell, 2007).

The evidence base for many of the most important policies for schools of the last 10 years has been slim, notes Russell, drawing on the QCA report. New Labour has sunk mid-boggling sums of public money into large-scale experiments that have not been ‘evidence-based’ or piloted and evaluated adequately. Thus: it appears that ‘they know not what they do’, and carry on regardless. The Department for Children, Schools & Families’ (DCSF) response to the QCA report was defensive and ostrich-like, noted Russell. Hence:

“In its response the DCSF appears to be imprisoned by its political inability to admit that the thrust of this policy could have been a mistake. Indeed, ministers are planning to press ahead with new tests for primary school children which can be taken at any point during the school year – something critics believe will only add to pupils’ stress, while adding nothing to their learning” (Russell, 2007).

New Labour appears to be digging itself an ever deeper hole on the primary school front. It is clearly in denial, but as the research evidence against its primary school policies builds up something will have to give. Meanwhile, our primary school children, who tend to start school earlier than in many other European countries, will have to tough out New Labour’s test regime, supported by their parents.


Ploughing on Regardless

New Labour’s attitude as ploughing on regardless with its policies on schools can be witnessed in its Academies programme. On the same day that Russell’s article appeared, James Tweedie reported on a review of Academies undertaken by the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit – set up by the DCSF Secretary, Ed Balls (Tweedie, 2007). Steve Sinnott, the National Union of Teachers general secretary, welcomed the review, for:

“It means that the government is beginning to realise that academies are not fit for purpose – that of tackling the needs of socially deprived youngsters. Ed Balls’s review should bring academies back into the maintained sector. … A coherent Children Plan cannot be fully realised while the fractured system created by academies remains in place” (in Tweedie, 2007).

But is the government beginning to realise that the academies are not ‘fit for purpose’? A DCSF spokesman noted that the government was committed to ‘increasing the number of academies from 83 to 200 by 2010’ with a final total of 400 (in Tweedie, 2007). Ahead of the findings of the review, Ed Balls indicated that:

“The evidence shows that academies are delivering faster improvements in results in areas with a high proportion of children receiving free school meals” (in Tweedie, 2007).

But ‘faster improvement’ in relation to which schools? Balls’s argument misses the point: could not even faster improvements for disadvantaged kids be made if the money spent on Academies have been spent differently? Hopefully, the review on Academies will look into this aspect, though I would not be surprised if it failed to check this out. Or, even if it made comparisons between the record of Academies and what might have been achieved if, for example, similar sums of money had been concentrated in the worst performing existing secondary schools, the dice may then be loaded in favour of Academies – as with the Private Finance Initiative over conventional methods of financing the building of new schools.

New Labour seems so committed to the trajectory of its policies for schools that it will probably take a general election defeat, at least, to make it these folks think about changing tack. Meanwhile, the deepening of social and educational divisions caused by New Labour’s policy for schools continues and struggles against it builds: there is a march and rally against Academies in Manchester on 1st December, for example [1], and the Anti-Academies Alliance web site charts a myriad of campaigns up and down the country against Academies [2] – New Labour’s flagship policy for schools. The New Labour policy for schools is in a state of crisis and drift, though the government is desperately striving hard to rope schools in England onto a saddle that rests uneasily on a horse running with a business agenda direction that is involved in the capitalisation of schools. In these conditions, unseating the rider and taking the horse to the knacker’s yard are realistic possibilities.


Notes

[1] Glenn Rikowski’s AOL Volumizer blog, where this article appeared, no longer exists. On 31st October 2008, AOL terminated all of its Hometown products, including its blogs and newsletters. The Rikowski family lost three blogs (Volumizer, Rikowski Point, and Ruth Rikowski Updates), a web page (Rikowski Unplugged) and a newsletter (Rikowski Newsletter) in this process. We have ‘rescued’ much of this work and are in the process of placing it on our own The Flow of Ideas web site at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk

[2] Anti-Academies Alliance, see: http://www.antiacademies.org.uk/


References

Allen, M. & Ainley, P. (2007) Education make you fick, innit? What’s gone wrong in England’s schools, colleges and universities and how to start putting it right, London: Tufnell Press.

Rikowski, G. (2007) Fear of a Blank Planet Revisited, 12th November 2007, London, at ‘Wavering on Ether’: http://blog.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendID=14758904&blogID=327677941&Mytoken=44CF619A-7D98-4C30-AB4BD3DEC05464CF51361335

Russell, J. (2007) Ten years of bold education boasts now look sadly hollow, The Guardian, 14th November, p.32, online at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2210600,00.html

Tweedie, J. (2007) Full steam ahead for academies, Morning Star, 14th November, p.1.


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