Flow of Ideas
Hutton's E-Foss


Glenn Rikowski, London, 23rd November 2005


This is my belated response to Will Hutton's outlook on the Education White Paper witnessed in "At last our schools have been set free", which was posted on the Volumizer on 30 October 2005, and can be found below.

1. First of all, Hutton has given up on progressive educational reform. He admits that the abolition of the private schools is off the agenda on the flimsy historical basis that the 1945 Labour government could not get rid of them. Thus, he wishes to persuade us the the private schools (including the great 'public' schools such as Eton, Harrow and Winchester) will forever be a feature of the educational landscape in England. His whole argument rests on the acceptance of this point. Educational reform has to bend itself to this 'reality', and therefore, for Hutton, the Education White Paper is a success as it acknowledges this state of affairs.

2. Hutton rejects the notion that raising state school standards will enable them to compete with the private schools, as parents want not only good exam results but other aspects of what the private sector can provide. For: “What parents are seeking is a guarantor of not just exam achievement but intangibles like social tone, structured classes, freedom from bad behaviour and knowledge that their children's social peer group is like them”. Of course, it is very debatable whether these conditions for the sons and daughters of the middle strata could be reproduced to the same extent in the state sector schools as they are in the private sector, and also the desirability of these aims is also at issue. But this does not deter Hutton, as, according to him:

“The only chance of weakening the grip of private schools and local housing markets, and of creating more genuine equality of opportunity for all, is to emulate what makes private schools successful in the state sector. That is the heart of the government's white paper”.

But if Hutton is correct, then the state sector will have to reproduce schools where the middle strata of Middle England can be schooled with their own kind. The logical outcome is an "equality of opportunity" for these children to gain an exclusive education in the state sector. But this contradicts Hutton's huff and puff about social justice and fairness in the first part of his article. Hutton embraces the “constitutional independence” for schools as set out in the White Paper.


Hutton’s E-Foss

What Hutton argues is that:

“Constitutional independence offers state schools the same opportunity as their private peers to build and entrench an educational ethos, and more chance of raising money when, for sometimes inexplicable reasons, it is refused by the state. More parental influence will make teaching staff more accountable for performance, just as they are in private schools.” Let’s examine the notion that state schools can reproduce the “ethos” of their private counterparts. Now, the ethos of schools like Eton has developed and 'matured' over hundreds of years. It has a history: of providing personnel for British Imperialism, of providing strike breakers during the General Strike of 1926, and of producing social advantage on a substantial scale all along the line. The whole Hutton project is like some kind of ‘e-fossilisation’: of having modern, up-to-date schools that have an ethos with reactionary, fossilised and socially divisive value systems. Thus: e-foss becomes the real social form of school ethos for Hutton.

Hutton’s point about ‘raising money’ is also suggestive. I’m not sure what ‘offers of money’ he has in mind. It seems to me that New Labour is very quick to take money off almost anyone to finance the schools system in England. Perhaps Hutton is hinting at co-payment, where parents pay a contribution towards their children’s schooling. This is already happening on a voluntary basis in some schools, though New Labour keeps pretty schtum about it. Perhaps Hutton wants to see the gradual development of financial contributions made by parents, with, of course, the middle strata being placed in a better position to provide these. However, he is against vouchers in the same article – even though they are the logical outcome of his position. Indeed, he wants to keep local authorities as providers of fairness (on admissions) in the schools system. But this doesn't add up: his middle strata parents don't want fairness; they want advantage, and the freedom to pursue it for their own children - as Hutton himself has admitted. Thus, he is thoroughly confused.

But then so is the White Paper on the relationship between equity and fairness on the one hand, and parental freedom and choice on the other. This is especially when the issue of social class is put into the picture. Even Estelle Morris pointed this out in the Education Guardian last Tuesday. But then her perspective on the White Paper carries other disturbing consequences with it – which the Volumizer does not have time to go into here.

Glenn Rikowski - The Volumizer, London.



At last our schools have been set free


Far from being a damp squib, the education white paper offers a real opportunity for equality in the classroom
Will Hutton
Sunday October 30 2005
The Observer

It was a caricture of postmodern politics. The Conservative benches cheered at Labour’s ‘radical’ education policy while Labour MPs sat in sullen silence. Constitutional independence for every school, downgraded local government control and private schools winning access to state cash was ‘Tory’ radicalism, agreed the commentators and Labour heartland alike.

Last week’s education white paper showed once again the Prime Minister wearing Conservative clothes, decided the consensus. Further, he was recklessly burying the comprehensive ideal and reintroducing the social selection of the grammar school system by the back door. The consequence of this latest round of fiddling with educational structures would, the arguments went, be for independent state schools, dominated by newly empowered parents, to screen candidates by social class. This adulation of the God of choice would end up further advancing the interests of the advantaged at the expense of the poor.

Both those left of centre (who fear it) and those on the right (who cheer it) believe that Britain is moving to a two-tier education system. Famous columnists whose own children have not gone near a state school warn of the danger of introducing market contracting, the profit motive, constitutional independence and social selection into the state system. They are apparently oblivious to the fact that these are the organising principles of the schools attended by their children.

Others declare, with equal certainty, that all parents want is a good local school at the bottom of their road. But this ignores the extraordinary preoccupation of parents with the nuances of alleged differences between local schools and their frantic efforts to ensure their offspring go to school A rather than school B, efforts frequently reflected in local house prices.

This is ‘education’, a national preoccupation, where the gulf between what the British do and what the British say they want to do is so wide that it eludes honest debate. What we say we want is a universal education system so good that all parents would accept it for their children. There would be genuine equality of opportunity and solidarity between classes. The benefit claimant’s child and investment banker’s child would happily co-mingle; only merit would count.

What we do is very different. We work the system to give our children every advantage we can and to keep as far away from the benefit claimant's unruly children as possible. The British system is particularly vulnerable to the consequence of this: systemic unfairness that is close to social apartheid, largely because the character of schools so closely follows their socio-economic intake, which, in turn, is determined by the structure of local home ownership.

Some parents don’t even bother to work the state system; they simply go straight for the private alternative. Their privately educated children disproportionately dominate admission to the best universities, to Oxbridge in particular. From there, they disproportionately populate every privileged corner of national life. Their achievements are purchased, transgressing every canon of natural justice.

What should be done? If the 1945 Labour government could not abolish private schools, no subsequent government is likely to succeed. In any case, abolition quite rightly would not withstand the first appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. Making charitable status conditional on more social inclusion is one possible route, but that hardly solves the systemic social bias. Most private schools would simply live with increased fees.

Raising state school standards is often seen as the answer, but that ignores the painful reality: what parents are seeking is a guarantor of not just exam achievement but intangibles like social tone, structured classes, freedom from bad behaviour and knowledge that their children's social peer group is like them.

The only chance of weakening the grip of private schools and local housing markets, and of creating more genuine equality of opportunity for all, is to emulate what makes private schools successful in the state sector. That is the heart of the government’s White Paper.

Constitutional independence offers state schools the same opportunity as their private peers to build and entrench an educational ethos, and more chance of raising money when, for sometimes inexplicable reasons, it is refused by the state. More parental influence will make teaching staff more accountable for performance, just as they are in private schools.

These are not failsafe solutions. Anybody who has tried to change an organisation will know how difficult it is; people are reluctant to abandon old habits and patterns of doing things, whether in a dying manufacturing company, a mediocre local educational authority or failing school. People need to feel that there are consequences for resisting change, and that is best achieved when the consequences are obvious.

That, in turn, is easier in small units, where the consequences of individual underperformance are more obvious. School independence and parental leverage achieve that alchemy in the private sector; the proposal is that they could do the same in the state sector.

The white paper goes nowhere near the idea of educational vouchers, which would have meant the permanent stratification of schools along class lines while robbing local authorities of the strategic capacity to ensure fair schooling for all. In future, local authorities will be the trustees of fairness and commissioners of education rather than the providers. Importantly, they will still be in control of the money. They will not be direct providers, but that was never their strength.

Will social selection make a comeback? The increased independence over selection is limited; the government is allowing schools to recruit in aptitude bands rather than by catchment area, and, as the paymaster, it can make sure that there are not flagrant abuses. There are risks - too little has been done to ensure that religious schools adhere to a core secular curriculum. In addition, a lot is predicated on good, expanding schools having ready access to increased capital spending, which we know, in reality, will be constrained by Treasury rules.

But anybody with a better idea of how we can break out of where we actually are, please come forward. In effect, the white paper democratises the choices that the middle classes already enjoy and the structures they prefer. It has a better-than-evens chance of stemming the flow of opters-out while enlarging the stock of good state schools. There is a greater chance that, although schools policy can't change Britain's pitiless economic geography, there will be more good schools among the long tail of poor schools in poor areas.

For too long, the best - the ideal of universal, non-selective comprehensive education - has been the enemy of the good, a state system that gets as near as possible to equality of opportunity in the world we live in. The white paper breaks the deadlock. Had that been better understood, perhaps the Tories would have cheered less and Labour more.

Mediocrity for you and a private school for me has for too long been the reality of British education. If Tony Blair can change that, it would be a legacy indeed.

Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited

To see this story with its related links on the The Observer site, go to: http://www.observer.co.uk


Posted by The Volumizer, after receiving it from Malcolm Richardson.

When The Volumizer gets a bit of time, he will critique this piece by Will Hutton! [This I did do, above]


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