SOMETIMES a minister will say something so straightforwardly ignorant, so uninformed of the history and facts of the issue, that I feel a kind of despair. A good example is Nick Clegg’s comments on schools this week. Clegg claims to have discovered the Holy Grail in state education: to provide a “guarantee” to “every parent” that every school delivers to a certain standard.
His idea is that every school should follow a national curriculum, approved by central government. He wants every teacher to complete a particular kind of training, again central government-approved.
As Winston Churchill said, “those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.” Clegg’s proposal may sound uncontroversial, unless it is remembered that governments of both major parties have tried and failed with exactly the same idea.
A Conservative government introduced a national curriculum in 1988 for all schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Just as for Clegg, its specific aim was to guarantee a universal standard of education for every child. It failed to do so. As measured by national testing, a third of 11-year-old children failed to meet the expected standard in 1997. And 16-year olds did little better, with less than half reaching the expected level. The succeeding Labour government took the same approach in its early years, with the same failure to guarantee a minimum level of achievement.
To Tony Blair’s government’s great credit, it realised that a different approach was needed. That approach would recognise that schools are effective primarily because of the quality of their own teaching and leadership. The government introduced academy schools, which were free of the responsibility to teach the national curriculum. Meanwhile international academic research was showing more and more clearly that the best way to raise standards is to give schools freedom of management, while holding them accountable for performance.
The coalition rightly kept academies and allowed their number to expand. It also rightly allowed state schools to employ effective good teachers who do not happen to have “qualified teacher status”, just as the independent sector is able to do. The schools inspectorate Ofsted is able to spot where such teachers are performing badly, as it has just done in the case of the Al-Madinah free school in Derby.
Clegg’s proposal is the worst kind of political artifice: a “guarantee” designed to appeal to parents, but which will fail them in practice. It ignores the lessons of 25 years of education policy.
Here is something better: a quote from Blair’s foreword to a Schools White Paper in 2005, on his vision for self-confident, self-governing state schools: “What is important to these schools is their ethos, their sense of purpose, the strength of their leaders, teachers and support staff, the motivation of their parents and pupils… Much of that comes from the can-do attitude of their principals and staff.” Blair had it right and Clegg is wrong.
Andrew Haldenby is director of the independent think tank Reform. www.reform.co.uk @andrewhaldenby