School for Scandal

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How can we engage, deliberate and decide on what’s best for our education system?

As our government zigzags on yet another approach for schools, I wonder why, unlike most countries, we can’t settle on a model and Get It Right.

Consider that in no other European country do politicians agree so little on how its school system should be managed. The incessant arguments here about secondary schools, their ownership and control, structure, testing, exam results and curricula we take as ‘normal’ surprise and confuse visitors from abroad. Maybe we just like debating and disagreeing rather than doing.

The German (selective) system has been in place since its independence in 1949 (imagine that here). In Finland (comprehensive) – usually acknowledged to be Europe’s top educational performer – the political parties went into the 2015 general election with a shared commitment to a policy document they had worked on with teacher and head teacher unions, parent groups and secondary school students.

Good grief, politicians agreeing for the greater good: how terribly backward, they must be foreign. But these countries know that education policy takes consensus to work – hardly surprising given the nature of the task: a collective social good; for a solid economy other children’s education is as important to us as our own; and the penalty of a poor education is felt by us all – in taxes, crime, and social cohesion.

Schools in Finland are the product of adult politics.

Here, the latest rabbit has been pulled from the policy hat: grammar schools and the repoliticisation of a debate many thought over in the 1970s. You might have reacted rather wearily, as I did, to Theresa May’s announcement. Assuming that this was not simply an expedient diversion from the Brexit fix, or a generous attempt to give us all something else to talk about, then it’s time once more for us to put our hands in our pockets as the canoe of state zigzags from bank to bank consuming our cash in yet another ‘reform’ programme. These programmes evidently don’t work as they would have ceased long ago if they had. These violent policy alterations cost an unquantified lot in taxes, in disruption to children’s education, and in teacher stress. I’ve spent a working lifetime in and around governments and I’ve seen the waste endemic in our system regardless of the colour of the party in power.

Martin Rowson cartoon

Cartoon by Martin Rowson

A very brief history:

A very brief history of the zigzag of schools policies is instructive. We saw a highly selective two tier system settling in during the 50s and 60s, followed by the closure of usually sink ‘secondary moderns’ and of most grammar schools, and their replacement with non-selective comprehensives – many of which survive today. But concerns grew over the performance of some schools, fuelled by Mrs Thatcher’s attachment to ideology, such that in the 80s the modern approach kicked off. Since then we have had the marginalization or removal of local education authorities, special measures and academies for failing schools, the upsurge of Ofsted and testing, a renewed confidence in private schools, proposed and rescinded academy chains for all schools, and now grammars once more.

Oh, and now talk of changing the 11+. Guess what? In Germany, selection is through teacher assessment and parent discussion, not tests and tutoring-if-you’re-lucky. Been like that for years. Not difficult – with agreement.

But the nature of our political system has compelled successive radical secretaries of state for education – Kenneth Baker in 1988, David Blunkett in 1997, Michael Gove in 2010 (and now PMs David Cameron in 2015 and Theresa May in 2016) – to go through a similar process: developing policy in private without engaging those essential to its operation; promising publicly that they will deliver major change; arguing that they alone know how this can be achieved; insisting that the urgency of the task requires them to direct things from the centre; directing people’s energies towards a narrow range of test score targets; raising everyone’s stress levels; ignoring the voices of those warning of dangers ahead; undermining the motivation of those responsible for making their policies work; and bringing forth legislation that, at root, mirrors their own experience of education – apparently believing that what worked for them some decades ago will work for everybody in very different circumstances.

It falls to each of their successors to point out the limitations of such a one-dimensional approach to managing a complex system. This leads to their re-opening a limited dialogue with the profession, trying to repair the damage done to trust and morale, working out how to broaden the focus of the curriculum, and sometimes re-inventing the systems that were designed with such care a decade or so previously, then torn down before they had a chance to reach maturity … without of course confessing that this is what they are doing. (The NHS is another victim of zigzag government – on which more on a future blog.)

This approach to policy making is termed DAD – Decide, Announce, Defend. It has a long, costly, and conflict-inducing history. You will have experienced it many times. A government or a council announces that a hospital is to be closed, a flood defence to be constructed across your front garden, a new policy on welfare to be introduced. Pause for the shock to sink in…..and then those who consider it wrong mount a defence. If effective, this can go on for years until either the proposal is rescinded or forced through. The original decision is often taken quickly. But delivering the policy may take years or even decades (the M4 route in England was a famous example). It leaves the ‘losers’ sore and disenfranchised.

This ‘expert, top-down’ model of decision-making suits those that believe they know best for whatever reason: of their education, intellect, or ego. It saves the messy business of engaging with the public and comprehending the actual complexity of the real world. Being ‘decisive’ makes for good politics – even though ‘strong’ government is rarely what is needed.

For how much longer will we have to endure this circus where political whim is trumps, knowledge is disposable, and commitment a foreign concept.

The zigzag nature of policy-making has made it impossible to establish effective solutions. The waste of resources that results from ‘reform’ in perpetuity, and the damage it inflicts on the life chances of the young people caught up in the whirligig of change, are never measured. Running a system in a state of permanent revolution and high anxiety has significant downsides. It may seem extraordinary but Theresa May and the others are content to use children as guinea pigs. Politicians’ ideologies are evidently more important than children’s education.

In a two-party state without the stabilising influence of other parties in the canoe of state, alternating monotheism is de rigueur (monotheism: the doctrine or belief that there is only one God). For the 18 years of Thatcher and co, one set of political beliefs pertained, followed by 13 years of New Labour’s, and now 6 years of Cameron’s world view. Each party in power makes the mistake of assuming that their beliefs will endure for the foreseeable future. In reality, these are practiced for a limited period, only to be declared false gods by their successors. Small state, big state. Hard on welfare, soft on welfare. Private sector good, public sector bad. Public expenditure good, public expenditure bad.

As each political religion hits the bank, the seeds of apparent reason for the alternative set of beliefs are sown. Having necessarily restored public services after years of Conservative induced anoxeria, in then overcooking public expenditure Gordon Brown inadvertently – and history now says foolishly – laid the groundwork for George Osbourne’s righteous mission of fat cuts. As citizens and consumers we benefit or suffer from the cumulative output of these regimes, the aggregate, not the separate parts. The moving average of successive governments’ results comes at a high cost in wasted taxes and blighted lives.


In a world with no need for ideology, where everyone wants good education, it doesn’t have to be this way. Indeed, if it had worked then it would have stopped. But it doesn’t, so it won’t.

The net result of 30 years of this political contest is that some schools are educating to a very high standard and children flourish. At the other end are ‘ASNLs’ – at school and not learning – the classic adolescent boys I meet: bored, alienated and rich in testosterone, unable to make sense of the purpose of 5 GCSEs when their destiny is the vital jobs of hill farming or broadband network builders. The Children’s Society has highlighted the levels of emotional distress experienced by large numbers of young people – traceable to schools? In A Mindfulness Guide For The Frazzled, Ruby Wax comments: “Right now children are being hot housed for exams. But no-one’s asking how much they can take before they burn their little brains out from the pressure.”

As an active parent, my daughter is presently plotting a way through the shifting maze of catchment and school grading, seeking out what is perceived to be the best school whilst avoiding the most traffic polluted, moving house to do so or, not in her case, contemplating temporarily adopting a religion. Others, committed to inclusive education but with the resources, throw in the towel to go private.  Passive parents accept their inadequate lot.

A more experienced teacher explained his tactics for minimising the form filling, although subsequently he fell foul of the small print and was ‘let go’. Whilst a younger friend describes her long hours filing her lesson plans, risk assessments, training and performance management objectives, class profiles, and intervention reports, as well as transferring data from apparently online systems. Her school has 6 year olds on beta-blockers. 11 hour days for five days plus a Saturday or Sunday are her working week: an unhealthy and unsustainable regimen. Unvalued or miscritiqued good teachers leave for the private sector and more balanced appraisal processes. Levels of teacher turnover may make it impossible to grow a culture of mutual support and collective growth.

Heads and their senior teams we meet, expend time and energy on ‘gaming’ the performance measures and insulating staff from the blunt instrument of Ofsted, when they should be focusing on designing great learning experiences. Good head teachers are put out to grass because of one bad set of figures … whose explanation can be traced back to factors over which they had no control.

In this absorption with procedure and test scores, the key question gets lost: what is the point of schools? We hear only self-scoring politicians rhetorically massaging statistics to ‘prove’ their policies right, or if it’s the Opposition, then to ‘prove’ them wrong. You might as well get football managers to announce the scores at the end of the game – ‘Oh, we won again? Golly gosh.’

The statistical debate centres on exam and test scores. But schools play a far wider role than this, from the basic – reading, writing, and arithmetic; to the medium term trajectories through life of say neurosurgeons or railway workers – at work and home; to employment and the economy; to pure education for a civil society. In these days of big data the ‘epidemiology’ of school systems is surely entirely possible. But without a constitutional requirement for accurate feedback, the policy maker’s lens suffers from myopia.

If the lens were transparent we would see, for example, that the UK has never really ‘got’ vocational education and its many merits – historic class divisions, educational snobbery, and adversarial politics have got in the way. By contrast, consider Italy, where tourism is a major industry. At age 14, pupils can join vocational and technical schools for three years to specialise in hospitality and food alongside their general education. In regions where particular skills are needed, in ceramic tile production or aircraft maintenance for example, there are found schools for those skills. If France is a major market for these same industries, French will be on the syllabus – to communicate not to learn its grammar. The results of schooling become industry wide. In Germany, the strength of both its vocational education and of its manufacturing and engineering industries is presumably not coincidental.

The CBI is a regular critic of the skill levels being produced by the school system. Martin Wolf in the FT on coping with Brexit, states: “The UK has to rectify longstanding supply-side failings. The list includes ….. inadequate basic education of much of the population and the innumeracy of much of its elite.” (I did enjoy that latter point).

Engage, Deliberate, Decide:

In the 25th anniversary edition of The Big Issue, its founder John Bird comments: “Recently I have been working in the House of Lords on issues of literacy and the around 30 per cent of our children who pass through school and come out ill-prepared for life. This is one area that we could put useful energies into because many of the people we work with have not done well at school.”

The Centre for Cities’ new report Competing with the Continent presents an in-depth picture of how UK city economies compare to 330 European cities from across 17 countries. Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, and concludes thus:

  • UK cities play a bigger role in the national economy than in other countries
  • Yet UK cities are lagging behind in terms of productivity
  • Poor skills levels are likely to be the biggest cause of low productivity.

Oh dear, more evidence of a major problem.

Meantime here, big companies have come to depend on well-educated East Europeans –  understandably avoiding the cost of the retro fitting of skills for local people. Whilst the economic supply-side of vocational education fails to provide, the demand-side for solidly educated workers fuels within EU immigration (Nota Bene: from stable state systems). Nigel Farage advocates grammar schools, but his policy of reducing immigration might be better served by strong, respected and valued vocational education as an integral part of secondary schooling: grammar schools don’t do vocation. So much to learn amid the political party posturing preventing it.

There is an alternative approach to making policy: EDD – Engage, Deliberate, Decide. This means making policy in the open, accessible to all who are interested, gathering and promulgating a real fact base, looking at other countries’ systems, and talking about it away from adversarial politics and ideologies. The final decision becomes relatively straightforward. Most significantly, all those involved in making the system work – teachers, parents, pupils, employers, governors, and funders – are committed to it, a precondition for success. With stability, all can put their energies into its operation, rather than into yet another argument. And, guess what, you will find selective and non-selective systems that work well – it’s not the structure, it’s the commitment, the stability, and the system.

To state the obvious, schools are all about learning. But learning should apply as much in the development of its policy: first to learn from previous mistakes, second from the waste of zigzag, third from all the real facts and information out there, fourth from all those engaged in schools, and fifth from other countries. This takes time and humility, but not anywhere as much time as has been consumed by our political process in the last 30 years.

If we really want the ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’ espoused by the 2015 white paper, or ‘Schools That Work For Everyone’ as the 2016 green paper is named, would we succeed by starting an argument over grammar schools? Politics cannot deliver these aspirational titles. It hasn’t and it won’t. Good EDD will.

Here’s a start.

I’ll be applying my knowledge of how government really works in future blogs.  Follow me at for more on the detrimental nature of zigzag policies.

Written by Ed Straw with James Park.

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Ed Straw was for 20 years a partner at the professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, specialising in organisational strategy and performance. He served on the UK and global boards. He has been Chair of Relate, the national relationship charity, and the think tank Demos. He consulted extensively on both Thatcher’s and New Labour’s public service reforms and their implementation. He was advisor to the Labour government on its policy for families and on civil service reform. He was the architect of New Labour’s re-organisation in the mid-90s. In 2014, he published Stand & Deliver: A Design For Successful Government. His pamphlets include Relative Values (Demos, 1996) and The Dead Generalist (Demos, 2004).

James Park was the founding director of the charity Antidote (1997-2010) set up with psychotherapist Susie Orbach to work for a society where the facility to handle the complexities of our emotional lives was as commonplace as the ability to read, write and do arithmetic. He was the editor of the monthly journal Emotional Literacy Update for five years, wrote the Demos report Detoxifying School Accountability: the case for multi-perspective inspection (2013) and served on the government advisory group on Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning. He recently set up a new charity, ProgressWay, to demonstrate the power of collective bottom-up innovation to ensure public service organizations can deliver their true purpose. His books include Learning to Dream: the New British Cinema (1984, Faber); Icons: Key Figures of the Late Twentieth Century (1991, Bloomsbury); Shrinks: the Analysts Analyzed (1992, Bloomsbury) and Sons, Mothers and Other Lovers (1994, Little Brown).


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