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Turncoat? The life and death of school systems

Originally appeared at

April 23, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

It was in January of last year that I was advised by a colleague closely associated with Michael Gove the Conservative politician who six months before had become the Coalition’s Minister of Education, to have a meeting with Rachel Wolf – the 25 year-old former internee on whom Michael Gove was much dependent for pushing through his agenda on free schools, and academies.

The recent use of the word ‘academy’ to distinguish it from ‘schools’ is interesting; to Plato the Academy was a wooded garden where philosophers would discuss matters of great intellectual interest. In more recent parlance an Academy was seen as being something more than a school but less than a university, and frequently defined a group of people meeting around specific big issues… such as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, or academies of literature or music.

The use of the word ‘free’, in the sense of free schools, in the present English political context means schools that are ‘free’ of what some politicians have seen as being the disastrous intervention of local education authorities who, under the arrangements set out in 1944, acted as the intermediaries between central government’s responsibility for strategy, and its implementation in many thousands of schools.

It remains a moot point as to whether being directly responsible to Westminster, rather than to locally-elected politicians will actually mean such schools being less dependent on another form of political control. This is further clouded by the political suggestion that free schools, receiving all their operating funds from government, may be at liberty to make profits for their sponsors.

Academies apparently had their origin in the charter school movement in the US, first introduced in 1991 and receiving a massive boost under George Bush Sr. when he appointed Diane Ravitch as his Assistant Secretary for Education. By 2007 Ravitch’s enthusiasm for charter schools had turned to one of deep scepticism. Out of the dozen reasons that Ravitch gave as to why such schools will not improve under present circumstances I quote four:

  1. “Schools will not improve if elected officials intrude into pedagogical territory and make decisions that properly should be made by professional educators, Congress and State legislatures (which we English should read Parliament and the Local Town Hall) should not tell teachers how to teach, any more than they should tell surgeons how to perform operations.”
  2. “If we value only what tests measure we miss the point, for not everything that matters can be quantified – such as a student’s ability to seek alternative explanations, to raise questions, to pursue knowledge on his or her own, and, critically, to think differently.”
  3. “If we entrust educational policy to the magical powers of market choice, education is reduced to a matter of winners and losers. Surely our goal must be to establish school systems that foster academic excellence in every school and every neighbourhood?”
  4. “If we expect schools to act like private, profit-seeking enterprises, we fail for the goal of education is not to produce higher scores but to educate children to become responsible people with well developed minds and good character”.

Ravitch concluded her book – Death and Life of the Great American School System – by saying, “at the present time, public education is in peril. Efforts to reform public education are, ironically, diminishing its quality and endangering its very survival. We must turn our attention to improving the schools, infusing them with the substance of genuine learning and reviving the conditions that make learning possible”.

On that cold January morning in Canary Wharf – was it only 15 months ago? – I tried to urge Rachel Wolf to heed this warning from a much older and far more experienced academic and political analyst with many years of experience under her belt. She shrugged her shoulders at the mention of Ravitch’s name… that “turncoat”.

Responding as quick as I could to such a simplistic political refrain, and knowing how dangerous is blind ideology, I suggested that being able to reframe your position saves people and institutions from disaster… just like St Paul or Winston Churchill. But she was to have none of it. As of this month it seems that, by the beginning of the next academic year, there will be some 70 free schools.

Perhaps far more significant is that, as of this month, nearly 51% of secondary schools will have opted to become Academies, though just how they will impact on thinking about the overall structure of education, and the development of pedagogy, is simply not clear.


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