A historical problem for people in the Labour party is their inability to make hard arguments about education. Sit in an education debate at the annual Labour conference and you will soon hear audience comments descending into a melange of “let’s give every child a hug and a screwdriver”. When the Conservatives are promising flashy academies that they claim will get parents’ children into top universities, Labour needs something more in its arsenal.
Like an educators’ Batman, The Truth About Our Schools should become the party’s secret weapon.
Melissa Benn and Janet Downs are part of the Local Schools Network, a formidable group of writers, campaigners, investigators and talking heads who throughout the past six years have proved a constant thorn in the side of education reformers pushing in the direction of academies and sacking heads for poor performance data.
Whenever the Department for Education puts out a press release claiming academies are out-performing schools, it is as if one of the group puts out a bat signal and within 30 minutes a blog is usually on the site debunking the stats.
This book takes that debunking and runs with it. The early chapters are longer reads – setting out to slay “eight myths” of current education reform, including “choice will improve education in England” and “teachers don’t need qualifications”. At the back are a collection of shorter pieces, taken directly from the blog and given a light edit. They do a neat job of being more positive: stating what the group would like to see in the future rather than merely taking apart the ideas of others.
Each chapter is impressively footnoted, with one getting the feeling that not a single PDF has passed the threshold of government without it being consumed by the authors and placed on an index card in a box labelled “things we can throw back in their faces later”.
Where a book like this inevitably falls down is in claiming “The Truth” in its title and then being selective in evidence and interpretation. I didn’t expect anything else. Authors have a set word count and they are not arguing that this is “The Bible of Everything About Schools”. But it sometimes meant a paragraph, or even an entire chapter, irked when the “truth” I was being sold didn’t fit with the version that I knew.
For example, in one chapter the Hackney Learning Trust is held up as a great example of how to successfully intervene in poorly performing schools. It is described as an “arms-length, not-for-profit organisation” which “acts as a central broker of everything from school improvement strategies to fair admissions”. This is seen as a good thing, and a better alternative than making schools academies.
Academy trusts, meanwhile, which are also “not-for-profit” organisations are described as if they are inevitably a slippery slope to profit-making privatisation. Regional schools commissioners, the government’s new school improvement brokers for the entire country, are not even mentioned in this book though one expects they would be resisted by the authors if they were.
But where’s the difference? Why is it a good to hand an education department of a local authority to a non-profit-organisation, but not handing schools to non-profit academy trusts? There’s no clear answer.
Better chapters are those regarding standards in academies and free schools, which pack serious statistical punches (full disclosure: I found myself cited in these chapters, but rather than make me positive, it means I’d be the first to complain if facts had been taken out of context).
The final “myth”, of whether progressive education is ruining education, is a little eye-roll worthy but ends on a quote from Robert Peal, whose distinctly traditionalist views have riled many on the left.
“For the moderate-minded observer, it would seem that the obvious path lies through the middle of each of these statements,” Peal says, referring to whether punishments for children are cruel or
vital. Frankly, that same line also sums up how one should read this book. It’s a fast-talking, stats-thumping piece with a one-sided bent.
Whether or not you’ll like it probably depends on whether or not you agree with it.