The Guardian has a review by Melissa Benn of Andrew Adonis’s book “Education, Education Education: Reforming England’s Schools” which describes his involvement in the academy movement and his wider views on education. This is from the Guardian…
About a third of the way through his riveting but worryingly partial narrative, Andrew Adonis declares that his political intention is “not to bury comprehensive education but to save it”. Really? One could easily be forgiven for missing this as the defining thrust of the book’s argument. The former New Labour education guru is consistently dismissive of most aspects of the egalitarian revolution he claims to remake, while lavishing praise on all things privileged, powerful and private: looking ultimately to Them, not Us, to reform England’s schools.
Yet Adonis, a man of conviction and wide establishment reach, makes a serious pitch that deserves proper scrutiny. For all its wrong turnings, the sponsored academy programme of the New Labour years showed what impact government can have when it chooses to direct resources, administrative determination and aesthetic beauty into some of our poorest areas. (Adonis is amusing about the eccentricities of some of the famous architects brought in to build the new academies.)
But it is the less appealing aspects of this legacy that the coalition has latched on to. To remake state education as a form of ersatz elitism – phoney blazered privilege for all – rather than a quality project grounded in fairness, is a stroke of twisted anti-genius. The Tories have already signalled their intention to make the academy and free school brand a central part of the party’s 2015 pitch – look out for a free school opening soon at an empty fire or police station near you.
Whatever the shape of the future, Adonis is keen both to secure for himself a place in modern administrative history and to be perceived as a figure of continuing relevance as the Gove bandwagon speeds recklessly on. So here we read of our crusader’s singular efforts to think out, and push forward, the idea of the “independent state school”: freed from local authority control in order to flourish under the dynamic branded management of a range of private and public institutions.
Unfortunately, all this makes for a limited, contradictory and decidedly unprogressive piece of education history. Little homage is paid to the decades-long struggle to phase out the brutal and divisive 11-plus. And how can one castigate the failure of the “secondary modern comprehensive” without some acknowledgement of the continuing impact of selective and private education or national and local under-investment, or the unarguable impact of poverty on the ability of some children to learn? For Adonis, as for Gove, it sometimes seems that the only thing standing between a child on free school meals and a place at King’s College, Cambridge, is a militant, clock-watching member of the NUT.
But he is delightfully tactful in his descriptions of dealing with a series of Labour secretaries of state, some of whom laboured under the mistaken impression that they were in charge of government education policy. He even gets that cross Gordon Brown on his side! We also get an intriguing glimpse into the fast spreading networks of the socially concerned but hugely powerful entrepreneurs of new Labour/new Tory Britain: a glittering array of influential, titled and rich individuals who have now entered the education field.
Academies, Academies, Academies would be a more appropriate title for this book. The problem with it, as both history and politics, is what it leaves out. Forget the marked discourtesy to local authorities of the calibre of Hampshire and Tower Hamlets, that do not “run” education, Soviet-style, but who oversee, and support, a web of successful schools serving the rural affluent and inner-city poor respectively and with scarcely an academy in sight. Forget the dubious “freedoms” handed to academies and free schools around admissions and exclusions (neither of which merit an entry in the book’s index) and now curriculum and teacher qualifications, which can release academies and free schools from the imperative of acting fairly and collaboratively, often to the detriment of other schools. Forget, too, the burgeoning financial and political unaccountability of the big academy chains or the sheer impracticability of 20,000 English schools run directly, via individual funding contracts, from Sanctuary Buildings in Westminster.
More important is that there is no miracle academy effect. The evidence on the original, sponsored academies is now powerfully contested: the more prosaic truth is that systemic reforms – from more dynamic heads, improved teaching to inter-school collaborative schemes – have raised the quality of many state schools over many years. These slow but steady changes are now threatened, not enhanced, by the academy revolution mark two, unleashed by the coalition.