Writing in the Guardian, Martin Kettle reads Lord Adonis’s new book Education, Education, Education and considers the implications for the future of schools and, in particular, the development of the academies and free schools…
At a fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrat conference in Liverpool two years ago, the Guardian pitted two of the brainiest men in British politics against one another to debate the state of the nation. Andrew Adonis, Labour policy guru turned ennobled transport secretary, and Chris Huhne, former Guardian leader writer turned Cameron coalition cabinet minister, duly combined to deliver a memorable jousting session.
But the most treasurable moment of their sparky debate came when Adonis responded to a characteristically uncompromising set of economic assertions by Huhne with this wonderfully withering assessment of his former SDP comrade. “I’ve known Chris for 30 years,” he said, “and I just wish I could ever be as confident about anything in politics as Chris always is about everything.”
It’s a great line. Yet anyone reading Adonis’s new book on the state of the English education system will see he has rediscovered his confidence in abundance. Adonis’s book, predictably titled Education, Education, Education, is a blazing polemic. It takes no prisoners. Yes, it occasionally airbrushes inconvenient counter-examples out of the picture in its onward rush. But it is an exhilaratingly unapologetic, well-sourced, highly readable and generally persuasive account of why the late-20th century English schools system had to be reinvented, has largely been reinvented, but still needs to be reinvented further. Read it.
The single most striking thing about Adonis’s insider’s account of the launch of academy schools by the Blair government, and of their linear development in Michael Gove’s free schools since the coalition took office in 2010, is that it describes what has now become a fait accompli. It is a mere decade since the first academy schools – independent state schools managed by private sponsors and accountable to national rather than local government – were established. Yet last week, at the start of the new school year, the Department for Education was able to announce that there are now 2,309 of them, representing more than half of the secondary schools in England. More than 2,000 of the total have been opened since 2010.
So the independent state school model is here to stay. And more than that. The independent state school is now the dominant form of secondary education in England, and likely to become more so, as other schools join or are created, and as the new template advances into primary education too. It won’t become universal in public education, any more than the comprehensive system became universal, either – and it remains strongly resisted in Wales – but the revolution made by Adonis and Gove seems irreversible for the foreseeable future. Get used to it.