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Editorial A fragmented and top-down education system is one that fails our children

EVEN by the standards of ministerial incompetence set by this government, the refusal of Damian Hinds to meet headteachers astonishes. 

Education ministers — transient beings who sensibly move on before the extent of their incompetence is fully revealed — are well-advised to listen to teachers.

Education policy excites passions because we worry for our children’s future and because our experiences at school shape our lives.

There are few more powerful indicators of class than knowing which schools people attend and the privilege which private education and selective schooling confers shapes the subliminal messages of all the parties, most especially the Tories.

While education spending is the pivot on which education controversies often turn — and in compensating for the educational disadvantages which working-class children face money is exceptionally important — the Tories may be relatively content for the debate to centre on this question. 

This is because, after years of austerity, people have already priced in the different approaches of the parties.

The Tories picked up on the idea — first introduced by New Labour — of offering financial inducements to detach schools from their local authority and fund them directly from government, notionally to “improve pupil performance and break the cycle of low expectations.”

The fundamental flaw in this academies concept lies in fragmenting the school system. Encouraging private-sector involvement is seen by opponents of academies as a stage towards full privatisation and this is undoubtedly in the minds of the right-wing educational theorists and private-sector businesspeople who favour this bizarre experiment. 

The academies programme dissolves the strategic capacity of elected local government to plan and manage educational provision across the communities they serve. Even Tory education authorities find this a problem.

The parents of nearly one in 10 children are prepared to spend an average of £14,000 each year to buy an advantage over state schoolchildren where the spending per pupil is but £4,700 for primary schools and £6,200 for secondary schools.

Of course, to buy the really significant advantage that mingling with future Tory ministers entails you will have to fork out the £40,000 minimum that Eton charges.

Even though the faked science that underpinned the 11-plus is completely discredited, the persistence of selection still causes children in some areas to be sorted into successes and failures. 

Meanwhile the structural changes that have systematically fragmented state education allow for all manner of new, more informal, ways for our children to be sorted invariably to the disadvantage of working-class children.

Increasingly parents are concerned about the kind of education their children get. Ministers, from Michael Gove onwards, have seen the top-down imposition of a rigidly structured curriculum, certain kinds of learning and precisely defined bodies of “knowledge” as the key to shaping the thinking of young minds.

Against these mechanical approaches a radical emancipatory pedagogy grounded in teachers’ experience and founded in collaborative learning processes that encourage experimentation and creativity is challenging the right-wing policy agenda.

This is a powerful antidote to the combination of a prescriptive national curriculum and overbearing inspection and accountability procedures which has devalued the creative functioning of our schools.

Set against the best-performing national education systems such as Finland where autonomy and creativity is respected, our teachers and schools are pressured to satisfy an inspection regime that stifles their ability to respond with sensitivity to our children’s individual and collective needs.

The progressive education magazine Education for Tomorrow, relaunched this week, puts the issue with precision: “The ideology which educates children to ‘know their place’ sits perfectly with the very mechanisms that sort them into those places.”


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