There is a brutal culture war in British education.
On the left are the educational establishment wedded to outdated dogmas about child-centred teaching and government control. They are led by the National Union of Teachers (appropriately abbreviated to NUT) and Fiona Millar, partner of Tony Blair’s spin doctor Alistair Campbell. Unfortunately, these forces of reaction also include the Catholic Church. They all want to keep English schools exactly as they are, except for spending billions on shiny new buildings and paying teachers more, no matter how good or bad they are at their job. In effect, they want to keep poor children ignorant and underachieving.
On the right are teachers like Katharine Birbalsingh, scandalously sacked from her job for speaking out against the establishment and Toby Young, who is trying to set up a free school offering a rigorous education to all local children in Acton. He’s better known as the real person whose memoir was adapted for the film How to Lose Friends and Alienate People starring Simon Pegg.
Just how urgent the problem is for children from underprivileged backgrounds is illustrated by stark statistics. According to government figures, just 45 of children entitled to free school meals in 2002/3 (the standard measure of children from poor backgrounds and about 80,000 in total) got places at Oxford and Cambridge when they progressed in 2006/7. Other figures from the Sutton Trust found that only 130 such children got Oxbridge places over the three years to 2007. To put that in perspective, some top private schools manage to get 80 or so children into Oxbridge every year. Even allowing for genetic factors, this suggests that state education fails the most gifted of the needy.
But there is hope. Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, one of London’s poorest boroughs, got ten pupils offers to Cambridge last year. Mossbourne is an independent school run within the state system with the freedom to hire good teachers (and fire bad ones); impose a strict disciplinary ethos and challenge pupils with a demanding syllabus. No wonder the left hate it. They like to pretend that it has achieved its success through covert selection of the brightest local pupils, a charge for which there is no evidence whatsoever. Mossbourne Academy shows why defeating the NUT, Fiona Millar and the other educational reactionaries is a vital battle for increasing social mobility in the UK. It also shows what is possible once bureaucratic shackles are cut, discipline asserted and children are allowed to reach their potential.
Some on the political right believe that the problems started with the abolition of grammar schools. Under this system, which has been phased out since the 1960s but is still in force in certain parts of the country, children take an exam at age 11. If they pass, they go to an academic grammar school. If they fail (or didn’t pass with a high enough mark, using the current argot), they went to a ‘vocational’ secondary modern or comprehensive school. The system worked well for gifted poor children for whom grammar schools were a ticket to the middle classes. However, they failed late developers and children on the middle rungs on attainment. But ultimately, they were abolished because the existing middle classes got apoplectic if their children failed the eleven plus exam. Nonetheless, the combination of comprehensive schools and so-called liberal education policies has been a disaster for gifted children of parents who cannot afford to pay private school fees. Let us hope that Michael Gove, the Conservative education minister, with his strategy of freeing schools from bureaucrats and facing down the educational establishment, can repair some of the damage.
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