GOVES ATTACK ON PRIVATE SCHOOLS AND THEIR EFFECTS
Goes for the soft target-but what exactly is he doing to narrow the gap?
Michael Gove said in his speech at Brighton College that the dominance of the public schoolboy in every prominent role in British society is “morally indefensible”. “More than almost any developed nation, ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress,” he said. “Those who are born poor are more likely to stay poor and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege in England than in any comparable country. For those of us who believe in social justice, this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible.” Gove was certainly not calling though for the abolition of private schools to remedy the problem. What he meant was that state schools needed to improve to private school standards, and not that private schools should be abolished.
Clearly it is impossible to justify such inequity although when politicians start talking about morality they are, as a rule, on dangerous ground –so its worth taking a much closer look. We are certainly an unequal society in terms of outcomes. But it is too simplistic to blame the 7% of people who are educated here in private schools for such inequity and crucially the lack of social mobility. Social mobility has stalled in our country, for sure. The problem is, though, deeply ingrained. Anthony Sampson in his seminal book ‘Anatomy of Britain’ first published in 1962, with later revisions , highlighted that the establishment and business was dominated by the privately educated. The Sutton Trust has helpfully up-dated Sampson’s analysis and findings but in truth have told us not much that is new in this respect. The reasons for the lack of social mobility are many and varied. What happens in the home up to the age of three and parental support and education are regarded as very important indeed, in influencing social mobility. The Jesuits maxim “Give me the child for seven years, and I will give you the man” is probably only half correct in that a child’s trajectory may be largely determined even earlier, at least according to some experts and recent research (although there is a danger of being too deterministic about this).
Politicians (educated in both state and private schools) in successive administrations have largely failed to grasp the nettle to identify the nature of the problem ,let alone the policy levers that might help alleviate it , and these levers are not by any means all related to education. Certainly its true that if you fail to get good GCSEs at school your chances of doing well in the world of work are severely circumscribed. Bashing private schools though, even for a Tory Minister, it seems, pays political dividends. They are the soft target.
Too many stubbornly underperforming state schools are at the heart of the problem, and it’s a difficult challenge to address. It is mainly about addressing the long tail of our significant underachievers in school, perhaps as much as 20% of the school population. The next biggest problem is the way we treat our brightest and most able pupils , those who have the potential to succeed but who are not being given either the personalised support or guidance in schools to enable them to reach their full potential. Depending on how you measure and define this group it could range from 5%-20%. of pupils.This is bad for them, and us.
But lets be clear there is nothing immoral about choosing the type of education you want for your child, a right that happens to be enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and those with money have every right to choose how they spend it subject only to the law. For those like George Monbiot (privately educated) who naively call for the abolition of private schools the message is clear -it wont happen. The Government would rightly be held to account for such an illiberal act under Human Rights law. His other solution is to remove charity status for these schools-which will marginally decrease their numbers, mainly the smaller ones, on the tightest of margins, but also serve to make the sector more elitist ,less inclusive and less prone, probably, to helping the state sector. It would also mean that tens of thousands of pupils end up looking for places in an already hard pressed state system .And if they lose their charity status, there will follow a major cull of thousands of other charities which provide less public benefit than many private schools.
Looking at the advantages provided by an independent school education, they are perceived to be many. Which is why surveys suggest that most parents, if they had the means, would choose a private education for their child. Of course, class sizes tend to be much smaller. Some say the teaching is better although this is difficult to prove . But many parents are drawn to these schools because of the pastoral support, extra-curricular activities (arts music, drama), sport and facilities. Also importantly these schools tend to support character development, values, self-sufficiency, self-discipline, resilience, leadership skills, teamwork, sporting prowess and nurture , too, creative talent , and ultimately more rounded and socially- confident individuals.
Rather than abolish these schools the state sector should be learning from them. Lord Adonis talked about transferring the independent sectors DNA into state schools. And it is in the area of supporting character development, positive thinking and resilience where the state system has much to learn and where there are huge possibilities.
It is not absolutely clear though how this governments reforms will help support the development of these characteristics and attributes among our state school pupils, and so help close the gap between state and private schools and promote equity. Indeed, it could be argued, and has been by Professor Tony Watts, that Gove has been personally responsible for pulling out the state-school funding for sport, music and the other performing arts (where the disparities with public schools are now particularly significant). Also the programmes for raising aspirations and improving social mobility (career guidance, AimHigher) have been halted. How exactly are state school pupils, particularly the most disadvantaged, going to be more socially mobile if they are not given access to high quality, professional, face to face advice in school about their options and pathways into further, higher education, training and employment?
The Government is, of course, introducing significant reforms. The structural reforms – making schools more autonomous and giving them more freedom may well help, providing they use this to improve educational outcomes, (some seem to have converted simply for the extra funding) . But few believe that they are sufficient in themselves to deliver significantly improved outcomes. In short, the changes are necessary but insufficient. But the other side of this coin is what happens in the classroom, at the chalk face. There need to be improvements there in the quality of teaching. Evidence shows that improving the quality of teaching is essential to driving up standards in schools. Pupils taught by good teachers score nearly half a GCSE point more per subject than pupils taught by poor teachers. But its also, crucially, about what children are taught , so that teachers are supporting the provision of a rounded education, and not just teaching to the test.(critics believe that exams are now the master not servant of education) .The delayed curriculum reforms and introduction of the Ebacc, might have a positive effect. But, overall are these ‘ game-changers’ likely to measurably close the attainment gap, to tackle the long tail of underachievement and the widening divide between the state and independent sectors? Even after the Blair governments reforms, Professor Barbers ‘deliverology’ and significant new investment, the attainment gap between the sectors actually grew (and productivity in state education fell). So what else is on offer? The Pupil Premium targeted at the most disadvantaged? –a possibility but unions claim that this money is being used to fill gaps arising from other cuts in school funding. Even if not, the sums involved are relatively modest and there is no guarantee that schools will use the ‘extra’ money effectively. The government has not ring-fenced Pupil Premium cash, but it will – via Ofsted and league tables – hold schools accountable for how it is spent. Unless we learn from what schools do with the premium, the money may well be wasted, and hence do nothing to narrow the achievement gap. So, what else is going to narrow the gap and improve equity? Gove deserves credit for pushing through reforms, often overcoming resistance even from within his own Department, and one would be hard pressed to name a Minister who has achieved more or performed better, certainly in the eyes of his own leader Tory MPs and electors. But, in terms of transforming the system, to make it fit for the 21st Century, we are probably edging towards the end of the beginning, rather than the beginning of the end. And attacks on private schools tend to deflect attention away from other areas that require urgent attention and the sustained investment of political capital.