Academies were meant to replace failing comprehensives. Now that the government is encouraging every school to convert, will the original mission be lost?by Philip Collins / December 14, 2011 / Leave a comment
The Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects; the building won the prestigious Stirling Prize in October
We have only Susan Crosland’s word that her husband Tony, the late Labour secretary of state for education, ever said that he wanted to “destroy every fucking grammar school in England.” It is less likely still that a man as decorous as the current education secretary, Michael Gove, would utter such an imprecation. But it is to be hoped that he has the same scale of ambition, albeit trained at a better target. The mission of his government, which will otherwise be defined by a halting attempt to pay down the deficit, should be to destroy every fucking failing comprehensive in the country.
Every cabinet minister has a finite amount of reforming energy and a limited stock of political capital, and there are early signs that Gove’s considerable abilities are not being deployed to solve the biggest problem. Since he became education secretary, Gove has deployed two signature policies. The first is to usher 24 establishments into being, under the banner of the “free schools” policy, by which interested parties are licensed to run a school if local demand exists. The second is a rapid expansion of Labour’s academies programme and it is on this second count that Gove is starting from the wrong point.
The idea of the city academy, as it was originally called, was a response to a chronic and shameful failure in British education. In 1995, the first ever Key Stage 2 standardised tests (known as “Sats”) showed that two thirds of 11 year olds left primary school unable to read, write and add up properly. In half of all comprehensive schools, fewer than one in three 16 year olds were failing to achieve five GCSE passes including English and mathematics—the standard that Michael Gove would later term the “English baccalaureate.” A quarter of all comprehensives were getting fewer than a fifth of their children over that threshold. Michael Barber, who led the National Literacy Strategy, tells the story that, when he was on a commission sent in by the department of education to close down the notorious Hackney Downs School in London, they discovered its best results at GCSE were in Turkish. Hackney Downs didn’t teach Turkish.
This failure had been incubated for a generation by conservatives of both left and right. The left’s conservatives…