The Tories are winning admirers with plans for new Swedish-style schools, with parents in the driving seat. But will they work here? And is it wise to let parents set up and run Britain's schools?by James Crabtree / April 26, 2009 / Leave a comment
Discuss this article at First Drafts, Prospect ‘s blog
Politicians like talking about parent power. Tony Blair promoted his 2006 Education Act with boasts of a new era of parental choice. Today, David Cameron is in on the act—promising a Tory parental revolution, and a new “great Education Act” in his first 100 days.
For Emma Jones, though, such high rhetoric has a rather empty sound. About five years ago she began to worry about where her son and daughter would go to secondary school. A theatre director by profession, she and her young family lived in a small enclave of London’s borough of Camden, just south of the busy Euston Road. Although both children went to one of the five local primary schools, she knew there was no acceptable local secondary. The nearest were academically weak, to find an alternative would mean travelling many miles across the city.
Jones also knew that parents in her corner of Camden had been campaigning since the 1970s for a decent school for the area. It hadn’t worked: Camden council had decided to build a new academy school four miles away instead. Despite all the rhetoric of parental empowerment, Jones faced familiar choices: choose a bad local school, move house or go private. Unhappy with each option, Jones kicked up a fuss.
She began to gather names for a petition outside primary school gates and launched a fresh campaign—”Where is my school?” She and fellow campaigner Polly Shields became unintended experts on topics such as local demographics. A council working party reviewed the issue. The campaign duly stalled. There was no suitable building, Jones learned. Her children could go to an existing school. There was nothing to be done. So much for parent power.
Opening a new state school is a tricky business. Either you must convince a local authority to do it for you or give up in frustration and start a private one instead. Either option means many years of sweat. Even so, Emma Jones’s campaign is only a small part of a broader, more complicated story about the potential rise of British parent power. Even though Britain’s education system has improved after a decade of new cash, figures published in March still showed that about 100,000 parents had missed out on their first choice of secondary school last year. The problem is felt most in cities, and most acutely of all in central London—where many of Britain’s most vocal parents happen to live. But the slow march to parental empowerment is also a story of hope; one based on changes in family structure, values and the greater assertiveness of today’s citizens.
Tony Blair was a canny judge of the public mood. Sensing a shift, he began a new push for parental involvement about a decade ago. It is a time that Pastor Derrick Wilson, and his wife Paulette, remember all too well. They are black Christian ministers, running a thriving church in Shepherd’s Bush, west London. Some years ago they noticed their young daughter behaving badly after attending a local nursery. They began to think perhaps they could run one themselves. Their plans grew. Over the next two decades, and overcoming great odds, they founded the Tabernacle School, a coeducational Christian school that teaches 40 smartly-uniformed, (mostly black) children aged three to 16 years old. From the outside it looks much like a residential house. Inside, even the most hardened atheist critic of faith schools would struggle not to be impressed by the Tabernacle’s superb results, polite pupils and strong educational ethos. The school is run privately, and charges a relatively modest £4,500 a year a pupil—but only because it is, as yet, ineligible for state money.
Pastor Derrick told us how, in 2000, with his school still struggling to survive, he was unexpectedly invited by Blair’s office to a meeting of 70 Christian leaders. Blair, he recalls, encouraged the church heads to start their own schools—and promised help from the state: “Write to me, personally,” Blair said, “and I’ll help you.” Pastor Derrick wrote him a letter explaining how his school—despite taking mostly poor children—encountered barrier after barrier from government. Would Blair help schools like his grow by changing some of the rules? He received only a polite form letter in return.
Although not a model correspondent, Blair, along with his energetic schools minister Andrew Adonis, were not idling. They pushed through the 2006 Education and Inspection Act, which (theoretically) allowed parents the right to open schools for the first time and introduced a schools commissioner to help them to do so. Power was given to parents, but the real aim was to remove it from intransigent unions and local education authorities (LEAs). The Act didn’t come close to achieving its goals. But it did open the door to parents, just a crack, and a trickle of “parent-promoted” schools followed.
Most such schools, like Pastor Derrick’s Tabernacle, are in the private sector. But, in September 2007, the state funded Elmgreen secondary school opened in south London, to a flurry of media coverage. It was followed, in June 2008, by a tiny village primary in Sussex, Bolnore school. Both opened after long parental campaigns, and in both cases parents took big decisions—from where it would be based, to who would be the first head teacher. Certainly, two isn’t many. But the potential for more exists, especially at primary level where many private schools, like the Montessori chain—would move into the state sector in an instant, if the deal was right.
The man who will most likely set those terms, and also the impetus behind today’s talk of parent power, is David Cameron. Like Blair, Cameron claims that schools are his priority, promising that “a great education reform bill will be a very big part of the first months of a Conservative government.” His education spokesman Michael Gove—in an interview conducted for this article—stressed that Cameron’s ideas were “emancipatory,” aiming to “set parents free” to choose the education they wanted for their children and, in doing so, raise standards. The two politicians share a gut instinct on education, perhaps forged by their living next door to each other and even sharing the school run. (Pastor Derrick’s Tabernacle is round the corner from Cameron’s old house. And pinned to a notice board in the school is a brief letter from Cameron’s office congratulating the pastor on his work.)
The Cameron and Gove proposals promise some 3,000 new schools, with around 250,000 new places, over the next decade or so. These would be free, state schools mostly run by charities or other outside group, although some—indeed, in theory, as many as there is demand for—could be opened by groups of parents. While some senior Tories say privately that promoting parent power is a distraction—better, they say, to focus on extending Andrew Adonis’s successful academy programme—Cameron and Gove are genuinely committed to their parental revolution. Crucially, their ideas have also been swallowed whole by the British media. Commentators agree that the new Tory plans make sense—they will open more Swedish-style schools and parents will be in the driving seat. But, in truth, the new Tory agenda is poorly understood, only half worked-out, and raises many difficult questions. Will the Swedish model work in Britain? How will the Tory plans rub up against the many other schemes to improve educational standards? Will many parents really have the drive to open new schools? And, even if they do, is there any evidence that it is wise to allow parents to get their hands dirty starting schools and helping to run them?
Promoting parents sounds natural to 21st century ears. But it is a surprisingly recent phenomenon. Indeed, parents—the natural educators of children—are strangely underplayed even in “progressive” educational theories. Rousseau’s novel Emile, hugely influential to this day, largely ignores parents; instead promoting the role “the tutor” can play in developing a “noble savage who can inhabit the cities.” The 18th-century German educationalist Friedrich Froebel’s popular songbook might have been called Mutter und Kose-Lieder, but his early childhood theories were mostly about kindergartens. Even Maria Montessori, who thought that schools should be like homes, saw teachers playing the parental role. In these theories parents provide love and support, but the serious business is left to the experts.
A similar view still prevailed when compulsory schooling began in late Victorian times. Historical survey data suggests that parents, especially in working-class areas, many of whom were illiterate, found schools intimidating and worried that the state would simply deny them their children’s labour. The sociologist Michael Young described in his study The New East End (2006) how places like Edwardian east London had a strong “local tradition of not attaching great significance to education.” Getting a job was “not a question of who you know mattering more than what you know, but of what you know hardly mattering at all.” Little wonder that parents wanted their children out of school and into a safe manual job.
After the second world war, however, and increasingly over recent decades, educational theories have recognised the central role of parents. Three distinct trends helped: changed family structure and social attitudes; a new focus in educational research; and, perhaps most importantly, dramatic improvements in the capacity of parents. On the first point, the importance of parents (and a stable family) on children’s outcomes became increasingly obvious—not least because of the rise in children raised by unmarried couples, who were three times more common among those born in 1970 than in 1958. Parents attitudes to their children were changing too: political liberalism and postwar economic development encouraged parents to put more store by a good education. And, as the heart of Britain’s economy shifted from manufacturing to services, the skills that are best instilled by parents—such as dedication, discipline and good communication—became more important in the labour market. Parents took note. This was no longer just the world of whom you knew; what you knew, and how you expressed it, suddenly mattered a great deal.
These changes in values meshed with a quiet revolution in the academic understanding of parents’ role that began to inform policy. In 2003 Charles Desforges co-wrote an influential government study, showing how parental engagement in the home, and their aspirations for their children, can dramatically improve exam results. All parents want happy and successful children, but those from privileged backgrounds push learning more forcefully. Ministers often talk of “promoting” parental engagement by reading to infants or taking an interest in homework. The new Sure Start centres are really just multibillion pound parental support services, offering free books for children and instructions for parents on how to read, sing and talk to them.
This sounds like nannying, largely because it is. But it also responds to the new thirst for more information about and support for parenting. This is not a universal shift: a large gap remains between the engagement of rich and poor parents. (Michael Barber, an adviser to both Blair and Brown, once noted that many parents were alarmingly happy with the condition of their children’s schools.) Nonetheless even less privileged parents today are more educated, and as a result more informed about their children’s educational development, and less likely to defer meekly to teachers. The collapse of extended families means that parents must be more self-sufficient. This partly explains the fast-rising market for parenting guidebooks and websites like Mumsnet and Netmums, which cater for millions of advice-hungry parents. The idea that parents would get less demanding if schools improved has proved false: London state schools have improved rapidly over the last decade and are now better than average for Britain. But parents still want more.
In America, rising parental expectations have found expression in the extraordinary growth of “home schooling”: the number of children educated by parents at home rose from 850,000 to 1.1m between 1999 and 2003, a rise of about 30 per cent. The former Clinton pollster Mark Penn says that some of this sharp rise is explained by evangelical parents “who don’t want their kids learning evolution.” But he claims that the trend is broader than this: “Home schooling is getting a boost from all kinds of parents who think they can do a better job.” And why should this surprise us? People feeling sick now Google their symptoms, and arrive at the surgery with a self diagnosis, a treatment suggestion and the expectation of a heart-to-heart. Why should what is so obviously true for patients not also be true for parents? The American appetite for home schooling is unlikely to take off in quite the same way in smaller, denser and more secular Britain. But exactly the same underlying trends—in family structure, educational research and parental capability—are at play. And there is clear evidence that parents want more say in how their children are educated, as our opinion poll shows. (See article: What Parents Want.)
It is this untapped parental demand that ultimately underpins Michael Gove’s plans for schools. It is also the reason he and David Cameron have so enthusiastically pushed the case for the Swedish model. Critics may well note that these plans smack of clever rebranding. Previously Tories talked up grammar schools, vouchers and the private sector—only to be undone by Labour’s attacks that they were just helping some parents go private on the cheap. The Cameroons are smarter. They start with talk of empowering parents, and who can disagree with that? Underneath, however, their plans have a familiar ring, with more schools outside the state system, and parents armed with vouchers (in all but name) to choose between them.
Yet there has also been a sharp break with some traditional Tory policy. Gove’s new state schools will not select by academic ability. Equally, they can’t opt out of other admissions criteria, the most important guarantee of fairness within the education system. In our interview, Gove laid out his thinking on this change: “Conservative policy was too easily portrayed as being about lifeboats for the middle classes.” It had become, he said, an “argument about getting children of ability from poor backgrounds and parachuting them out into good schools. That, to my mind, is the Oliver Twist fallacy—that if you rescue one child from poverty you’ve done good. My argument is, what about all the other children in Fagin’s gang?…You have got to say, if Oliver, the child of talent stays in their community, how can you ensure that school will generate the sorts of improvements that will see him or her make real strides? Because otherwise you are only ever making a tiny incremental improvement to social mobility.”
But how to find a model for a mobile society with a free schools system? It was this hunt that first took Tory thinkers to Sweden. Gove is frank enough to admit this was partly tactical: “when parties of the right point to America, people don’t look at the ideas, they imagine that behind it are a group of Christian zillionaires, or oilmen, or people with revolving bow ties. Whereas if you find the model in a European country with a centrist political tradition, people have to engage.” Tactics aside, Conservative Swedophilia is also a story of a parade of intrepid young wonks, venturing across the North sea. Nearly every British right-wing think-tank—ranging from the Cameron-friendly Policy Exchange, Reform, and the Centre for Social Justice, to the more right-wing Adam Smith Institute and Civitas, and even the Liberal Democrat leaning CentreForum—have published breathless pamphlets, heaping praise on Sweden, its parents, and their bold experiment.
The story these tracts tell starts in 1992, when Sweden’s centre-right government first allowed businesses, charities and parents to open new schools. Their system gave children a virtual voucher, today worth £5,000-£6,000 a year, to spend at any state school. Around 15 per cent of children now go to these new “free schools,” up from only 1 per cent in 1992. Early pioneers were often from established groups, like Steiner and Montessori. A few were begun by parents and today around one in 10 such schools are “parent-led,” mostly founded by well-educated but dissatisfied parents, much like Emma Jones in Camden. But these parent-led schools often don’t last beyond the six years it takes for the founders’ children to leave. Ultimately many have been acquired by chains of private companies. Kunskapsskolan is probably the best-known such chain. It is also famous for its focus on parental involvement in their children’s study, although not in actual school management. Parents at Kunskapsskolan’s schools must spend at least a day a year with their children in the classroom. They are also given regular information online, along with regular updates from teachers. Polls show such models are popular with parents and pupils. Interestingly, the normally egalitarian Swedes don’t seem too bothered that the chains make profits. Sweden is a fairer and richer society than Britain, so direct comparison is difficult—but academic studies do show free schools can achieve small rises in attainment, of somewhere between 1 and 4 per cent; an improvement if not exactly a transformation.
Cameron and Gove’s plans, at first glance, look similar. They have tacked on extra money—dubbed a “pupil premium”—which will be given to poorer children, encouraging good schools to those from tough backgrounds. Gove breaks with the Swedish template in one respect: there will be no chance to make a profit. It is a safe strategy; our poll shows parents are strongly against profit-making schools. That’s bad news for the companies Gove wants to run his schools, including Sweden’s Kunskapsskolan—which is currently opening two schools in Britain, reluctantly on a nonprofit basis—but also American companies, like Edison and Gems. The most vocal advocate for profitable schools, though, is Chris Woodhead, who chairs the independent schools chain, Cognita. He told us: “I think he [Gove] is completely wrong not to involve the profit-making sector… It is only that sector which is motivated to achieve expansion.” Many on the left fear that, eventually, Gove will come round to Woodhead’s way of thinking. Some suspect, secretly, he already has.
The problems with the Tory strategy don’t just stop at the bottom line. The education minister Ed Balls has already pounced on its aim of adding 250,000 new school places, saying it would create damaging oversupply: shiny new schools where they aren’t needed, taking scarce money away from places that do. Anders Hultin, the chief executive of Kunskapsskolan, disagrees. He is endearingly blunt: “You need overcapacity—everywhere where you expect customers to behave in a rational way you need overcapacity. You need more cars than car buyers: if there are no more cars than buyers, some will not get the car they want.” But Balls has a point. Big schools are expensive, costing up to £25m to build. That money has to come from somewhere. Labour’s academy programme, admittedly started in milder fiscal times, was funded from a separate budget: any school was always built with “new” money, which was a helpful carrot to buy off any local opponents. But the Gove plans create more supply, in part by raiding existing LEA budgets for pupils. Famously obstructive LEAs will now have even more reason to fight new schools—a potentially fatal flaw in Gove’s plans and Tory rhetoric on “localism.” Even worse, the scheme rests on a morally troubling model of entry and exit in the market for local schools. Labour’s academies generally replace failing schools. But, under Gove, the 3,000 new schools will often be in addition to unpopular local neighbours. Canny parents will scramble on the new Gove lifeboat while the rest are left to sink. What might look like more parental choice—as, indeed, it would be were building a new school remotely similar to buying a car—could have grim results for those left behind.
The structural problems don’t end there. Gove plans to find extra money for the new schools by dipping into the budget of Labour’s grandiose £40bn, 15-year programme to fix up every English secondary school. Gove’s plans, in an oddly egalitarian move, would pinch money destined to refit patiently waiting schools in the shire counties and use it to build new schools, mostly in Labour-dominated cities. On the record Gove shrugs this off. But one well-placed education insider thinks there will be trouble ahead: “Even Tory turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.” Meanwhile, Conservatives don’t just assume that some parents will step up, but that charities and rich donors will do too. Gove says that he will be looking for school backers in new places: he wants “institutions of long standing with deep pockets” and he cites “livery companies as a very unique and English example.” But all this sounds much less likely in the middle of a crunching recession. In this, as in other areas, the closer you look at the Tory plans, the more holes appear.
But the most pressing problem—and the greatest long-term opportunity, too—is the role of parents. Gove, in our interview, carefully “clarified” his plans in this area, saying he does not anticipate that most of his new schools will actually be set up, or run, by parents. “I think it would be fantastic if parents want to set up a school. However I am all too well aware that there are huge calls on people’s time and resources.” Education experts think Gove should clarify his plans a bit more. Tim Brighouse, the former adviser for London schools, has praised parental involvement in “the jigsaw of a successful school,” but sees them as two of the “wiggly pieces” in the middle, rather than corner pieces. Anders Hultin, the straight-talking head of Kunskapsskolan, is less gentle: “I want parents involved with their kids at home, not in how we run our schools. We are much better than they are at running schools… [Parents] can stay away from how we maintain the buildings: that’s not their business.” (He is still grappling with the quaint English notion of parent-governors.) Tim Emmett, who works for the educational trust CfBT, says that a parent-led system is “dangerously susceptible to enthusiasts.” That word “enthusiast,” in education terms, is carefully chosen; it is often a euphemism for painful parents. Many of the early Swedish schools were set-up by parents who wanted “alternative” hippyish schools, while in Britain faith groups—some less savoury than others—are also likely to want to get involved. Gove made it clear, in our interview, that he wanted regulation to stop the more eccentric parents bent on gaining public money for their pet projects. But while he was confident that most parents wanted a traditional focus on discipline and uniforms, he seemed open both to faith groups and those who might want to run schools differently.
Many government insiders think, either way, the Gove plans won’t work. Groups of parents—whether “enthusiasts” or not—will ultimately lose the bureaucratic battles, legal wrangles and high court appeals that all too often precede a new school. But if these practical problems can be overcome, the long-term Tory vision is powerful. It is an open secret that many Blairites (and perhaps Blair himself) find elements of Gove’s vision of supply-side innovation and parental empowerment attractive. Were their practical concerns to be assuaged, many might even find a Gove-Cameron world more congenial than the initiatives pouring from the office of the doggedly centralist Ed Balls.
What will happen? The best guess, from the Swedish and US experience, is that, under a future Tory government, parents will indeed set up more schools; perhaps a couple of dozen secondary schools in a first Tory term. Many will be established schools, like Montessori, jumping to the state sector. (Pastor Derrick says he will look carefully at doing this if the Tories win, but only if he is allowed to retain strong discipline and Christian values.) But the same was true both in Sweden, and in America. A trickle of genuinely parent-led schools became a small stream, and one which is still growing. The same, in the long run, could well happen here.
In the short run parent-led schools will be only a small part of wider efforts to raise school standards. Here the evidence is clear. For an excellent education children need engaged parents at home and excellent teachers at school. The two are closely connected. Parents, to be engaged, need and want more information and encouragement from the teachers who work with their children, as our poll clearly shows. There are many schemes that might help to reinforce this link. “Bring a parent to school” days, for instance, help. So do basic inner city initiatives that employ community workers in schools with diverse populations, so that Bengali or Turkish-speaking parents can have the voice that English parents take for granted. “Family learning” classes in schools that teach parents English, maths and IT skills are promising. There are plenty of other tricks. One insider told us of a school that replaced its parents’ evenings with a “world food evening”—more than doubling attendance. The most important element, though, is regular helpful information so parents can see what their children are up to and how well they are performing. For this reason the government’s “real time reporting” plan to give parents better information online is potentially the most revolutionary programme in education today. Gove should speed it up. And, while he is at it, why not let parents vote on annual or five-year school plans, or tell them more about school inspections? More information to parents should be pushed however it comes, as the key to more engagement at home. In a tight fiscal climate, such ideas are pleasingly cheap, especially compared to new schools at £25m a throw.
But what of parents actually starting schools? It remains an oddly challenging vision: we don’t, after all, imagine patients starting hospitals, or commuters building roads. But it is possible, especially if Gove and Cameron focus their efforts on incubating and promoting the type of school chains and networks that can run many good schools at once. Deploying such fleet-of-foot chains—like those in Sweden, or the American equivalent, called “charter management organisations”—could increase local school supply more effectively than the academies programme. The recession could be an opportunity here, where falling land prices and empty offices could be put to good use. And it is these chains, ultimately, which could swoop down and support parents like Emma Jones right at the beginning of a campaign, in exchange for a partnership in running the school later. But there is no reason to wait for the private sector. In some parts of America, teacher-led schools are also popular. It would be supremely ironic—but also refreshingly welcome—if Britain’s obstructionist teaching unions, having fought Labour’s academy programme at every step, suddenly embraced the opportunities of the Swedish and US models, and started to campaign to run their own schools.
It is this vision—chains of free schools working with parents within the state system—that shows the radical long-term potential of Cameron and Gove’s ideas. And, even today, there are reasons to think that the parental revolution is already quietly underway. For one thing, Emma Jones’s school in Camden may actually happen. Against all the odds, in March, her campaign won its long battle for a suitable site. When she started Jones could scarcely have guessed that the difference between success and victory wouldn’t be other parents or supportive politicians. Instead, it was the efforts of two young architecture students in search of a dissertation topic.
Jones met Je Ahn and Maria Smith, a young couple still finishing their degrees, in June 2007. They volunteered to check out the council’s claim that no suitable local school site could be found. Jones explains: “The campaign only got going again when these two students literally got on their bikes, and cycled round every street in the entire area.” Ahn and Smith set off on their fold-up Brompton bikes—his blue, hers yellow—to re-examine all the sites. At one Ahn saw, on the other side of the road, a vaguely derelict industrial building. It hadn’t been on the council’s list. It was really the large sign outside that caught his eye. It read, in big green letters: “London Borough of Camden—To Let.”
The building, owned by the council, was eminently suitable for a small urban school. Ahn and Smith volunteered their two-person company, Studio Weave, to knock up some architectural plans (one is pictured on p50). In due course, a triumphant Emma Jones presented them to the council working group “to the ashen-faced horror” of the officers.” More than five years after the campaign started Camden finally announced that the site was indeed suitable for a school. The earliest the school might open is 2012, although 2017 seems more likely. The announcement is still a giant step forward, and Emma Jones is proud of her campaign. But even if the school opens sooner rather than later, it will be too late for even her youngest son. He is starting secondary school next year. As yet, she isn’t sure which one.
Discuss this article at First Drafts, Prospect ‘s blog