In his 2017 stand-up entitled ‘2017’, comedian Louis C.K. takes a brief moment to discuss the state of education in the US:
“What is the job?” (asks a would-be teacher)
“We need you to make students know math”
“Wow… do they want to know math?”.
“Oh no, they don’t want to know it, you have to make them know it against their will…”
“And who are these children?”
“Oh, just any children that live near the building” comes the reply.
With a wry sense of having one’s own experience shared and understood, I sent this video to my colleagues. Much later I began to reflect on the very real political connotations that these experiences demonstrate.
It isn’t until things are laid bare like this, under a stark and unflattering spotlight, that one can see the serious flaws in a system like this. Maths (I refuse to endorse the bastardisation of my tongue by my American cousins) could be substituted for any other subject and the principle would be the same; what our children learn and where they learn it is predestined. There is little choice that can be had within this system.
Take Primary Schools as the first example. If you want your son or daughter to go to one of the best local schools, then you had better live near it. You will apply to your County Council who will allocate places. If you live in a part of town with high deprivation and an inadequate and failing school, we wish you the best of British luck. If you have managed to receive a poor education at Primary School then there is more gloom ahead, you see you will have to follow the same process to apply for Secondary School. If your Primary School wasn’t much cop then you are unlikely to have had your intellectualism set aflame, so Grammars may well be out of your reach. The social mobility argument here turns in to a bit of a myth, it is only as good as the Primary School you are gently placed in to.
Once you are at Secondary School though, you can expect to embrace your talents. There are just one or two minor things though; the Options that you wish to take have been blocked in such a way as to ‘encourage’ you to take certain subjects over others. These would be the subjects that reflect better on your School’s overall headline figures (don’t blame the schools, we will get to that). You will have substantially more Maths and English on your timetable, because they are double weighted in the new ‘Progress/Attainment 8’ measure, so if you are good at those then you are in luck. If you want to study music or art, departments are closing as a result of fewer students choosing them at GCSE (remember the encouragement that students have received).
So the problem seems to be that there is not much choice, not much focus on the student and not a great deal that can be done to embrace the individual talents of children. This is not the fault of Conservatives, of course, it is the fault of successive generations of Governments that have forgotten TVs ‘Golden Rule’. One should never work with kids. The State just isn’t very good at it, and they certainly aren’t better than the majority of parents or the students themselves at deciding their fate.
A brief moment here to hammer home this point with my favourite tool; Jeremy Corbyn. Labour’s plan for education is a Comprehensive education, a misuse of the word meaning ‘dealing with all elements of something’ as it deals with entirely none of the problems in education. But imagine Corbyn’s World (the one terrifyingly glimpsed through the Labour Party’s campaign broadcast). All students will attend the same kinds of schools and study the same kinds of subjects. The schools will even feed them, for free, just in case parents aren’t to be trusted with such a complicated and risky task. For a Party that claim to celebrate diversity, they certainly have a homogenous view of British children.
But what of the Conservatives? Well here, we can see some positive changes being made. There needs to be a plethora of different kinds of schools and Governments should do everything that they possibly can do to get out of the way of people wanting to open them (with some, hopefully obvious, exceptions). The anticipated appearance of Grammar Schools in the Party’s manifesto reaches out with a desperate hand and just about scratches the surface of the problem. But it is, certainly, a start.
The central problem with Grammar Schools is that people think that they create a win/lose dichotomy, where the cleverest students (who are mostly middle class) succeed and the poorer, less able ones are left on the scrap heap. Largely this is because that is true. Not because Grammar Schools are a bad idea, but because we have embraced selection of academic ability but have not found a way to embrace the talents of others. Your ability to reach Grammar Schools, as I already alluded to, is also heavily dependent upon the quality of your Primary School education. One must address both problems if you are to create ‘Schools that work for everyone’ (you’re welcome Mrs May!)
Schools, therefore, need more freedom. Freedom to innovate in their curriculum, to engage with new technologies, build partnerships with their communities and local businesses and to adapt to the talents of their pupils in the subjects that they offer. But under the current model this is impossible. Academies opened the door to education leaders to go out and design the best learning experiences for their students, a door which was quickly slammed shut by the new headline measures. How can a school focus on the sporting or musical talents of students if they have to ensure that children are making progress in a narrowly confined set of subjects? Research has shown that Private Schools succeed because of the breadth of their curriculum, so what on Earth are we doing placing shackles around the ankles of Head teachers that want to do the same in their State Schools?
More concerning though is the OFSTED ratings. In their annual report only 11% of schools were declared as being ‘Inadequate’ or as ‘Requiring Improvement’. This is against a backdrop of schools plummeting in International League Tables, falling GCSE results and a significant number of schools where students are making below expected levels of progress. Given that OFSTED costs a substantial amount of money, what are we getting out of it? There are a number of incredibly impressive International models of how to run a successful education system, all of which OFSTED seem to have entirely ignored. The better policy appears to be to plough on ahead, continuing to restrict the innovation that schools can display by presenting them with arbitrary tick box exercises. What evidence is there that this has provided a more rapid improvement in education standards than sharing the very best practice from the country and around the World? None? Then can I have my money back, please? Maybe I could build a new school with it.
So in the Conservative Manifesto what I would like to see is Theresa May go further than Grammar Schools and embrace all manner of innovation, an ability for students to select the best school for them and not just schools to select the best students. She should get tough on OFSTED, tough on the causes of OFSTED, embrace a system that allows schools that are accountable to their stakeholders and to build partnerships with their local communities and local businesses. This generation, glued to their smart-phones as they may be, hold in their hand the entirety of human knowledge. The challenge is to learn how to embrace it, how to make this the basis of an exciting new era for British education.
If we want there to be Grammar Schools then we must also create schools that are equally capable of embracing the talents of their students. This is a call to bring liberty to education, to free it from the Government restriction that currently smothers our children and allow them to thrive. The Country will thank us for generations to come.
Daniel is a Secondary School teacher in Buckinghamshire and a member of the Wycombe Conservative Association. Follow him on Twitter: @
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty