Georgia L.Gilholy: The case for grammar schools

3 Jun

Oxford University accepted three times as many pupils from Eton College than pupils on free school meals between 2009 and 2012. And one in 20 UK adults are functionally illiterate- far outnumbering their counterparts in similarly developed nations. It is obvious that a deep rot flourishes at the heart of our education system.

So no wonder there are signals that a boost for grammar schools could be ahead as the government scrambles together a strategy for “levelling up” schooling. A White Paper published in March proposed allowing grammars to maintain their selective status, even if they join one of the multi-academy trusts the government are so keen on expanding.

Before his Education Secretary days, Nadhim Zahawi praised the virtues of grammars, and spoke in favour of their revitalisation in an article for this very website. Meanwhile, the claim that Number 10 is open to lifting the ban on new grammars has been made, despite civil servants reportedly pouring cold water on the idea. Whether or not the alleged scheme, like Theresa May’s short-lived pro-grammar pivot, is set to flop, the argument for their renaissance endures.

Jonn Elledge recently claimed that many Conservatives back grammars “partly because the era of selective education coincided with economic growth and social mobility, and it’s easy to mix up correlation and causation”. Yet Elledge forgets that the era of selective education never ended at all. Access to “better” schools is more dependent on one’s finances or questionable religious conversion than it was back when we still needed ration books.

Most working-class British children have no choice but to attend mediocre schools. Meanwhile, the members of the upper and middle classes who decide against independent schools are able to gain better education for their children – via pricey locations or tutoring-funnel their children into the dwindling number of grammar schools heavily concentrated in the South East. They also dominate the small number of uber-successful “state” schools such as Fulham’s prized Oratory School.

The reality is that the destruction of grammar schooling was never about equalising opportunity. It was an emotionalist, utopian move to “equalise” the classroom at any cost as successive administrations failed to fortify the pre-war system for the bulging classrooms of the baby boomer generation.

The aptly-named Graham Savage, the civil servant who partly spearheaded the destruction of grammars, admitted that he thought Britain ought to model itself on the US’ more “democratic” comprehensive system, even if it lowered performance – which he correctly predicted that it would.

Of course, the grammar system of yesteryear was imperfect, and any attempt to revitalise it would require tweaks. Selection at age 11, for example, may be premature for some pupils. The average age students are selected for different programs across OECD countries is 14. Academic selection on a rolling basis with no rigid age cut off could also ensure better outcomes.

There are also complaints that a more selective system would leave children rejected from grammar schooling feeling ostracised and subpar. Yet there is no automatic requirement that selective schooling shame those who take “non-academic” pathways. The expansion of grammars would necessitate an equal attempt to revalorise vocational options, plenty of which have similar or better salary outcomes than that of the average graduate.

The widespread degradation of vocational options in today’s system is one of the worst forms of elitism. Such attitudes inadvertently denigrate the value of trades and other such occupations, many of which continue to suffer severe staffing gaps. Students who opt for practical routes are either pressured to attend university by teachers or decide to do so for its perceived social advantages. It is hardly surprising that eight British universities are under investigation for offering poor courses.

Another well-worn argument of the anti-grammar wing is that academically selective schools act against social mobility. No doubt they dismiss as anecdotal evidence the fact that between 1964 and 1997 a succession of Conservative and Labour prime ministers from working-class and lower-middle-class backgrounds all benefited from a grammar school education. Not to mention the other countless swathes of our cultural and professional milieu who rose from the grammar school ranks.

Moreover, figures from 1954, just before the overwhelming of the tripartite system by the post World War Two baby boom, nearly 65 per cent of grammar school students were working class. Contrast this with 2016, when fewer than three per cent of grammar school students were eligible for free school meals, compared to 14 per cent for all school types.

It remains likely that any rumoured plans to revive extensive grammar schooling will be sidelined or frustrated. However it is a terrible shame that so many arguments against grammar ignore the inadequacy of the current system for working-class students, and caricature those who suggest grammars might play a part in their remedy.

Khadeem Duncan-Banerjee: School reform. Why we need more and better multi-academy trusts.

14 Feb

Khadeem Duncan-Banerjee is Founding CEO of Amadeus Learning Partnership and a Board Director at Nene Education Trust (NET).

The Department for Education has released the latest Consolidated Annual Report and Accounts for the Academies sector in England. One of the significant risks to the Academies policy sighted in the report is “a risk of there being an insufficient number of high-quality sponsors and MATs (multi-academy trusts) available, in the right geographical areas, to support underperforming LA (local authority) schools, and to take on underperforming academies that are transferred from their previous trusts”.

I believe this risk is going to increase greatly as we continue to see an astonishing number of schools across the country dropping two or even three Ofsted inspection grades under the new education inspection framework.

Combine this with growing issues about headteacher recruitment and retention, the effects of Covid-19 and the need for many MATs to focus on improving the challenging schools they already have in their flock, and you have something of a perfect storm.

The department has tried to mitigate these risks. The report draws our attention to credible interventions such as the Trust Capacity Fund (TCaF), encouraging more good and outstanding schools to become sponsors (though the reality is many of these schools may not be Outstanding for much longer), and providing leadership and development for MAT Leaders.

I feel however that in order to find solutions for the future, it would be wise to review and learn from successes in our past; and to consider how we can render these to help solve challenges coming over the horizon.

Pre-2010, Sponsored Academies were a major policy of the Blair Government. A successor to City Technology Colleges (CTCs), they were first established in 2002 to transform education outcomes for schools in areas of high disadvantage with historic underperformance.

As alluded to in the name, these schools were sponsored by a range of individuals and organisations including philanthropists, businesses, charities, education foundations, independent schools, universities, etc. There was a requirement for the sponsor to commit up to £2 million towards their project, but this was waived in 2009 to encourage more potential sponsors to come forward. Schools could either be sponsored individually or in groups (then known as ‘academy federations’). Many of our strongest and most successful Multi-Academy Trusts began their journey in this way including ARK, Harris Federation, Dixons Academies Trust, United Learning and many others.

The expertise and support brought to the table by sponsors, combined with excellent academy leadership and governance, resulted in incredible improvements in school standards, educational attainment and proved to be very popular with parents.

Sponsors helped to drive innovation, and developed a culture and ethos of high aspiration and achievement which permeated every aspect of the school and its community. Sponsored Academies also had subject specialisms, which enabled greater opportunity for them to work with their sponsoring individual/organisation to develop a highly unique and industr- led curriculum that could be underpinned with real investment in facilities and opportunities for learners.

Considering performance data from this era, a DfE publication in 2007 concluded that “the proportion of pupils getting five good GCSEs including English and Maths in [Sponsored] Academies rose by 6.2 percentage points in one year – six times the national improvement rate” and “the proportion of pupils in [Sponsored] Academies getting five or more good GCSE passes has doubled, compared to their predecessor schools five years ago (an increase from 21 per cent to 42 per cent)”.

report from the National Audit Office in the same year found Sponsored Academies admitted “higher proportions of deprived children than live in their immediate area, and nonetheless are improving at a faster rate than schools nationally”; that Sponsored Academies were “popular with parents and staff”, and that “taking account of both pupils’ personal circumstances and prior attainment, on average, [Sponsored] Academies are improving performance at GCSE and national tests substantially better than other schools”.

The programme had its challenges. Progress was not always uniformly seen across the board, and some schools took longer to improve than they perhaps should have done, considering the investment and resources they were in receipt of.

However, on balance this policy was a major success, and was further expanded and developed by the Coalition Government in 2010 under Michael Gove.

So what can we learn and how can we use it to support our efforts in the future? My recommendations to policy makers are that they should explore how we can utilise the expertise, innovation, ambition and potential opportunity for investment from such sponsors as philanthropists, businesses, charities, education foundations, independent schools, universities, etc to establish new multi-academy trusts that can turnround schools in challenging circumstances that have suffered from historic underperformance.

This should be done through sponsors working with local highly successful educationalists to form new MATs which, through their leadership personnel and governance arrangements, can demonstrate to the department how it will ensure the transformation of the schools within the trust.

A sponsor could also identify an already established strong school or Academy Trust to work with that can bring school improvement capacity to support transformation. Either way, I believe that looking beyond our sector to work collaboratively with credible individuals and organisations that want to give back to their communities, improve social mobility and help shape the workforce of the future can only be a good thing in our mission to transform the life chances of every child and young person in our country.

Places need power if they’re to level up

3 Feb

Do you remember the Third Way?  It was Tony Blair’s attempt to spray gloss a veneer of political philosophy on New Labour’s ruthlessly focused election machine – rejecting a choice between “prosperous and efficient Britain” (Thatcher’s Conservatives) and a “caring and compassionate Britain” (Old Labour).

For a while, the Third Way attracted commentary, praise from Blair groupies, and criticism – before Gordon Brown put the slogan out of its misery.  The era of marginalising the Tories and the Left had come to an end.

Then came the Big Society.  This was David Cameron’s big idea, or should I say Steve Hilton’s?  Again, it was an attempt to give a political project definition, but Hilton was empowered to further the idea, or try to – before the then Prime Minister lost patience with it (and him).

But for a few years, the Big Society was all the rage – at least among  organisations seeking cash, thinkers and doers seeking patronage, civil servants recasting projects, and a mass of others trying to get in on the act.

Levelling up has provoked the same pattern of behaviour, and my sense as an Editor is that no subject since Brexit has attracted more submissions to ConservativeHome (with the exception of Tory MPs offering pieces backing of Net Zero, often because they have a constituency interest in green energy).

Schools, work, skills, productivity, infrastructure, transport, housing, science, procurement, high streets, law and order, elected mayors, health, broadband, sport, parks, culture: nothing human and indeed unhuman is alien to levelling up.

This provokes the criticism that if levelling up is about everything it is thus about nothing – assuming that it’s understood in the first place.  “People find it confusing and then, when it’s explained to them, mildly irritating,” Rachel Wolf, the co-author of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto, wrote on this site.

All the same, the central message of levelling up seems clear enough to me: at heart, it’s about redressing the economic, cultural and social imbalance between the Greater South East and much of the rest of Britain.

If this isn’t One Nation conservatism in post-Brexit guise, I don’t know what is.  The heartland of the Leave vote in the 2016 referendum was provincial England, which thereby rejected the status quo – including an economic model heavily reliant on unskilled migration, financial services, low wages, and London plus its hinterland.

Michael Gove said more or less as much in the Commons yesterday.  “While talent is spread equally across the United Kingdom, opportunity is not.”

“We need to tackle and reverse the inequality that is limiting so many horizons and that also harms our economy. The gap between much of the south-east and the rest of the country in productivity, in health outcomes, in wages, in school results and in job opportunities must be closed.”

It’s therefore evident not only what levelling up is but what it isn’t.  Fundamentally, it isn’t focused on prosperity, though this would certainly be a by-product of the project were it to work.

After all, a Government focused simply on prosperity, or at least growth, might well double down on the present economic model, supplemented by tax cuts, a reinvigorated private sector, and deregulation. This seems to me to be precisely what some in the centre-right thinks believe we should do.

“The intention to spread government R&D around the country could damage the success story of the Oxford-Cambridge corridor,” the Institute of Economic Affairs said in its response to the White Paper.

This suggests the nightmare endpoint of a levelling up policy which makes the Greater South East worse off than it otherwise would be while leaving much of the rest of the country not much better off than it is now.  You can bet that what the IEA is saying some Tory MPs with home counties seats will be thinking.

If levelling up isn’t fundamentally about prosperity, it isn’t exactly about people either.  Government could help to upskill the next generation only for it to up sticks and head for the Greater South East, as so many have done before.

No, levelling up is primarily about place (and therefore includes in its ambit those bits of the South East that aren’t well off at all).  In which context, that long list of concerns begins to become explicable, since all help to make a place what it is and can be.

Having said which, some of the core elements of levelling up – better transport, joining up towns and cities and skills – look a lot like George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse.

Let me leave aside such disparate questions about the White Paper as: how many of the proposals are actually reannouncements?  Are targets for 2030 really meaningful?  What’s the knock on for target seats?  And will Gove now vanish from public view again?

Instead, it’s worth reflecting on the magnitude of the task which the Government has set itself, perhaps as much by accident as anything else.

The gravitational pull of London on the rest of the country is more powerful than that of the capital cities of comparable neighbouring countries. Although it has a great deal of poverty within it, the city of which Boris Johnson was once Mayor is an international hub, the centrepiece of a relatively open economy.

Read accounts of how parts of the country boomed when Neville Chamberlain was Chancellor, with a mass of housing and roads being built in and around London, and you will see how little has changed.

If one element of the White Paper has the capacity to drive change is the localism proposals – cautious though these are now that this Parliament approaches its mid-term.  The best time for radicalism is at the start of a new government and that moment has gone.

But whether the matter to hand is better skills, industrial strategy, apprenticeships, emission reduction, integrated transport or a joined-up plan to implement net-zero carbon, central government is badly placed to do the job

Gove referred yesterday to giving such local Mayors as Ben Houchen, Dan Jarvis and Andy Street more powers, and held out the prospect of creating new mayors “where people want them”.  That may be as much as he wanted to do, or his colleagues would let him get away with.

“Whatever you’re doing in terms of devolution, double it. In terms of local taxation, double it,” Osborne said last year in an interview with ConservativeHome.

Without ambition on that scale, along the localist lines of Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan’s The Plan, there will be no irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of the provinces, to misquote Tony Benn.  Places need power if they’re to level up.

Georgia L. Gilholy: Imagine the effect on a child who’s told that he’s not “racially innocent”

1 Feb

Georgia L. Gilholy is a Young Voices UK contributor.

Over 4000 parents have now signed a petition in protest of Brighton and Hove City Council’s five-year “anti-racist” education plan.

The petition, launched last June, disputes the council’s “racial literacy training” that 300 teachers have now undertaken. Although Freedom of Information requests to view its materials have been refused, the local authority is reportedly instructing teachers to inform children as young as seven that they are not “racially innocent” as white people are “at the top of the hierarchy”.

John Hayes, a former Education Minister, has vowed to urgently raise the controversy in the Commons, and will ask Nadhim Zahawi issue legal guidance to prevent “ideological race materials” being rolled out in schools.

Both the outrage of Sir John and thousands of local people is understandable.

As Kemi Badenoch has previously argued, it is inappropriate and illegal to teach the concept of ‘white privilege’ as fact given that it is a highly contested political concept. While the growing popularity of the idea in certain circles suggests that it must be confronted and dissected, there is no reason it ought to be spoon-fed to children whose brains are not equipped to process it critically.

Besides, the notion of white privilege fails to reflect the reality of modern Britain. Economically deprived white teenagers in England’s postindustrial and coastal towns are one of the least likely groups to progress to higher education.

Last year, just 13 per cent of white boys on free school meals went to university compared to 57 per cent of Indian, 59 per cent of black African and 32 per cent of black Caribbean youngsters on the scheme. The idea of whites consistently resting at the “top” of a pyramid of privilege has never been a more inept analogy.

Sadly, racial bullying remains a problem in many schools. A 2020 poll showed that one-third of British children reported hearing “racist comments at school”. However perpetuating the idea that white children are uniquely culpable is not only racially bigoted in and of itself, but it risks inflaming rather than harmonising racial divisions.

Racial hatred is a social contagion, and teaching children that their white classmates are inherently morally inferior can only provoke bullying and heighten prejudice where they may have been little prior. Incidents of racial abuse must be dealt with seriously, but not at the expense of encouraging the stereotyping of white children.

Many critical race theory advocates defend their ideology by arguing that while whites may not always be entirely ‘privileged’, they will never suffer race-based discrimination.

This is plainly false. Only a few days ago, two Orthodox Jewish men were viciously attacked by a black teenager in North London. Anyone with an ounce of common sense can see that all groups are capable of racialised prejudice.

While Brighton Council claims their plans will counterbalance the flawed eurocentrism of previous curricula, the notion of white privilege will do precisely the contrary. The concept robs young people of the chance to understand the complexities of contemporary and historical discrimination in Britain and across the world.

Under this training, children are to be taught that Christianity is linked to the slave trade. While it is true that many Christians have been involved in the crime of slavery, Christianity has also proved one of the world’s most powerful ideological antidotes to the practice.

It was evangelical groups who spearheaded abolitionism in the British Empire, and medieval clergy who near-eliminated slavery in Western Europe prior to the conquest of the Americas. Moreover, the 40 million people currently enslaved in 2022, chiefly across Asia and the Middle East, is a testament to the fact that the crime of slavery has persisted across most civilisations in various forms, and is not solely a white versus black phenomenon.

Like all conspiracy theories, white privilege is dangerously one-dimensional, and it does not deserve to be ushered into any educational setting as objective truth. Teachers must encourage learning and spark debate, not accuse pupils of immutable defects.

One Minister has already admitted that presenting white privilege as non-negotiable to students is against the law. It is time the Government took swift action to root out schemes such as Brighton’s from our schooling. It is not enough to occasionally complain about the folly of “wokeness” while doing little to stop it in its tracks.

Natalie Elphicke: This must be the year in which the small boat channel crossings are ended

4 Jan

Natalie Elphicke is MP for Dover & Deal.

More than 28,000 people came into the UK through the small boats route alone last year. Many lives have been lost. What started as a trickle of boats and a few people has become a booming international criminal business, with ever greater numbers of illegal craft coming in day after day, month after month. Even on Christmas Day, the people smugglers didn’t stop plying their trade – putting even more lives at risk on the English Channel.

The range of departure countries is extraordinary and spans continents. Vietnam in the Far East, and the African countries of Eritrea and Somalia, as well as the Middle East: Iran, Iraq, Syria and more besides. Each of these routes has its own brokers and their own specialities. But they all have in common a clear belief that the UK is easy to break into and even easier to stay in.

Last year, records were broken on every measure. The record for the number of people arriving in a single day, for the number of unaccompanied young people arriving, for the number of people arriving in a month and a year (see here). It was a truly shocking year at the Dover border.

As the numbers have increased, so has the impact. Across the land, hotels, bed and breakfasts, old army barracks and rented housing were snapped up by the Home Office to house the equivalent population of a small town.

In addition, there’s the extra strain on GPs, schools, hospitals, skills and language training, as well as welfare payments. That doesn’t include the millions spent last year on new short-term facilities to hold and process migrants. The traditional facilities at Dover have simply been unable to cope with the numbers now arriving.

It’s not just a matter of money. It’s also one of national security. It is an uncomfortable truth, but one still the same, that not everyone who comes into our country through the illegal channel crossing route wishes us well.

People wanted for serious crimes, including those wanted by other intelligence services, have been detained in Dover as they tried to enter clandestinely by small boat. Not every person who lands on our beaches is picked up. Residents of coastal villages, such as Kingsdown and St Margaret’s, make regular reports of arrivals in the dead on night and in the early hours of the morning. Grown men knock on doors, hide in local woods where villagers walk their dogs, or are picked up by waiting cars and vans.

Beyond money and national security, there is also the question of fairness. It’s unfair to people choosing the right way to apply to come to the UK, when people are able to enter the UK illegally and remain. It’s also unfair to people seeking a way out of poverty, who want opportunity, and who are lawfully resident in our own country, including migrants and refugees who come into the UK through legal routes of entry.

Moreover, the bottom line is that no-one has to make these dangerous crossings. We need to be crystal clear about that. Every person getting into the water is already safe in France, which has an established and responsible asylum system. People are safe in many places before France too, both inside the European Union and elsewhere.

We also need to be clear that there are legal routes of entry into the UK. These are the routes that should be taken. Many people who are making the crossing are fleeing poverty, not persecution. They lack opportunity, not safety. The lure of the UK is predominantly economic. That’s why people borrow and save to pay to come to the UK. It’s an investment in their future.

And right now, there are hundreds of thousands of work visas up for grabs – in a huge array of sectors, including charity worker visas, seasonal worker visas, young persons’ mobility visas, creative workers’ visa, health and social care, HGV, and even amusement arcade work. You can come and work in the UK legally, and millions of people do. But you need to go about it the right way.

There are safe and legal routes for family members, too. Any person with a case for family reunion can make that case on behalf of their relatives in the UK and from the UK. There is absolutely no need for any close family member to be smuggled in at the dead of night.

It is absolutely right that the UK should help those most in need around the world and we do. But encouraging or facilitating people smuggling is not the way to do it. We need to bring an end to the small boat crossings and stop the dangers of people being in the hands of people smugglers and the risk of further deaths on the Channel.

This is the first of two articles by the author on small boats.  The second will be published on this site on Thursday.

Robert Halfon: Distracted by Covid, policymakers run the risk of creating a mental health epidemic in schools

1 Dec

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

For me, the major concern presented by Omicron is not so much about whether we will be sitting down to Christmas dinner this year, but whether the country is moving again towards de facto school closures.

Even with the vaccination of millions of teachers, support staff and pupils over aged 12, hundreds of thousands of children are still being sent home to isolate. According to the Department for Education’s latest figures, as of November 11 2021, 130,000 of all pupils on roll in state-funded schools did not attend school for Covid-19 related reasons.

Dr Jenny Harries, Chief Executive of the UK Health Security Agency, confirmed directly to me that, like other forms of Covid, thankfully, children are less at risk from the new variant. Moreover, children are not significant vectors for transmission.

Readers may recall from my last column that I recently introduced a 10 Minute Rule Bill, backed by the current and former Children’s Commissioners, and by two previous Children’s Ministers, which aims to prevent future school closures.

The Bill would introduce a ‘triple lock’ of protections to safeguard against any future school closures, except in cases of extreme emergency. The Government would have to seek the advice of the Children’s Commissioner on the necessity of closing schools, hold a debate and vote in Parliament to agree the measure, and then seek the further advice of the Children’s Commissioner and a further vote by Parliament every three weeks to place a strict time-limit on any future disruption.

Ministers follow the science and advice from SAGE and the JCVI when it comes to our health, so it is only logical that they must also follow the advice provided by the Children’s Commissioner and those with the best interests of our children at the heart of their mandate.

Statistics published by the Education Policy Institute show that primary aged children were 3.4 and 2.2 months behind in maths and reading. For disadvantaged pupils, this is even great with 4.2 months and 2.7 months of lost learning respectively.

In 2019-20, the number of children being referred for mental health treatment soared by 60 per cent. In the same year, there was a 46 per cent rise in child eating disorder referrals.

The question that policymakers should be asked is: when considering the risks of Covid to children (minimal – thank goodness), do they also consider the perhaps bigger risk of creating a secondary mental health epidemic, and damage to children’s life chances and educational attainment?

There are three measures the DfE should take to combat these rising mental health challenges.

First, every child must receive a mental health assessment. This is important to understand the full scale of the problem.

Second, Ministers should rocket-boost the proposal in the recent Young People’s Mental Health Green Paper to place a designated senior mental health lead in every school by 2025.

The What Works Centre for Wellbeing has identified that good mental health and wellbeing at age 14-15 has a significant and positive association with educational attainment at age 18. Furthermore, research published by the DfE shows that pupils with better emotional wellbeing at age seven were more than one term ahead of pupils with poorer emotional wellbeing.

Third, we know that social media is like a wrecking ball for young people’s mental health.

According to NHS Digital, 16.7 per cent of children aged 11-16 said the numbers of ‘likes’, ‘comments’, or ‘shares’ they received had a significant impact on their mood. The Royal Society for Public Health found that one in six young people will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their life and that four of the five most used social media platforms make their feelings of anxiety worse.

Perhaps most tellingly of all, a USA Congressional hearing on social media showed that Facebook knew about the harmful mental health effects that Instagram was having on young girls.

The Treasury should introduce a mental health levy for social media giants. Ofcom published a report earlier this year which stated the revenue for social media companies is £4.8 billion. Introducing a two per cent levy could create a funding pot of around £100 million. This could then be distributed to schools to provide mental health support and digital skills training for young people to build the resilience and online safety skills they need.

Teaching and implementing resilience tools and techniques as a means of preventing worsening mental health are fundamental.

I recently visited Newham Collegiate Sixth Form and met with students. The Headteacher described the preventative work they do in the school to help equip students with the mental health tools they need to cope with the hurdles the world puts in their path.

For example, a coach is employed to work with students to develop techniques to conquer their anxieties and school assemblies are utilised to teach the tools needed to help manage highly pressured environments. In private study periods, the desks are set up to resemble an exam hall to help pupils become familiar with the setting so when it comes to a real exam, it does not trigger a reaction causing the student to underperform.

As the Head said to me: “Whilst recognising the seriousness of mental health diagnoses when they occur, we mustn’t allow the narrative of ‘mental health’ to become the crutch that every little challenge is defined under”.

Prevention and resilience are the key weapons that should be amassed to build this arsenal of tools and techniques which can be replicated across the country to conquer poor mental health in our children.

Above all, ensuring that schools are not a revolving door of openings and closures for children is the best way to support young people’s mental health and improve their educational attainment and life chances.

Khadeem Duncan-Banerjee: If the Government wants every school to become an academy, devolution is key

26 Nov

Khadeem Duncan-Banerjee is Founding CEO of Amadeus Learning Partnership and a Board Director at Nene Education Trust (NET).

It’s March 17 2016, and Nicky Morgan, the then Education Secretary, released her department’s groundbreaking white paper Educational Excellence Everywhere, paving the way for Parliament to legislate for all schools in England to convert to academy status as part of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) by 2022.

But after failing to secure support from influential backbench Tory MPs and blue councils, by October of that year the Government was forced to ditch these plans completely.

Yet it is evident that it remains this Government’s ambition for every school to convert to academy status at some point. The benefits for schools in joining MATs are substantial – enabling more effective school-to-school support and school improvement, cutting costs on back-office services and procurement, swift intervention to prevent declining standards, enabling communities of subject knowledge and best practice sharing, greater career development opportunities and retention for exceptional teachers, and so much more.

Most importantly, all these combined benefits lead to the transformation of life chances for children and young people across our country. So why aren’t headteachers and governors biting Nadhim Zahawi’s hand off to become academies? Let’s take a look.

Our current education system is complex, lopsided, and fragmented. 55 per cent of all pupils in state-funded schools are educated in academies, but only 43 per cent of state-funded schools are academies. As a percentage, there are many more secondary-phase academies than primary, but a startling statistic is that 37 per cent of all academy trusts have no more than five academies in them.

Long-term sustainability has become an issue for many maintained schools that still rely on local authorities for generally diminishing support. I believe we must move towards a more coherent, strategically-focused system based on the needs of communities and on the requirements for educational provision in a local area, and in which collaboration and partnerships secure the best outcomes for all pupils.

Academies are the future, but many opponents of the academies programme (including some Tory councils) believe that MATs aren’t effectively overseen, and that when problems arise there is not a visible and accessible individual they can approach and hold to account. And in many ways they are correct.

The current system of oversight through regional schools’ commissioners was designed for a schools system which has now become vastly different. There were 3,287 academies in 2014 compared to 9,752 in 2021, which of course would more than double under a fully academised system.

The enormous RSC areas bear little resemblance to the geographical or even cultural boundaries of the actual English regions and I believe this can create problems when attempting to design local strategy and policy that makes a real impact in a reasonable timeframe.

It also means that they are excluded from playing a leading role in shaping developments in the wider education and skills system within their regions and as a result could be missing a brilliant opportunity to be advocating for schools in the ears of regional policy makers.

I believe that to build a transparent, collaborative, accountable and intuitive fully academised schools system with every stakeholder given a fair and meaningful role, there can only be one solution – devolution!

The Government should consider how it can devolve responsibility for the management and oversight of the schools system to regional mayors and county councils with every school becoming an academy. This would enable democratically-elected individuals to make key decisions about where and when schools move between academy trusts and the genuine compatibility of those matches, and to intervene with local solutions when standards slip. This would also provide the public with a visible democratically elected individual they can hold to account for the outcomes of the schools system in their area.

Furthermore, this would also allow greater strategic planning, linking-up with skills, local industrial strategies, and other economic development initiatives to create combined cross-sector levelling-up programmes. 41 per cent of the English population live in an area with mayoral devolution (10 combined authorities) and a significant area of the remainder of the country is covered by 24 county councils (made up of 181 district councils). So whilst this isn’t a perfect solution, I believe it would provide benefit to the majority.

For areas that are not covered by a mayoral combined authority or county council (of which there are 58 unitary authorities) similar provisions could be established to ensure that the same ethos of transparency, democracy, accountability, and collaboration is achieved.

Britain is going through immense change as we seek to recover and build back better from the pandemic. We have an incredibly unique opportunity to design a better schools system that works for all. I say let’s take it. It’s time now to leave the outdated and fragmented approach behind and look to a brighter future where all schools can work together in likeminded families, delivering life changing opportunities for their children and young people; and operating under an oversight system which is driven by effective local decision making made by the people for the people. As I said, devolution is the key!

Matthew Lesh: Funding isn’t enough to boost education. The Government must be radical and promote microschools.

22 Oct

Matthew Lesh is the head of research at the Adam Smith Institute.

The Covid-19 pandemic was immensely difficult for millions of parents and children who were forced into homeschooling. The exodus from the classroom has undoubtedly left many students educationally scarred.

Over two million school children did between zero and one hour of school work per day during lockdown. Education Policy Institute analysis found that primary school students were an average of 3.5 months behind in maths and 2.2 months in reading by March 2021 – with disadvantaged and state school students even further behind.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that an astronomical £350 billion in lost lifetime earnings because of reduced education time. Students also missed out on normal socialisation and extracurricular activities.

The debate about educational catch-up has largely focused on how much money the Government is willing to throw at the problem. Sir Kevan Collins resigned as education recovery commissioner after being unimpressed that the Government would “only” allocate £1.4 billion for a school catch-up plan. He wanted £15 billion. Why not £30 or 150 billion is unclear.

There is clearly some need for money to fund the likes of private tutoring for left behind students and perhaps even a longer school day. But the focus on money is extremely shallow.

A decade ago the Conservatives came to Government with a radical reform agenda to boost educational quality. They introduced free schools, reformed curriculums and improved teaching techniques. It was politically costly but it proved effective in boosting standards. The UK’s position in the gold-standard Pisa education rankings from the OECD substantially increased between 2009 and 2018 – from 25nd to 14th in reading and 28th to 18th in maths.

The pandemic once again presents the opportunity to rethink how schools operate, to further improve educational outcomes. A silver lining of homeschooling during lockdowns is that parents have been far more engaged in the education of their children – and, suffice it to say, not all have been unimpressed. While the situation has improved, it is far from perfect.

Many parents simply gritted their teeth, however, others banded together to form a ‘pandemic pod’ or microschool with around two to a dozen others. This allowed children to continue face-to-face education led by a professionally qualified teacher or capable lay educator. Microschools are often conducted from the home of one of the pupils, and therefore have basic facilities but, accordingly, low costs. Additional activities, like sports, music and yoga, are provided within the local community.

Microschools have gotten much attention in the United States but they also exist, and continue to do so, in the United Kingdom. Hove Micro-School was started in September 2020. “Mainstream schools no longer suit many children’s needs and home schooling can be overwhelming or simply impractical for families,” founder Rachael Ammari explains. Hove Micro-School has expanded from just a few children to over twenty in the last year. There is clearly a demand by parents for a more bespoke education in a smaller class size.

Microschools give parents and children greater choice, allowing the diverse preferences of parents and children. They are small and private, meaning the parents of children attending these schools are treated as valued customers. They can focus on what parents want the most, such as excellence in maths, science and languages.

The smallness and intimacy also requires parents to take a greater interest in their child’s education. The added competition can also be good for students in the existing state sector schools, who will be forced to raise their game or face the loss of students.

Importantly, microschools provide greater educational diversity, fostering innovation on a small scale, experimenting with new techniques and models that may be more suited to the way different children can learn. Compulsory education was first introduced in Britain in the 1880s to create a system of functional clerks for the Empire who could do basic routine tasks and follow orders.

Edwin G West’s 1965 book, Education and the State, explains how state education suppressed the emerging private, voluntary and competitive efforts supported by families, churches and philanthropists. Almost all schools revolve around a stringent 19th century model of children sitting in rows in front of a teacher at the front, similar to workers in a factory. Microschools present the opportunity to return to a more competitive and innovative educational system.

The Adam Smith Institute’s latest report, School’s Out: How microschools boost educational choice and quality, explains how the Government can embrace microschools to address post-Covid educational disadvantage.

In practice this means not strangling these smaller schools in red tape – that is, reforming the regulatory system to create a new category of schools between heavily regulated large independent schools and the minimal rules for homeschooling.

This could take the form of a ‘schools sandbox,’ modelled on the Financial Conduct Authority’s regulatory sandbox, to allow educational entrepreneurs to experiment with a diverse array of new arrangements for schooling in a light-touch regulatory environment.

The Government could also make microschools a more viable financial option for lower income parents by providing educational vouchers for any school type – equal to the average per-student cost of supplying a state education, or about £6,000 a year for secondary pupils.

Microschools may be small but they could have a big impact.

David Gauke: Sunak’s options for a Budget windfall. Lower debt, tax cuts and higher spending. Which will he choose?

27 Sep

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

In a month’s time, Rishi Sunak will have some good news to deliver in his Budget. He will have more money to play with than was forecast at the time of the last as forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility. How he uses these additional resources will tell us a great deal about his priorities and the priorities of the Government.

Before turning to his options, it is worth setting out some context. The overall state of the public finances cannot be described as being particularly cheery, even if they are significantly improved since March.

The debt to GDP ratio will still be nearly 100 per cent, higher than at any point since the early 1960s, and not forecast to fall fast. The Government still has substantial spending pressures in the short and medium term – Covid catch-up, levelling up, net zero and social care – as well as long term demographic pressures that will bite in the 2030s. In response, the Government has this year announced substantial tax increases with the Corporation Tax rise, a freeze on thresholds and allowances in the personal tax system and the National Insurance increase announced earlier in the month. We now have the highest tax burden in our peacetime history.

The tax rises have not taken effect yet, but many people are already facing a squeeze in living standards. Inflation is set to hit four per cent, with energy prices rising much faster than that and six million people are about to see the end of the £20 per week Universal Credit uplift.

So at a time of high debt, high taxes, falling living standards and unfunded spending commitments, a bit of good news does not come amiss.

The good news is that the OBR’s March assessments of GDP growth in 2021 (4 per cent) and of the long term scarring effect of Covid on the economy (or, to put it another away, the capacity for the UK economy to grow in future) of three per cent looks to be pessimistic. With GDP growth this year likely to be approximately seven per cent (although the current supply chain uncertainties may bring it down a little) and scarring as little as one per cent, the difference to the public finances could be low tens of billions – a very handy sum.

Assuming that this is the case, what are Rishi Sunak’s options?

First, he can strengthen the public finances by bringing debt down faster than originally planned. We are getting our debt away cheaply at the moment which, some argue, suggests that there is not an imperative to do make a further reduction. But our debt levels are uncomfortably high in the event of another recession, and even small increases in interest rates could result in us paying a lot more to service our debt. Maintaining market credibility is always important to the Treasury and, by all accounts, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We can assume that he will be keen to ensure that a significant proportion of the improvement in the public finances is put to this purpose. It also means that the Government may have more choices available nearer the time of the general election.

Second, taxes could be cut. This seems very unlikely to be announced in October ,given that the Prime Minister has just announced some tax rises, there remain outstanding spending pressures and it is still relatively early in the electoral cycle. Many Conservative MPs are not happy with the historically high level of taxes, but that is not going to change any time soon.

Third, he could increase departmental spending. The Treasury is downplaying the chances of this option by stating that the spending envelope has been set and is not going to be re-opened, but I am somewhat sceptical that this is quite so hard and fast a position.

There are two conflicting views on the pressures on departmental spending. One view is that the current spending plans assume no Covid costs after 2021-22 which is unrealistic; that generous spending plans for health, education and defence mean that there is precious little left for other departments – to the extent that unprotected departments face a real terms reduction and, if you compare the departmental spending numbers with what was announced in March 2020, there has been a cut.

The alternative argument put forward by the Treasury spending hawks is to point out the extent to which March 2020 signalled a turning-on of the spending taps. The long term trend growth of our economy is forecast to be 1.5 per cent. If departmental spending is to remain constant as a share of GDP, it would also grow at 1.5 per cent but, instead, the plans involved increases of four per cent a year and the capital spending element by seveb per cent a year.

The Treasury gets very annoyed at any suggestion made by the good people at the Institute of Fiscal Studies that there are departmental ‘cuts’ because the current spending plans are lower than those announced in March 2020. It is reminiscent of the trick Gordon Brown used to pull of setting out steep increases in public spending and, when the Conservatives set out slightly shallower increases in spending but increases nonetheless, describing the differences in spending as ‘Tory cuts’.

The bigger point the Treasury will be making is that, for those departments that have much more to spend, they really should absorb the short-term Covid recovery costs because spending is going up fast enough as it is, thank you very much.

(And, by the way, given that we are giving you this extra money, how about some proper efficiency reforms in return? Spending reviews should be the moment when the Treasury and spending departments make some big strategic decisions as to how taxpayer value for money is achieved but, since the Prime Minister has just reshuffled many spending ministers and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, such a development does not seem likely on this occasion.)

The real issue is the position with the unprotected departments. There is a political vulnerability if departments do, in fact, see real term cuts (“the return to austerity”). With regard to two departments of which I have experience, the Ministry of Justice clearly needs more resources to function effectively and, in terms of protecting the public finances, penny-pinching with HMRC is counter-productive. My guess is that, with the exception of overseas aid, the Chancellor at the very least will find the resources to ensure no department faces real term cuts.

The final choice is on welfare. The £20 per week Universal Credit uplift will have gone by the time we get to 27 October and, particularly at a time of rising prices, this is going to be painful for many. Lowering the taper rate will not help the poorest claimants, but it is consistent with the Government’s emphasis on incentivising work by essentially lowering the marginal tax rate. It would also provide a reasonably good answer to what the Government is doing to help people with the squeeze on living standards. Taken in the round, a reduction in the taper rate ticks so many boxes that I would be surprised if it does not happen.

So the Chancellor should have some positive announcements on borrowing, departmental spending and Universal Credit. In what may prove to be a difficult autumn for the Government, Sunak’s October Budget looks likely to be one of its better moments.

Robert Halfon: Reshuffles. The soreness of being sacked. And how to bounce back.

22 Sep

The Guillotine

I remember well, when just a few days after the election in 2017, I was called to the Commons Office of the then Prime Minister, Theresa May. I was told by her and Gavin Barwell that I had reached the end of the road in my role as Skills Minister.

She said I should go back to campaigning on the backbenches, where I guess she felt my abilities best lay. By the time I had got back to my own Commons Office, the Department for Education Civil Servants had returned my belongings, taken back the DfE laptop and changed the nameplates on the office door to make way for the new incumbent.

When you are called to the Commons Office of the Prime Minister you know it is over. Just like the condemned man walking to the guillotine waiting for his head to be defenestrated. Instead of the crowds baying for blood watching Robespierre’s latest victim, you have the reporters in the Commons corridors and on social media salivating at the latest beheading.

During last week’s reshuffle, journalists were waiting around a set of lifts located near the Prime Minister’s Commons Office. As I was pressing the button for the elevator, one reporter asked me courteously if I would mind standing at the back of the Speaker’s Chair (also located by the Prime Minister’s Commons rooms) and text over the names of any Ministers who were walking through to see him. I, also politely, declined. I explained saying I had better things I could do with my life!

Initially, getting the heave-ho is a pretty bruising experience. You feel sore and ask yourself: why? You have to explain to all of your family, friends and constituents that you are not really useless, and that it is simply the nature of politics. In truth, I was initially incredibly dispirited. I loved the job and I had wanted to be Skills Minister for a long time before my appointment. I had worked especially hard to bring the FE and Technical Education Bill successfully through Parliament in the nine months in the run-up to the election.

But, after a few days, I just dusted myself down and I thought, well, I’ve had a good innings. I had previously attended Cabinet, been Party Deputy Chairman, been made a Privy Councillor and I had just been re-elected MP for the best town in England. Que sera, sera.

I made the decision to stand for election to chair the House of the Commons Education Select Committee, so I could continue to work on education and skills – my passion in politics. Being elected in 2017, against five other candidates and having to canvas votes across all parties, was a special moment in my political life.

As a Committee Chair, you can campaign for the things you believe in, speak to the media more freely and still get things done, albeit in a poacher rather than a gamekeeper kind of way. You are also freed from the tyranny of the phone call from the Number 10 switchboard, which says the Prime Minister would like to see you in his Commons Office…

The ex-Ministers Roll of Honour

I recount all this because I have huge sympathy for those who got the chop last week. Nick Gibb for example, who, whatever my disagreements with him about technical and vocational education (sometimes played out and debated on the pages of Conservative Home), is a man of authenticity and conviction.

He did much to improve standards across our schools, especially literacy. Gavin Williamson, who pushed FE, skills and apprenticeships higher up the political agenda, culminating in the Skills Bill, currently before Parliament.

Robert Jenrick, who understood that our country desperately needed more houses and tried to face off the Nimbys.

Robert Buckland, who did much to strengthen the justice system and toughen legislation for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Yes, politics is a blood sport, but these few examples show, whatever had gone wrong in these Departments, much good was done as well.

Mangoes in the Antarctic, Brussels Sprouts in the Desert.

As far as education goes, the appointment of Nadhim Zahawi as Education Secretary is good news. When asked, I once said to Andrew Gimson (of this Parish) that Zahawi is such a brilliant organiser, that he could find mangoes in the Antarctic and Brussels sprouts in the desert. His previous and extraordinary work as Vaccines Minister is a testament to that.

I am sure Nadhim will shake a few trees (much needed) in the DfE and bring both passion and policy to his new brief – especially when it comes to Apprenticeships and Vocational Education. He was previously not just Children’s Minister, but Apprenticeships Ambassador for the Government and did much to improve Apprenticeship take up from big business. All power to his elbow.