‘I worked in a London borough. It wasn’t any kind of education nirvana’
In 1988 the Education Reform Act introduced the idea of choice for parents and competition among schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In her new book, Guardian columnist Fiona Millar argues that the choice has never really happened and that we are left with unintended consequences: a “wild west” of competing schools and back-door selection of pupils. However, others disagree, arguing that the act has transformed education for the better:
Sir Daniel Moynihan, CEO, Harris Federation
“Before the Education Reform Act I worked in a London borough and it certainly wasn’t any kind of nirvana anyone would want to go back to. Results weren’t published and there were underperforming schools that parents didn’t want, but the borough used its pupil allocation system to funnel children to those unpopular schools. And yes, there was a time when there was much less reliance on tests, and many disadvantaged and poor kids were not getting a broad and balanced curriculum. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been over-testing since the act came in – I’m sure there has – but I’d be reluctant to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
“There was no Ofsted before either, so councils were responsible for marking their own homework, which wasn’t a great thing. Of course there are disadvantages to results being publicly available, and Ofsted has been overbearing and excessive in terms of inspection in the past, but that’s slimmed down now.
“I don’t think the word ‘market’ in education or anything else is a bad or a good thing – all that matters is outcomes.
“It’s right there should be transparency on salaries, but I come back to outcomes: I’m a public servant, and we’ve got 44 schools. Two-thirds of them were taken over when they were failing or in difficulty, which represented £140m being spent each year on failing schools. Now that money is being spent on good or outstanding ones. In terms of value for money for the taxpayer, do you prefer the version where kids are getting a poor education or one where we as an academy group have delivered first-class outcomes for disadvantaged children?”
Katharine Birbalsingh, head, Michaela school, north London
“The idea that schools shouldn’t be judged at all is naive. The Education Reform Act recognised that accountability was important. But league tables are only good if they take account of a number of factors. If you’re only measured by who gets five A to Cs, perverse incentives set in. Adjustments are being made, but I wish there were more; it would be good to have five or six factors to judge schools by, so while the government has gone in the right direction, they could do better.
“There are certainly ‘marketisation’ ideas I don’t think work for education: performance related pay is a very bad thing. It doesn’t incentivise staff to work as a team and it undermines the camaraderie and support for each other that you need for excellent teaching. When it comes to talk of a loss of local accountability for schools as a result of increasing academisation and free schools – well, there never was local accountability in my experience.
“Teaching is one of those jobs that everyone thinks they can do just because they went to school: people who’ve never taught don’t know how to teach and don’t know how to run schools.
“So I don’t like the idea of local and central government politicians going into schools and telling us what to do, and I don’t think we should be held accountable by local politicians. I much prefer to be held accountable by complex league tables that measure a number of elements in a child’s education journey.
“I’m an ordinary headteacher on an ordinary salary, and when it comes to certain academy bosses who have transformed the education landscape in this country – sure, I would love it if they would do that job for half their salary. But if they are unwilling to do so, then I don’t want the children in those schools to suffer.
“If someone gets paid a salary that makes me raise an eyebrow, then in the end, who cares, because those children are going to get an education and go to Oxbridge, and get Nobel prizes. Education is the future of any country, and if we have to pay some people significant amounts to do it, so be it.”
Mark Lehain, director of the New Schools Network
“There are huge upsides to the increase in choice that was brought in by the act. With people having widely differing views about what and how schools should teach, it’s only right that we give families the chance to pick somewhere that suits their child. That’s all that a ‘market’ in education is. The alternative – most families being told where to send their kids, while the rich or well connected continue to choose – isn’t acceptable. Parental choice means schools are more responsive to what their communities want, and it’s allowed previously struggling schools experiencing revivals to attract families into their areas.
“While there have been rumours of schools doing things around admissions to skew their intake and boost league table positions, there’s very little hard evidence for it. Having said that, it’s important the government continues to monitor admissions practice and ensures there are enough places in good schools in every area, to enable real parental choice.”