An essay by Michael Bassey

This essay was written in December 2009 before the election which brought the Coalition to power and Michael Gove as secretary of state. The three proposals for secondary education made at the end - which regrettably most politicians would simply treat with utter scorn - are no nearer adoption than when written, but the eco-crisis of global warming is six years nearer! MB (13 March 2015).

And then it was the Conservative party that came to power, with Nicky Morgan at the Department for Education. MB (11 November 2015)

The essay begins with government in the 1980s becoming concerned about what was happening to young people during the years of compulsory education and then notes how successive governments, ever since 1988, have tried to raise standards of attainment for school leavers.

Over time educational ambitions have become subservient to political ends: the underlying theme of the essay is that it is high time this was reversed.

Discussion of what might be the educational characteristics of a ‘good’ school leads to suggestions for rethinking secondary schooling in terms of locality, community, and the ecological, rather than the economic, future of our country and the world.


Secondary schools are in a mess. The legal requirement that every young person, up to the age of 16 and from 2015 up to 18, must be incarcerated in a school classroom with up to 30 other youngsters for some five hours every weekday, for some 40 weeks of every year, working at the behest of a sequence of teachers who are expected to make every 40 minute lesson stimulating, meaningful and valuable to everyone in the class, would be beyond belief – except for the fact that we all experienced it when we were that age. But compared to the schooling of former times, the task of teaching is harder. The pressures on teachers are more demanding even though many of them are better skilled at teaching; young people are more likely to be truculent and difficult to control; and the pleasures and distractions of young people’s lives outside school are much greater in terms of portable music, easy communication with mobile phones, computer games, relaxed sexual mores, and easy access to illicit substances including alcohol.

Many young people enjoy academic study, a few relish examinations. Most don’t. Some are utterly bored by schooling and learn that most dangerous of skills – how to switch off from what’s going on around them. [Why do so many people not vote at elections? Perhaps it is because at school they learned to avoid the injunction, ‘Pay attention, this is important’.]


Sadly, education has become intensely political with both conservative and labour parties putting forward policies that are as much about the ballot box as the black board (except that the latter is fast being replaced by black box technology). When the Daily Mail, paper of choice of middle England, tells its readers (erroneously) how dire schools are, with front page headlines like OUR WOEFUL SCHOOLS, BY TESCO BOSS [ref 1] (14 October 2009), A LESSON IN INCOMPETENCE [ref 2] (25 November), and A DAMNING INDICTMENT [ref 3] 2 December) the party managers see votes to be lost (labour) or won (conservatives) and so new measures to ‘raise educational standards’ are invented. These headlines are designed to sell newspapers, not to inform the public. But politicians love or hate them – according to which way the wind blows.

One doesn’t have to be a cynic to realise that politicians have come to treat teachers as technicians engaged in knowledge-transmission and skills-training who need to be given a manual and rule-book in order to operate in a pupil factory and who need rigorous inspection and regular pupil assessment in order to ensure that they are working at maximum efficiency and obeying the employers’ rules.


Response to public concern

There was widespread public concern about what was happening in schools in the 1980s. In some of the schools in deprived communities, where there were few employment prospects for school leavers, the teachers considered that happiness in the classroom was better than hard-grind learning for jobs that didn’t exist: this led to laissez-faire attitudes to work. In other schools teachers embraced a fashion that said that spelling and punctuation didn’t matter as much as an ability to create and communicate, nor did arithmetic matter with the advent of pocket calculators and electronic tills in shops. Widespread also was the lack of recognition by most teachers that regular assessment to see what has been learned by each individual is an essential part of effective education.

These all came to a head when business leaders and industrialists began to castigate the basic skills and attitudes to work of school leavers and expressed fears that our future economic prosperity was at risk. Politicians had to respond and their first intervention into ‘the secret garden of the curriculum’ was the Education Reform Act of 1988 when Kenneth Baker was education secretary and Margaret Thatcher prime minister.

At the start of the 20th century in 1902 local education authorities were created.  Until 1988 they had overall responsibility for ensuring that there were enough state school places for the children in each area, for the financial administration of state schools, for the upkeep of school buildings and grounds, and for appointing teachers and headteachers. Central government provided most of the funding but county councils and city councils in most cases augmented this, particularly in support of local building or special curriculum projects. Notionally the local authorities were responsible for the curriculum of their schools and when in the 1980s, as noted in the above paragraph, there was widespread criticism of schooling, it was the local authorities who were blamed. [ref 4]

The Education Reform Act of 1988 and its political consequences

The Education Reform Act of 1988 took the financial administration of schools away from local authorities and delegated it to schools’ governing bodies (‘LMS’ as it was called), entitled parents to a choice of schools rather than the one which the local authority had designated for their children (in a sequence of measures which became increasingly tortuous), replaced the notional local control of what was taught in schools by a highly prescriptive subject-based curriculum for all young people aged 5 to 16 (the national curriculum), and introduced nation-wide external testing of young people at 7, 11, and 14 with the averaged results for each school published in league tables (in order to assist parents in choosing schools). Four years later the Office for Standards in Education was established and began regular, systematic and searching inspections of schools aimed to raise standards of attainment and to ensure that government policies were being fully implemented.

It was a necessary jolt to teaching and, once some of the teething troubles (like the obsessive detail of the first national curriculum) were overcome, standards in schools improved. While results in English for 11 year-olds climbed till 2005 and then more or less levelled, results at GCSE (the 5 at A*-C measure) continue to slowly climb. Government, of course, claims the credit for this, while the opposition criticises government for not achieving more. Yet surely it is the young people and their teachers who deserve the credit. The worry is that the curriculum has narrowed towards the things that are measured.

Since 1988 national government has constantly tinkered with education. Each of the 11 secretaries of state and countless junior ministers, has tried to demonstrate their political ability (and aspirations for high office) by introducing parliamentary Education Bills and sending myriads of regulations to schools [ref 5]. This continues to happen notwithstanding strong concerns expressed by teachers unions, individual teachers and heads, academic researchers and various public figures that these have become counterproductive. Central control of education is overwhelming the schools with bureaucracy and restricting the opportunities for teachers to teach creatively in relation to the educational needs of their pupils. Nevertheless some schools still manage to provide exceptional experiences of lasting value for their pupils – would that they all could.


Treasure hunts for pots of gold

When Labour came to power in 1997, Tony Blair famously proclaimed the key policy of ‘Education, education, education’. More money was put into education but, instead of concentrating it in schools where there was the greatest need, treasure hunts were set up so that schools bid for pots of gold deposited by ministers’ pet ideas. It was part of the mantra of ‘choice’ whereby it was envisaged that with parents having a choice of schools with different strengths, market forces would operate and to survive the competition schools would raise their standards.

Comprehensives turn into specialist schools

One of the most curious political ventures was inviting comprehensive schools to bid for specialist school status. A school could seek extra funding for one subject, or sometimes two, which, while still meeting the overall requirements of the national curriculum, would ‘provide enriched learning opportunities’ in the specialism. Provided that it could raise £50,000 in sponsorship the school could bid for £100,000 from the government for a capital project and, if successful, would get a recurrent fund of £129 per pupil per year for up to 1000 pupils for three years to ‘implement their specialist school development plan’. According to the Department for Children, Schools and Families website this ‘helps schools to establish distinctive identities through their chosen specialisms and achieve their targets to raise standards.’

The Government website [ref 6] says there are currently 2502 designated specialist schools including 583 in technology, 408 in arts, 354 in sports, 282 in science, 222 in mathematics and computing and 217 in business and enterprise. Since there are only 3100 state secondary schools in England it looks as though nearly every school has become specialist. Giving to what presumably would be the strongest department in a school rather than to departments which were struggling seems like ‘it’s the rich who get the gravy and the poor who get the blame’.

Part of the rhetoric in favour of this policy is that it helps parents choose a school which they think will benefit their child because of its specialism. It is a dubious argument: at age eleven, only rarely can parents be sure in what direction their child may develop; the choice of specialisms within the travelling distance of the parental home is likely to be limited except in dense urban areas; and it is unclear how far the school’s emphasis on the specialism will benefit the individual child.

Creation of academies

A second bizarre form of funding is the academy programme. This is how the {Labour} Education Department described it in 2009 [ref 7].

‘Academies are all-ability, state-funded schools established and managed by sponsors ... Sponsors challenge traditional thinking on how schools are run and what they should be like for students. They seek to make a complete break with cultures of low aspiration which afflict too many communities and their schools. ... Academies are funded at a level comparable to other local schools in the area.

The governing body and the headteacher have responsibility for managing the academy. In order to determine the ethos and leadership of the academy, and ensure clear responsibility and accountability, the private sector or charitable sponsor always appoints the majority of the governors. All academies are bound by the same School Admission Code, SEN Code of Practice and exclusions guidance as all other state-funded schools. All new Academies are also required to follow the national curriculum programmes of study in English, maths, science and ICT. All have specialist school status and have a specialism in one or more subjects.’

Under the heading ‘Why Academies’ the DCSF website explains.

‘Academies are a key element of the drive to raise standards; raising aspirations and creating opportunities in some of the most disadvantaged communities in the country. Academies have a mission to transform education where the status quo is simply not good enough. We want academies to be the engine of social mobility. ... Most academies replace existing underperforming schools. ... Academies will help break the cycle of underachievement in areas of social and economic deprivation whether in inner cities, suburban or rural areas. Each Academy will offer local solutions for local needs.’

It is difficult to generalise about how an academy comes into being. But in many of the 200 so far established, it seems to be something like this. In a socially deprived neighbourhood there is a ‘bog standard’ [ref 8] comprehensive school where, however committed the teachers and however hard they work, examination results at GCSE are well below the national average. Because the results are low, and possibly for other reasons, Ofsted puts the school into ‘special measures’. A sponsor to take over the school is found (who originally was expected to put £2 million into the building of a new school or the refurbishment of the old – this has now been waived and all the costs can be met by central government). The governing body and the headteacher (as appointed by the local authority) are sacked. A new governing body is appointed, mainly by the sponsor, and a new headteacher – now called ‘principal’ - appointed. The old school is closed and the staff are encouraged to apply to work at the new academy – probably under different conditions of work. The pupils are given the option of transferring to the new academy. The principal, senior managers and governors develop a new curriculum (within the constraints noted above):

‘to meet the needs of the individual pupils in their school. They can use this to inform designs for staffing structures. The outcomes expected are not simply good examination results but also young people superbly equipped for active citizenship: committed to lifelong learning; and, ready for progression into further and higher education and work.’ [ref 9]

It all sounds promising and exciting, until somebody says, ‘Same kids, same teachers, same social environment – if refurbished buildings, new head, and redesigned curriculum is what was needed, why all the ballyhoo? Why give power to run the school to non-paying sponsors (an oxymoron?) whose business ethos, academic status or religious fervor are unlikely to be in accord with an educational understanding of the holistic experience that young people need. Why wasn’t this power given to the previous head, teachers and governors?’

Government has now established 200 academies and plans to create another 200: it looks like 90% political manouevring, 10% educational thinking [ref 10].

Most people, of course, would want educational policy to be based at least 90% on educational thinking and not more than 10% on political manouevring. But since at present it is the other way round it may be instructive for politicians of both major parties to recognise that their insistence on giving parents a choice of secondary schools, may be politically unwise.


There are three conditions necessary for a politically effective policy enabling parents to choose which school their children attend:

    First, there must be more than one school accessible for the children.

    Evidence suggests that for 80% of secondary aged children there are at least three schools from which to choose [ref 11]. In rural areas this is rarely the case.

    From a carbon-saving viewpoint (and to reduce obesity) it is desirable that children can either walk or cycle to school.

    Second, there must be a credible system of information about these schools so that parents can make an informed choice. However:

    league tables based on KS2 results (for primary school choice) and GCSE results (for secondary school choice) are based on unreliable evidence; [ref 12, 13]

    choice made on the basis of Ofsted reports is also questionable since the criteria used by Ofsted may not be in accord with what parents are looking for;

    while visits to schools may be the best basis for making a choice, this favours families where an adult has the time, the social skills and the educational insight to assess the suitability of a school for their child; and

    there can be no certainty that a school judged to be ‘right’ now will be the same over the six years or more that a child is at the school.

    Third, there must be a fair system by which a school receiving more requests than there are places available can select and reject children.

    This is a complex issue. Currently in some secondary schools up to 10% of an intake can be ‘selected’ on the basis of aptitude for the school’s specialism [ref 14]. Faith schools can use indicators of commitment to the faith. Lotteries have been introduced in one or two areas.

    It is here that the political problem arises. Since the opportunities for a school to suddenly expand are limited, when too many parents apply to a school for a place, some will be rejected. Votes are not gained by offering parents a choice and then rejecting children because there are insufficient places. [ref 15]

Overall it seems that parental choice of school for their children is an unwise political stance. A better one is to try to ensure that every school is a good school so that parents are happy for their children to attend the local school. Attending the local school implies the re-introduction of geographical catchment policies as was the case before the 1988 Education Reform Act.

No doubt Government would argue that the introduction of various types of schools (trust, specialist, academy etc), the firm hand of Ofsted, the league tables of test and exam results, the defining of the national curriculum, and the endless flow of directives from the Department for Chlidren, Schools and Families, are all aimed at producing ‘good’ schools.

What government has not understood is that a ‘good’ school grows from the inside, not the outside. It is the commitment and ideas of the teachers within a school that determines its success – not the extent of initiatives of government and its agencies.


Everyone has their own idea of what constitutes a ‘good’ school. This is mine.

A ‘good’ school is one:

    where learning is seen as purposeful and worthwhile by pupils, teachers and parents;

    where there is mutual respect between pupils, teachers and parents;

    where there is ordered calm which is conducive to learning;

    where the teachers are committed to striving for all pupils, as far as possible individually, and especially for those with special needs:

    to master the basic skills needed for their school work and their adult life (communication, reading, writing, simple mathematics, basic science and IT);

    to be nurtured in their development of survival and social skills;

    to be appropriately immersed in the culture of their time;

    to develop their cognitive, creative and physical talents towards achieving their potential;

    to enjoy their years of schooling; and

    to eventually leave school with such certificates and documents as demonstrate their personal achievements;

    where the teachers work collegially, supporting each other and regularly evaluating the work of the school;

    where parents and pupil are regularly informed of, and have opportunities to discuss, the educational progress of the pupil;

    where the buildings, equipment and grounds of the school are appropriate for these attributes;

    where the funding of the school is directed carefully and intelligently towards these attributes, and

    where the school is recognised by the local community as a ‘good’ school, meaning a place where their young are well educated in the terms described above.

A ‘good’ school grows from the inside, not the outside. Government edicts, Ofsted inspections, examination pressures, and league tables do not create ‘good’ schools. A ‘good’ school is such because of the combined efforts of teachers, pupils, parents and school governors.

How can the local community and the nation be assured that the local school is a ‘good’ school? This should be the role of school governors on the basis of self-evaluation by the school, and reporting to local community and local education authority, who in turn should report to a National Education Council and through that to Parliament. This is discussed in the next section.


At present government agencies try to tell parents which are the ‘good’ schools for their children. However, as discussed above, test and exam results, league tables and Ofsted reports tell, inadequately, what the government chooses to portray. It is right that schools should be accountable not just for the considerable sums of public money that they spend but, more so, for the education they provide for the children in their care. The following outline shows how school accountability could start with parents, and move through school governors, local community, local authority, a national education council, and to Parliament.

PARENTS – as now:

    • in choosing a school can get detailed prospectuses and make visits; • receive detailed reports of their child’s progress from teachers and meet them; • if there are concerns can without difficulty arrange meetings with teachers.

TEACHERS AND HEAD – as now, but enhanced:

    • regularly evaluate their work (based on the self-evaluation procedures developed by Professor Macbeath at Cambridge University – not the tick box variety of Ofsted); • include the findings in head’s reports to school governors.

SCHOOL GOVERNORS – as now, but practice enhanced:

    • receive termly reports from head about educational work and progress of the school; • are expected to visit classrooms, talk to teachers, parents and others about work of the school; • should be prepared to challenge and to support the school staff when they deem it necessary; • should through their finance committee have oversight of the schools expenditure and ensure that it is properly audited.

LOCAL COMMUNITY – what I would like to see:

    • an annual report of each school made to the local community by being printed in local newspapers. This would be in place of ridiculous league tables. It would generate much local interest and could lead to valuable debate on letters pages about the work of the school.

LOCAL AUTHORITY –what I would like to see:

    • inspectors giving ‘challenge and support’ to schools – in place of Ofsted inspectors; • local authorities drawing together school annual reports and reporting annually to a National Education Council.

NATIONAL EDUCATION COUNCIL – what I would like to see:

    • an independent National Education Council with a balanced membership of teachers’ leaders, MPs, academics and other prominent members of society; • funded by government but independent of it; • arranges nationwide sample monitoring of basic skills; • collates evidence from local authorities reports; • commissions research on key issues that it identifies; • reports on the state of education nationwide to Parliament.

PARLIAMENT –what I would like to see;

    • perhaps once every two years receives and debates a report from the National Education Council on the state of education nationwide.


The Copenhagen summit conference of world leaders looking for ways of limiting climate change has at least brought world leaders face to face with the reality that the world is inevitably going to suffer major problems of survival within the life times of today’s school children and beyond. If rationality ruled they would have gone home not only with policies for reducing carbon emissions but with educational policies for preparing young people for this problematic, if uncertain, future.

In England the recent decision to extend compulsory education to 18+ was made for economic reasons: first to reduce unemployment (by taking 17- and 18 year-olds out of the job market), and second to try and increase their employable skills. If this decision were rethought for educational and ecological reasons, these are the sort of changes needed.

    First, it is necessary to take government out of schooling. Ministerial intervention must stop. Ofsted must be replaced by more effective methods of evaluation and accountability based on schools, their governors and their localities. Education must be depoliticised – taken out of party politics. Teachers must be trusted, within collegially organised schools, to teach according to their professional judgements of the educational needs of their students.

    Second, abolish GCSE and A-level examinations and SATs: instead an end-of-schooling diplomas                                  Provide end-of schooling externally assessed diplomas at 18+ to indicate to would-be employers or higher education admission tutors a student’s academic and practical achievements. All other assessments, throughout schooling, should be teacher assessments, moderated as necessary, and regularly communicated to both students and their parents. Every school leaver, at 18+, should be given a comprehensive document profiling their various achievements – social, academic, sporting, creative, etc.

    Third, ensure that from 16 to 18+ young people spend as much school time working in the local community as in the classroom. They must be trusted to act as responsible citizens. Give them the parliamentary vote. The opportunities for teacher-led and student-led teams to engage in community work are tremendous: supporting elderly people, helping younger children in primary schools, growing vegetables, tending livestock, providing street theatre, enhancing local environments, erecting solar panels, planting trees, and through such team work learning democratic values and a convivial ethos based on harmony, co-operation, steward-ship, self-sufficiency. At the same time there must be good opportunities for the many who seek academic learning to do so – while maintaining social coherence in the population of a school. In addition there could be chances for school parties to go abroad on community missions.

Inept as the Copenhagen conference sadly proved to be, there was a clear message that life on this planet is going to get much tougher for everybody and catastrophic for some at least. ‘Business as usual’ is not a viable option. Massive change in our societies is needed. In England the mindset that economic prosperity will depend upon the appropriate skills of school leavers should be seen to be ridiculous: it is ecological sustainability and perhaps survival that our schools need to focus on.

In 2010 we need a new Education Reform Act, based on the three points above. Will it be a Labour or a Conservative administration that enacts it? Or a hung parliament where minority parties are able to promote such an Act?

Well we now know that it was a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition in May 2010, with Michael Gove as a minister bristling with ideas, none of which were in accord with the ideas set out above!  And five years later a Conservative administration pursuing Gove's policies but with a different minister in charge.  (11 November 2015) 


[1] Sir Terry Leahy says that ‘Tesco is dissatisfied with the attainment of school leavers and university graduates who apply for jobs’. This was reported in all the major media outlets, but the evidence on which the statement is based is not apparent.

[2] A sub-heading reads ‘1 in 3 schools fails to provide adequate teaching’ followed by ‘More than two million children are being taught in schools that are mediocre or failing, inspectors said yesterday.’ Ofsted’s annual report may have invited this comment since it states ‘the quality of teaching and learning is no better than satisfactory in 30% of schools’ (p104) but earlier says ‘around 150,000 pupils are currently being taught in schools in which overall effectiveness is inadequate, compared with approximately 200,000 in 2007/8’

[3] This was based on the just published SAT results. The paper said, ‘Nearly four in ten children leave primary school without mastering the three Rs’. This is a gross mis-statement since nearly all of these four in ten will have reached level 3 – which requires well developed skills. For example, in Reading, level 3 requires that ‘Pupils read a range of texts fluently and accurately. They read independently, using strategies appropriately to establish meaning. In responding to fiction and non-fiction they show understanding of the main points and express preferences.’

[4] For the sake of brevity I have omitted the ‘voluntary aided’ schools where the church owns the buildings and appoints most of the governing body but the state pays the teachers and the ‘voluntary controlled’ schools.

[5] In 2006 192 new initiatives were sent to schools, in 2007 it was 242.

[6] www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/specialistschools/ (‘last updated 26/10/09’ but still refers to DfES) Since the closing date for the next round of applications is given as 8 March 2006 perhaps this scheme is being phased out. (18 Dec 2009)

[7] www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/academies/what_are_academies/ (18 Dec 2009)

[8] This was the derogatory term used by Alasdair Campbell when working as press officer to prime minister Tony Blair to describe the traditional comprehensive school.

[9] Same website as ref 4 above.

[10] The annual report for 2008/9 of Ofsted notes that of 30 academies inspected in that year, 5 were outstanding, 12 good, 8 satisfactory, and 5 inadequate. This led the Daily Mail (25 November – front page) to say that ‘half of academies are sub-standard’. On the football field this red top would get a red card.

[11] Mike Baker, www.esrc.ac.uk/ESRCInfoCentre/about/CI/CP/the_edge/issue23/education.aspx (11Dec09)

[12] “In such public examinations as Key Stage tests, 11+ selection tests, GCSE and A-level, the sampling error is such that between 20% and 30% of candidates will earn a result which will differ by at least one Level or Grade from their ‘true’ score”. Memorandum submitted to House of Commons select committee for children, schools and families by Professors Paul Black, John Gardner and Dylan Wiliam in May 2007

[13] “School league tables are eagerly scanned by parents hoping to find the best school for their child … But do they tell parents what they need to know? … League tables are not fit for that purpose and it is time that their publication should cease.” Professor Harvey Goldstein and George Leckie in Signifigance, June 2008

[14] This applies only to these subjects: modern foreign languages, the performing arts, the visual arts, physical education or sport. (Section 102 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998) www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/specialistschools/faq/?version=1 (18 Dec 2009)

[15] According to The Guardian on 3 March 2009 nearly 100,000 families missed out on their first choice of secondary school this year amid intense competition for places at high performing state schools in England. London children were worst hit with nearly half of parents in some areas of the capital being denied their first choice school.

This page was posted on 22 December 2009. A comment was added at the beginning of the essay on 13 March 2015

For powerful concerns about political impact on education see www.educando.co.uk