State-funded primary schools are doing so well that ‘wealthy, ambitious parents’ are saving private school fees and opting for state-maintained primary schools instead, The Times wrote In a leading article last Saturday.
The Times listed reasons it believed were behind the success of English primary schools. The first was academization which allowed ‘greater autonomy to replace underperforming staff and allocate funds without the interference of local councils’.
But academies form only about 30% of state-funded primary schools. Rather than escaping local authority ‘interference’, 70% of primary schools appear happy to remain under LA stewardship. And LAs haven’t controlled schools since Local Management of Schools began in the late 1980s.
Academies’ ‘greater autonomy’ is an illusion. Schools in multi-academy trusts (MATs) only have as much freedom as MAT trustees allow them.
The Times gives credit to Michael Gove. It was he who ‘toughened Sats’. But Sats have no educational value. Rather than increasing educational quality, the emphasis on Sat results has negative consequences: narrowing the curriculum, encouraging drilling, increasing pressure on pupils and staff, gaming* and, at worst, cheating.
‘Cultural shifts’ are also a factor, The Times claims. Teaching attracts ‘idealistic, motivated millennials who want to make a difference’. But these qualities can’t be described as a cultural shift. Teaching has always attracted such people. Unfortunately, they don’t always remain. Retention, as well as recruitment, remains a problem.
Teach First is in the vanguard, The Times implies. It does a great job in ‘recruiting bright young people to work in disadvantaged schools'. Graduates entering Teach First ‘are often instrumental in improving the extra-curricular offerings of state schools’. But only about 5% of teachers in English state schools are Teach First. It’s rather a stretch to imply this 5% is largely responsible for any improvement in after school activities which have, in any case, been around for decades.
The ‘most startling indicator’ of state school success, however, isn’t any of the above, The Times says. It’s the publication by ’high society magazine’ Tatler of an annual guide to state schools**.
As ‘wealthier parents’ start opting for state education, state-funded primary schools will be able to ‘offer another traditional advantage of private schools: the opportunity to mix with the offspring of ambitious middle-class professionals’, The Times adds.
Leave aside the dubious implication that the only children worth mixing with are those whose parents are middle-class professionals, surely the biggest advantage for children from a wealthy background in attending a state school is that they don’t just mix with those the Tatler describes as ‘People Like Us’? It’s the advantage of moving outside a privileged bubble to find that People Not Like Us aren’t to be avoided after all.
*It will only be a matter of time, surely, before we hear claims of ‘off-rolling’ in primary schools.
**I can’t find one for 2019. The last one seems to be for 2018.
CORRECTION: 5 June 09.34 Latest figures show nearly 70% of primary schools are not academies. I have updated the original 80%.