This year marks a significant anniversary in the history of education policy in this country.
Thirty years ago this summer the Great Education Reform Bill, known as GERBIL to civil servants in the Department for Education at the time, passed into law
It was a huge reforming piece of legislation, which brought in the idea of a national curriculum, parent choice and competition as well as limited diversity in the form of City Technology Colleges and grant-maintained schools.
Its intention was on the one hand to standardise English education - it was thought that therewas too much variation in curriculum and school quality – while also ushering in a market-style approach to schooling.
This would, so the theory went, ensure that popular successful schools expanded, while weaker institutions either closed or were forced to improve.
In the years that followed the “tools” of that market, in the form of Ofsted inspections, performance measures and league tables, were introduced in order to help parents choose schools.
Even though 1988 might seem like ancient history to many younger teachers, parents and governors, these reforms were crucial in that they paved the way for the environment within which all schools now operate.
In spite of numerous other reforms to schools since then, no government has seriously challenged the idea that diversity, choice and competition should underpin our education system.
But anniversaries always provide an opportunity for reflection and for the last six months I have been researching and writing a short book “The Best for My Child. Did the schools market deliver?”, looking at the genesis of the 1988 reforms, where they have left us, and what we should do next.
The book starts with a personal story – that of my own children’s primary school (where I first became a governor in 1992) which was one of the first schools to be “named and shamed” by Ofsted.
Over the intervening twenty-five years Gospel Oak has become an outstanding school, incidentally without needing to become an academy or detach from our local council along the way.
But there is no doubt that being publicly accountable through Ofsted, and initially hovering at the bottom of our local authority league tables, was a huge incentive to improve.
This would suggest that the market policies worked and that more competition and diversity stimulated school improvement. But is that so?
In many ways schools have got better; more are securely good; most are safe, well functioning environments and it is generally accepted that school leadership and teaching has improved.
A much higher proportion of young people stay in education and training today, and are thus educated to a higher qualification level, than was the case in 1988.
The most recent figures suggest that 66% of young people are in “education destinations” after finishing Key Stage 5 (the 16-19 phase) up from 19% in 1988. Almost 90% are in some wider form of education, employment or training, up from 40% in 1988.
Moreover a clear counter factual scenario exists in Wales. After education policy was devolved in the late 1990s, Welsh education ministers proudly rejected key stage tests and market style performance measures, only to be obliged to introduce its own system of school accountability in the late noughties after it emerged that the performance of Welsh pupils was falling behind.
But it is still debatable whether “standards” have improved. I discovered very quickly while researching the book that the lazy assumption (of which I have been guilty) that children are better educated, because more get to the expected level at the end of primary and secondary school, masks a real can of worms.
Measuring standards over time, between subjects and between types of qualifications is tricky. GCSE examinations, SAT tests and school performance measures have changed so regularly so we are not comparing like with like, which is one reason why the government is now trialing its own standardised reference tests at GCSE level.
Existing independent standardised tests, of competencies such as spelling and mathematical, concepts carried out by academics at some UK universities over the last 30 years, seem to show that in terms of that children can do and know little has changed.
Meanwhile we aren’t even really clear about what we mean by standards, which currently only relate to exams and test results rather than any wider interpretation of teaching, learning, behaviour or personal development.
These wider characteristics are the subject of Ofsted inspections but often get obscured by simple assessment metrics like Progress 8 and the new primary school test scores.
And even if we stick to the current benchmarks of success, some schools and some parts of the country still appear to struggle. These are currently earmarked as the government’s latest “Opportunity Areas” , places where attainment, social mobility and progression to work and university appear to have stalled.
It is also debatable whether parents did in fact get more “choice”. On the whole popular schools haven’t expanded to meet demand so the school your children get into remains largely dependent on where you live and even then the best parents can hope for is to express a preference for a few schools.
Too many schools are also still allowed to select their pupils, either overtly using tests like the 11 plus, or covertly with tests of faith, aptitude, feeder schools, banding or re-drawing of catchment areas.
Allied to parent choice and a flourishing private sector in some places, many schools have become segregated by ethnicity and class and can have far more or fewer poor children than is the norm their local communities. In short, the hierarchy of schools that has always typified the English education system seems destined to continue and may even have been exacerbated by choice and competition.
This is turn can have an impact on school performance – schools with largely aspirant pupils who are high performing on entry can experience a virtuous cycle of success and popularity while those with more challenging intakes can find life difficult in the high stakes environment created by the market.
Pressure to “perform” has also inevitably lead to more and more ingenious ways of gaming the market, from an excessive focus on certain groups of students, to use of GCSE equivalent qualifications, to dodgy admissions practices and the latest troubling practice of “off rolling”, which involves various type of illegal exclusions to lose the pupils most likely to drag down test and exam results.
Meanwhile perhaps the most dramatic escalation of the ideas set in train by the then Secretary of State Kenneth (now Lord) Baker in 1988 was the massive expansion of academy schools by Michael Gove after 2010. Though it is worth noting that Lord Baker, who was dismissive of the Gove reforms when I interviewed him, told me he would "never have gone that far".
In another interview for the book, Gove’s former adviser Sam Freedman suggested that the drive for more diversity aimed at a slow creation of academy chains run by existing successful schools.
The incoming coalition government didn’t anticipate the rush to convert that the financial incentives that the 2010 academies act created, he told me, and with hindsight could have managed this differently.
Both he and the academic Professor Simon Burgess, who has been studying the issue of school admissions and composition for 15 years, coincidentally used an identical expression to describe the resulting situation – "the Wild West".
Thousands of academies now exist in a fragmented landscape with no clear local oversight as schools are juggled between local authorities and academy chains under the supervision of Regional Schools Commissioners, the Department for Education and the Education and Skills Funding Agency.
This scenario makes it much easier for schools to use unethical practices to succeed and harder for central government, to whom academies are contracted, to monitor performance and financial management.
As a result, there have been a string of financial scandals such as at the Kings Science Academywhere staff members were found guilty of defrauding the government.
And other questionable financial practices in chains like the Durand Academy Trust where the founder Sir Greg Martin devised a complex web of companies and related party transactions ( contracts being awarded to other people or organisations with links to the school) which ensured that he earned over £400,000 a year. The DAT funding agreement with the DFE was terminated last year
The rapid expansion in diversity has also lead to an unappealing new phenomenon, the orphan school, that no one wants. As the reality of trying to turn around struggling institutions in an unforgiving financial climate bites, many chains are unwilling to take on the most challenging, leaving them hovering in a no man’s land between multi academy trusts, their local authorities and the DFE with whom all academy contracts are signed.
Maybe unsurprisingly, detailed research into academy performance carried out by organisations like the Education Policy Institute show clearly that there is little difference in outcomes between academies and maintained schools.
But perhaps the greatest scandal is that after 30 years of the market, we no longer have enough teachers for the number of children entering the school system in the next ten years.
Michael Gove’s market style reforms to teacher education have failed. Not enough candidates are entering the profession and too many are leaving, often disillusioned with the workload and school culture engendered by the competitive nature of the market.
So where should we go from here? It seems very unlikely that any government in the near future will go back on the idea that parents should have choice, or that schools should be accountable.
So that means trying to mitigate the worst effects of the market approach. This, I would suggest, demands a new look at school admissions – ruling out all forms of selection and requiring all schools in a given area to work together to agree common admissions criteria and to balance school intakes as far as possible.
Then we need a new much tougher, coherent middle tier to hold all schools to account in a local area in the same way, manage admissions with a new tougher admissions Code of Practice, and broker partnerships where schools need support and collaboration.
Professor Becky Allen, whose work at the data analytics organisation Education Datalab, has done much to shine a light on how school accountability measures impact on the children they are supposed to help, told me “Human relationships and a strong regulatory middle tier work together to promote ethnical leadership."
The current model of diverse academy chains working across different parts of the country appears to be working sub-optimally; all academy and maintained schools should be within the clear remit of a local or regional education body, put on an equal legal footing, possibly with the academy funding agreements re-assigned to that authority.
Finally we need to take the heat out of school accountability and to find a broader more generous definition of success than the ability to pass a relatively narrow range of tests and exams which generally exclude the sort of vocational and technical qualifications and skills the country will clearly need after Brexit.
Ofsted has started making noises about balancing the breadth of a school’s curriculum against test and exam data. The Headteachers’ Roundtable group has suggested area wide accountability so all schools in an area would take responsibility for all the children in that area, reducing the incentives for individual schools to manipulate their intakes and exclude some pupils.
And there are other ideas that have been suggested in the past such as a “report card” or websites where where parents could see a much wider range of indicators than straightforward exam result. Well-being, extracurricular activities, parent and staff satisfaction for example.
I would even go further and encourage Ofsted to withhold top grades from schools that aren’t inclusive or representative of their local community especially with regard to pupils eligibility for Free School Meals, with SEND or using local IDACI (Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index)indicators.
The vicious circle of schools struggling in league tables, being demonised by national inspections and then failing to recruit and retain good staff (who understandably might just find life easier in a less challenging environment) is blighting many of the areas in which pupils persistently underperform their peers in other parts of the country.
Blackpool head teacher Stephen Tierney, who blogs under the name Leading Learner, summed the last 30 years up succinctly in the book: “The market is fine for a shop, but not good for a school or a hospital or public services more generally, where all need to be good.”
One of the rallying cries that accompanied the onset of the market driven policies was that parents should do the “best for their children”. That is an understandable instinct, but the job of government is to do the best for all children.
Thirty years on from the 1988 Act, we can acknowledge that an element of competition and more accountability may have helped schools to improve in some ways, but there has been a cost. We are still not doing the best for all children and, if we are to rectify that in the next 30 years, we need to understand why that is.