After 50 years, it's time for a debate
One school's history provides a detailed account of how reforms and fashion have impacted on education. But Bob Moon argues that hindsight is not always perfect
This is an important book based on a very good idea. In 1957 Norman Evans was appointed the first head of Senacre school, a secondary modern in Maidstone, Kent. Now, after a distinguished career in education, he has written a history of the school from his headship through those of his six successors to 2004. Professor John Elliott, who began his teaching career at Senacre and is now professor of education at the University of EastAnglia, provides a personal and perceptive final chapter.
Senacre represents a fascinating case study of the interplay of various forms of authority and control within the education system over the past 50 years. Evans quotes extensively from interviews with his successors and others, mostly teachers, who contributed to the development of the school.
The book is essential reading for anyone training to teach in English secondary schools.
With trainee teachers I would use the book as a case file of evidence, rather as some MBAs use company studies, to analyse policies and practice in secondary schools since the Second World War. All the issues occupying us today have cropped up at some stage in the history of Senacre. Three examples illustrate the point.
First, the importance of the headteacher. A succession of very different heads stamped their views on the school, and Evans reports each headship with fairness and detachment. His own progressive style was not always replicated by his successors, but he is not judgmental and the book is stronger for that.
Second, a motif through the book is the search for a curriculum that is both relevant and useful but also motivating, particularly for young people disenchanted with formal schooling. The account reads like an archaeological dig through the various attempts to find a solution.
Projects in the 1950s, mode 3 CSEs in the 1960s, mixed-ability and integrated subjects in the 1970s, GCSEs and records of achievement in the 1980s and the national curriculum of the 1990s. The subtitle of Evans's book is "an educational roundabout?". In curriculum terms it reads more like a rollercoaster.
A third strand is the changing nature of outside intervention. Apart from one bungled attempt to close the school, the local education authority appears to have been very hands-off. But, more recently, Ofsted and the newly empowered governors have loomed large. The school, serving a disadvantaged community, has been through serious weaknesses and special measures but recently was given the all-clear by Ofsted.
Evans makes clear at the outset that he is not trying to turn the Senacre story into an educational paradigm. He does, however, have an implicit cast of heroes and villains: parents, teachers and pupils are in the former category; government, local authorities and Ofsted attract the hisses. Like many in the profession today, Evans is highly critical of the centralist challenge to school autonomy. James Callaghan's Ruskin College speech of 1976, Kenneth Baker's 1988 Education Reform Act, and Tony Blair's continuing interventionist instincts on education are seen as constraints on schools such as Senacre.
I think the picture is more complex than that and the Senacre story provides the data for taking another view.
Centralist initiatives since 1988 have, of course, given us much to quibble about. The introduction of the national curriculum was a tawdry affair.
Only in England could we have created legislation to introduce a curriculum identical to that laid down by the Board of Education in 1902. And the implementation was a shambles, wasting money on a scale equivalent to some of the defence and computer procurement scandals of the past few decades.
But the impetus for change in schools did not just come from Baker and his advisers. Blair's caution today is not merely a consequence of his personal history.
I believe strongly that larger forces are at work. The great achievement of good secondary moderns (such as Senacre at one stage of its history) and comprehensives has been to break down the deference that parents had towards secondary schooling. A better educated populace, aware of the value of schooling in the evolving knowledge economy, has become much more critical of the quality of its children's education.
Callaghan, Baker and Blair were astute enough to reflect this concern back on to the system. The message has not been well received. In some areas of the profession there is a sense of denial that obscures debate about the need for new directions. Into this vacuum successive governments have pushed a series of sometimes clumsy reforms. I believe the public pressure for even higher standards will increase.
I was on holiday in France this summer when the baccalaureate results were published. More than 60 per cent of the cohort are now achieving an A-level equivalent qualification that contains strong technological and vocational strands. Other European countries do even better. In England we struggle to reach that figure with five GCSEs at 16.
Those who rail against central intervention need to find a viable alternative that can quickly bring about a radical change in expectations of our schools and pupils. I believe that the different modes of school organisation, reformed pedagogic practice, exploitation of new communication technologies and new thinking on personal incentives all need to contribute to a revitalised non-governmental model of reform.
Tim Brighouse, who in Birmingham and now London has shown how pursuit of higher standards can be achieved without the authoritarianism that Evans so rejects, has written the introduction to the book. I agree with him that "all those who love school communities will enjoy the story of Senacre".
But, in terms of the future of secondary education, this is not the end of the debate, but a beginning.
Bob Moon, a former secondary headteacher, is professor of education at the Open University