From the Editor - Do popular schools have the right to be rubbish?

13th January 2012 at 00:00

It wasn't the brightest idea for the secretary of state to promote primary academies in front of an audience of Year 7s last week. All that yawning, bum-scratching and nose-picking tended to detract from his core message. But hey, they were his advisers. At least the children were intermittently attentive.

Michael Gove's evangelism for his latest initiative included a large measure of scorn directed at "obstructive" local authorities. These, he believes, are deliberately frustrating attempts to spread the academy gospel for ideological reasons. He singled out one in particular: Haringey.

Haringey is a London borough that was an embarrassment to Labour and is now a propaganda gift for the Tories. It is the worst-performing local authority in the capital and the fourth worst in the country. It is relatively poor, but not as poor as neighbouring Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Newham - all of whose school systems outperform its own.

Haringey has an abysmal educational record. Vast numbers of its children are shipped off by concerned parents to be educated elsewhere. Too many of its primaries are substandard. Their results are improving slowly, if at all. They are, ministers believe, perfect candidates for forced academy conversion.

The reaction to Mr Gove's land grab has been defiant. The threatened schools are threatening lawyers (see page 23), the local MP is threatening a parliamentary debate, The Guardian is threatening to increase its outrageous adjective count.

I should declare an interest. I'm a governor of a secondary school in Haringey that caters to the poorest children in the borough. Too many arrive from local primaries unable to count or read. They leave five years later with results that would be a credit to any prosperous suburban school. Our teachers work incredibly hard to give them the education they deserve. But how come they succeed when too many of the local primaries don't? The kids are the same. Wouldn't it be better if the primaries did a good job in the first place?

Not, it seems, if the primaries in question can depend on community support. The local MP fumes that Mr Gove is turning these schools into academies "whether they like it or not". But should the wishes of local people always be paramount? Do popular schools, in effect, have the right to be crap?

No, not if we're paying for them. Why should the parameters of democracy be set at individual school level when the consequences are felt in the community and paid for nationally? People tend to support threatened local services regardless of performance - because they are local. But at the current rate of progress, Haringey's lacklustre primaries will reach an acceptable standard when the Vulcans make contact with Earth.

If school leadership is weak, and has been over several years, and if the local authority refuses to hold those schools to account, the government is right to step in and demand improvement. Labour did it to secondary schools; the coalition should do the same for primaries.

But there is a bigger question here. Why does the Left expend so much time excusing failure yet is so quick to dismiss success? Why does it insist on getting dewy-eyed over a Downhills but sniffy about a Mossbourne? Which institution does it really think would be more able to transform the life chances of a poor kid? Or are the disadvantaged deserving only if doomed to fail? If so, in what sense is that progressive politics?

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