The most turbulent time for schools in TES history? Try the '80s and '90s for size

10th September 2010 at 01:00

When I joined The TES as a sub-editor in 1972, Margaret Thatcher had just been made education secretary - and was already behaving at the most casual encounter as if she were the Queen. By the time I retired as editor the day before that all-change 1997 general election, my farewell messages were telling me that I had presided at the paper over the most turbulent period ever in education history.

It certainly felt like that from where I was sitting, and I would be surprised if a more detached historical perspective reached a different verdict. As I wrote in my final issue: "In 1972 the education agenda was largely set by the trade unions and local authorities, and progressive policies were firmly at the top. Today the Government and its agencies seem omnipotent, and traditional schooling and classroom discipline are their priorities."

What that had meant in practice as I rose through the ranks was that the leaders of the local education authorities were effectively running education, while union leaders grabbed headlines with conferences and strike threats. Officials at the then Department of Education and Science murmured that education policy was nothing to do with them, while progressive educators of all sorts and degrees were free to experiment with few constraints. Back in the flower-power days of the 1960s and 1970s, "let a thousand flowers bloom" had been an educational mantra, too.

Mrs Thatcher and Kenneth Baker put a stop to all that. It was Baker as education secretary who changed everything with his 1988 Great Reform Act, setting up a national curriculum (and the quangos to run it), Sats, local management for schools, grant-maintained schools and city technology colleges (CTCs). The net effect was certainly to shake up the system and concentrate minds on results, but it also destroyed the power of the local education authorities and along with it the last of several generations of great education officers who had provided the service's wise inspiration ever since the 1944 Education Act.

Many of their successors, of course, simply moved into consultancy, and it has mainly been ex-education officers and heads who have in practice run most of that (and succeeding) governments' privatised educational initiatives. But local government has never recovered from that drastic loss of power and people.

Tony Blair's first government certainly didn't try to put the broad thrust of Conservative education policies into reverse. Grant-maintained schools gave way to academies, but the national curriculum, Sats and Ofsted stayed with us, and local education authorities, along with their great school support systems, have given way to LAs with less powerful children's services.

Although successive Labour education secretaries, from David Blunkett to Ed Balls, continued to talk tough on standards, the education scene perhaps calmed down during the Labour years, maybe largely because education spending went up. Teachers moaning about bureaucracy, Sats and Ofsted did not seem to realise that they had never had it so good when compared with the "cuts, cuts, cuts" battles that dominated their predecessors' school life in the lean Thatcher years - and are now set to be repeated.

One of the more positive strands of Labour education policy, which it signally failed to trumpet to its advantage, was the emphasis and spending on early years, as the time when the most disadvantaged children are lost to education, before they have even started at primary school (Michael Gove, please note). It was particularly to Gordon Brown's credit as chancellor that he gave strong backing and Treasury money to the Sure Start programme.

The education debate, however, continues to centre on whether those favoured specialist schools outside local authority control - whether grant-maintained, CTCs, academies or parent-run free schools - raise standards throughout the system, or why. When results improve, is it because of extra money, or attention (the so-called "Hawthorne effect"), or covert selection? Do good effects trickle down through the system so that bad schools close? I don't recall that happening last time round.

All this is relevant to the renewed debate on the virtues of banding to equalise chances. I remember, back in the last Conservative government, when headteacher-turned-Tory politician Sir Rhodes Boyson discovered parent-run schools on a visit to Denmark and wanted to import the idea. I visited Denmark soon after and heard that they worked quite well there. The parents had to prove that they could do the job before they got the funding, "and the two systems push each other along quite happily", the professionals told me. But the Danes only had the two systems, not church schools and independents and all the rest of the pecking order we have created. Boyson didn't manage to introduce parent-run schools then; will Gove do better with his Swedish model?

But back to banding. Before the Tories abolished inner London's education authority (Ilea), it had a well-developed system for distributing across its secondaries pupils according to three ability bands. Most fell into the middle band, but the Ilea wanted to make sure that each school got its share of the smaller top-ability band so that some of the brightest pupils were allocated to schools with the worst reputation.

The result? Either savvy parents persuaded the primary school to put their children into the middle band instead of the top to get their choice of school or simply opted out for the independent sector or another authority.

Michael Gove sounds quite positive about the new banding bandwagon, but perhaps he had better think hard about whether it stands a chance in a world of academies and free schools. He has also expressed a welcome faith in the professionalism of teachers and says he will leave professional decisions to them. Could he even let a thousand flowers bloom?

Patricia Rowan joined The TES in 1972 and was editor from 1989 to 1997.

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