Reforms give me that Domesday feeling

17th June 2011 at 01:00

Politicians like to feel they have left their mark on posterity, so, sit up at the back - it's time for a history lesson.

In 1066, everything changed in England. It's hard to imagine, but for more than 150 years after the Normans invaded, everything in this country - our language, legal and political systems, and education - was systematically overturned. If you were of any importance, you spoke French. Speaking English in schools was banned. As the historian William of Malmesbury bleakly recorded: "The newcomers gnaw at the wealth and guts of England, nor is there any hope of ending the misery."

By the time the French left, our landscape - political and physical - was changed for ever. We had thousands of new words (500 of them alone relating to food and drink), new systems of government, and cathedrals and castles whose unwritten message was - in case anyone doubted the might of the conquering French - "under new management".

Well, here we are in June 2011, with a Government that has been in power for just over a year. And, although I would hate to imply that our Westminster masters are quite like those invading Normans, something akin to a conquest has undoubtedly taken place - certainly if you accept the end-of-year assessments of many newspapers.

In general, the pundits have been quick to praise education secretary Michael Gove's "landmark reforms" on academies, as Benedict Brogan in the Daily Telegraph described them. John Rentoul wrote in the Independent that "the success of one school spurs staff and pupils at other local schools to try harder". Julian Glover in the Guardian claimed "the culture of conservative mediocrity is being smashed".

This is heady rhetoric, especially since these writers describe a slew of reforms that remain, for the most part, untested. As that great student of history Winston Churchill taught us: "However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results."

The "academy freedoms" concept has undoubtedly caught the imagination of many heads and governors. At a political level the strategic talk is of freedom. But when you ask heads about why their schools are converting to academy status, it's almost always about the money - and the hunch that the early adopters will get the most booty.

There is also undoubted liberation from a morass of targets and the end of that tedious ring-fencing of funds. "Vive la revolution!" we may collectively wish to cry.

Except that in all of this giddy excitement we shouldn't forget our values. Local authorities are an easy target for condemnation; a convenient scapegoat. Yet despite what certain newspapers might have us believe, LAs aren't all peopled by expensive pen-pushers out only for themselves. Many of the best people I have worked with chose a career in LAs because they saw it as a way of having an impact across the wider system.

And, of course, LAs brought benefits that individual schools couldn't provide: the unsexy stuff (grounds maintenance, financial services) and the important bits (county-wide music provision). This is where our values become rather important. Because as the age of austerity bites and the culture of ring-fencing fades from view, it allows us to raid pots of money previously reserved for things like music services.

In the past, an authority's music service provided the child in an outlying primary school with a shimmering new instrument, one-to-one tuition and, in their future, a chance to play alongside other young musicians in larger-scale ensembles and orchestras. Many of us believed that opportunities like these were central to a civilised education service that valued the arts. But it won't take many academy heads in a county or authority to say they no longer wish to contribute to the service for music provision to disappear.

This is why our values matter.

Take that most un-English of wacky wheezes, the English Baccalaureate. Can it really be right that pupils in some schools are being funnelled into mandatory history or geography sessions? Are we - the people who have been so critical of management by league tables - really going to allow our pupils' choices to be driven by snobbery or paranoia?

While there is no doubt that the educational landscape has begun to shift massively since May 2010, the endless rhetorical talk of freedom doesn't have to imply that all that went before was nanny-state oppression. Nor do we have to surrender what we believe in quite so cravenly.

In 1952, US senator Adlai Stevenson defined a free society as "one where it is safe to be unpopular". That's my kind of history.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds.

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