Thirty years ago this week, the national curriculum came into being, and life in schools was never to be the same again.
It is perhaps surprising that this development, delivered by a Conservative education secretary, Ken Baker, was the climax of a process started in 1976 by Labour prime minister James Callaghan. In his celebrated Ruskin speech, “Lucky Jim” railed against what was referred to at the time as education’s “secret garden”, and demanded that heads open up their near total control of curriculum and schooling to public and governmental accountability.
It is amazing in 2018 to imagine that education has not always been the political football it is today. For much of the three decades since the national curriculum came into being, ministers have mostly pursued endless reform to the structure of schools, exams, the curriculum and the accountability system, in a bid to facilitate social mobility.
This concept – effectively demanding that schools equalise the educational outcomes and therefore earning potential of rich and poor pupils – was the motivation behind most Blairite and Govian reforms. Indeed, Michael Gove would damn anyone who objected to his radical changes as proponents of the “soft bigotry of low expectations”.
And there you seemed to have it. If you pointed out that schools were battling almost impossibly strong socio-economic headwinds, you would likely be branded a defeatist.
This idea that teachers could solve all of society’s ills didn’t end with just exam results and curriculum changes. In recent years, politicians have regularly demanded that they develop pupils’ character and resolve as well.
Schools are expected to work miracles
Ministers have attempted to ensure schools work these miracles through a combination of carrot (financial grants, political head-patting, gongs) and stick (accountability, floor targets, academisation). But mostly stick. Since Ruskin, pretty much all education reforms have been variations on this theme.
It was because of this history that Damian Hinds’ first big speech on social mobility as education secretary came as a surprise this week. Instead of explaining how his vision for schools would finally deliver the societal changes his predecessors have long chased, he talked about what parents could and should do to help their kids achieve it.
He pointed to recent Education Policy Institute research showing that when deprived children start at primary, they are on average already 4.3 months behind their wealthier peers. He noted the near impossibility of teachers closing this “disadvantage gap”, accepting that it is likely to widen as schooling goes on.
Hinds announced a series of not hugely ambitious initiatives (presumably hampered by absurdly tight departmental budgets), aimed at achieving improvements to early literacy by educating parents on how to educate their kids. This is not in itself rocket science (Labour ploughed millions into Sure Start, for example), but as James Bowen of the NAHT headteachers’ union says (see bit.ly/BowenComment), perhaps Hinds’ most important line was that “the home-learning environment can be the last taboo in education policy”. Cue thousands of teachers quietly letting out a “hallelujah”. For this alone, Damian Hinds should be congratulated. It was brave to tackle this subject head-on, just six months into his tenure.
But this insight must not become an excuse for government to set schools to one side – to undertake a “reverse Ruskin”, if you will. Ministers must continually be reminded that with strong leadership, empowered teachers, coordinated local services and, crucially, investment, our primaries and secondaries achieve amazing things with even the most challenging kids. After all, it is the children with the most deprived domestic lives and limited parental support who need great teachers more desperately than anyone else.