Whispers from Westminster

30th October 2015 at 00:00
What Little Alfie teaches us about Nicky

Why does a small boy called Alfie help to explain Nicky Morgan’s education agenda?

On Saturday, that was a pertinent question for me. Alfie is the son of some friends of mine and we were having a conversation about his future. Our friends’ tenancy agreement has expired, so they are on an enforced hunt for a new home. Where Alfie goes to school (he’s in Reception) is, of course, an important factor.

My friends are fairly ordinary. She works for the NHS and he is a stay-at-home parent. They have two children (one a baby) and raise them on an income of just over the national average. They live in a town on the outskirts of London. They are, in other words, what market researchers and demographers would call “C1”, or “lower middle class, where the chief earner is supervisory/junior managerial, administrative or professional”.

Like many people in their circumstances, they depend heavily on public services – the NHS, council services, local schools. And that’s the issue, because in this town, populated by what politicians call “the squeezed middle” or “hard-working families”, the schools are very average.

There’s one secondary where the exam results are reasonably high and a handful that are below average, two very much so.

A couple of the secondaries are converter academies and one is a sponsored academy, making improvements but from a low base. The Ofsted reports are mostly OK, but none are stellar and one is quite gruesome. The primaries show a similar picture. It seems to be the performance of high attainers at entry that really drives the key stage 2 and GCSE results; there isn’t much value added across the town. This is not a story of systemic failure and it’s never going to be an area for intervention. It’s just average.

So my friends face a difficult decision. It’s hard enough moving Alfie out of his Reception class, but once he’s settled into key stage 1 it will be even trickier. This move needs to be made with a plan for a school through to 11, and with an eye on options to 18.

As a policy wonk, I had suggestions for how to make their decision: look at the track record of the academy sponsor to predict what the progress might be; read Ofsted reports to see what it thinks about the capacity of the school to improve; see if you can move into the catchment for the highest performing school; and, obviously, visit the schools and see if you have faith in them.

But, ultimately, my friends and so many other families like them won’t have that much choice – and choice is what motivates Conservative thinkers. The quality of education that Alfie receives will be shaped largely by factors almost entirely out of his parents’ control, and by the dynamics of what national policy and wider circumstances will do to average schools in an average town.

And that’s what drives Nicky Morgan’s stated aim of “excellence everywhere”. Because it is schools like the one Alfie will go to that ministers want their policies to affect.

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