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Not Making the Grade: The Decades of Failure of British Government Schools Policy

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I loved learning about lungfish. But I don't want to force them into the curriculum.

Schooling is an area of government policy subject to a peculiar and extreme pressure. Practically everyone has experience of schooling, many people are concerned about their children's schooling, nearly everyone has a view about what was right or wrong about their own and their children's school days. They're likely to have their say - and if they're made education secretary or an education minister, they're likely to want to micromanage their department's activities. But it's time to say enough ...

I confess I'm no different in having strong views about schooling. I was, at around the age of 10, a child who didn't just love school, but loved learning (something that the next decade of education would pretty well beat out of me). I can remember doing a big voluntary project, pages and pages, with laboriously hand-coloured drawings - on lungfish - just because I found the idea of an intermediate stage between marine and land living fascinating.

Nonetheless, I'm not going to use it to say everyone should learn about lungfish - which is what I suspect Michael Gove would take from a similar experience.

I'm now a school governor, a role that's given me a huge appreciation of the complexity of teachers' jobs, huge respect for the work they do every day, a sense of amazement that any head teacher can keep in their head so many children's names, so much understanding of their families' problems, as well as the targets, the test results, the scores of rapidly acronyms on which they'll be judged, day by day, for their performance.

And teachers (like NHS workers) have seen themselves over the past couple of decades subjected to rapid, massive changes in the institutional structures in which they have to work, wrenching, sudden shifts in the methods by which their work is overseen and judged, a general sense (and reality) of standing on uncertain ground. And they've seen their pay structures and pensions ripped apart, with understandable effects on morale and concerns about their futures.

We saw a huge example of that uncertain ground last week. Schools - and pupils and parents - have been scrambling to deal with the huge changes coming in the change from GCSEs to EBaccs - a momentous, suddenly announced change that rapidly, once it was understood, produced huge, rightful, protests.

Those protests came from those who understood a narrow academic focus wouldn't suit many pupils - and that many more would be at risk of leaving school without qualifications at all. They came from those who understood the renewed focus on end-of-year exams rather than coursework and continual assessment would harm many pupils, and add further stress to their over-assessed, over-regulated school lives. They came also from the creative and artistic communities about the disappearance of rightful attention for their subjects.

Now I don't want to attack Michael Gove for making a big U-turn on the subject last week in abandoning the Ebacc plan - U-turns have to be encouraged when they reverse a drive towards destruction - we'd love to see a U-turn on the government's Energy Bill on the 2030 decarbonisation target, for example... but the swerving, the changing, driven by one man is one of the huge failures of education - the lack of policy stability. And in fact I'm not sure how much a U-turn this in - Gove's claiming he's still keeping many of his plans, just without the change of qualification title - the uncertainty continues.

The other huge area of change has of course been in school structures. We've been with Labour through academies - that clearly less than grand idea that a rich businessperson, or a religious group, or a foundation of uncertain origins, could hand over a bit of their "small change" and grab a deciding place in the governing of a school.

Then we got with the Tories to 'free schools'. Now I don't want to attack all free schools - or the many people who with good intentions - or a sense of desperation - have decided that the only way the needs of their children will be met is by setting up their own school, or teachers who are trying to fill what they see as a gap. And I know that local authorities are now trapped in a situation where when a baby bulge means they need a new school, by law the only option available is to manoeuvre the creation of a free school.

But I do want to attack the idea. Behind it is the principle of competition - that schools will contest against each other, a kind of survival of the fittest. That's despite the fact that there's strong evidence that cooperation among schools produces better results overall. And despite the fact that we're talking about huge amounts of public resources - and the future of our children - being effectively privatised; that's even before we get to the actual privatisation that the Independent on Sunday reported this week, was next on the agenda.

There's going to be a great deal of instability in this arrangement. Some of these schools are going to collapse - they're going to fall victim to incompetence, fraud or even simple misfortune. We've already seen pupils caught in such a trap with the 'One In A Million Free School' which was to open in Bradford in September last year, yet had its funding withdrawn a week before it was due to open after it failed to attract enough. And it's the kind of blow, and worse, that the new system of free schools and academies is going to deliver.

More power to the elbow of those parents, teachers and communities resisting forced 'free schoolisation' - what, one wonder, could be more at odds with the Tories' professed belief in localism than that they have to fight those battles?

This article also appears on the Green Party website.

(This article is adapted from a speech given to the Islington Green Party AGM on 11 February 2013.)