Schools for Employment, Employers Running Schools: A New Phase in Labour's Education Policy in England
Hatcher, Richard, Our Schools, Our Selves
In Education's Iron Cage and Its Dismantling in the New Global Order (Martell 2006) I offered an overview of Labour's transformation of the school system in England (Hatcher and Anderson 2006). I identified its driving force as economic competitiveness. In Tony Blair's words, "Education is our best economic policy" (Blair 2005). I identified four themes which characterise Labour policy: increased state regulation of schooling, increased diversity of provision, the increasing role of the private sector, and the remodelling of the workforce, coupled with the creation of a new model of management by school principals employing technologies of school leadership and management generated by the school improvement industry. I described their consequences for sustaining and in some ways increasing social inequality in education. I also spoke of the unravelling of Labour's "Standards Agenda". After an initial period of apparent improvement in test scores it was becoming apparent in the early years of this decade that the improvement was levelling off, and that much of it had been due to teachers becoming more adept at teaching to the test. Labour's key advisors were warning of the limitations of centrally imposed performance-based reform (even though they had earlier endorsed it.) Michael Fullan (2005, p1) concluded that "what looks like apparent success in turning around schools is actually quite superficial and indeed illusory". David Hopkins (2007, p24), ex-director of the National College for School Leadership, spoke of "the failure of performance based reform". The consequences have been a sustained high level of social inequality and the alienation of teachers, indicated by the high proportion leaving the profession.
In the last year or two of the Blair government indications of a change in the dominant 'standards' agenda, which can be summed up schematically as follows:
Neo-liberal education Mk 1
* Government leads reform
* Prescriptive teaching
* 'Traditional academic' curriculum
Neo-liberal education Mk 2
* Schools lead reform
* Collaboration; inter-school networks
* Creative teaching for creative learning
* Academic and vocational pathways
While much of this new model is just rhetoric, it does open up more opportunities for progressive teaching, which many teachers, and whole schools, are already beginning to take advantage of. But it is important to resist illusions that these curriculum reforms and the other associated changes can be the basis of a new progressive policy consensus. These reforms do not contradict the neo-liberal function of the school system. The underpinning rationale remains the production of an economically competitive workforce, given added urgency by the warning of the Leitch Report (2006) that Britain's economic competitiveness will suffer by 2020 unless the workforce is better trained. The purpose therefore of the Mk 2 model is not to depart from the neo-liberal project but, on the contrary, to take it forward more effectively by ameliorating the abrasiveness and counter-productive effects of the Mk 1 model. These reforms do not replace the "performativity" agenda of targets, test and examination scores, league tables, school inspections and performance management of teachers, they sit within it and are steered and evaluated by it. Creativity can be harnessed to business entrepreneurialism. Elements of the Mk 2 model such as personalisation and vocationalism contribute to the perpetuation of patterns of social inequality. And, of course, privatisation remains as an instrument of change.
This is the legacy, which Blair has bequeathed to his successor, Gordon Brown. Brown's first speech on education as leader of the Labour Party, on June 20, 2007, symptomatically to an audience of business leaders, established the continuity of policy. …