Magazine article Soundings

An Exercise in Self Justification

Magazine article Soundings

An Exercise in Self Justification

Article excerpt

Andrew Adonis, Education, Education, Education: Reforming England's Schools, Biteback Publishing 2012

This is a book with serious consequences, not least because Andrew Adonis thinks he will be making Labour policy for 2015; a view shared by sections of the rightwing media. Even if Adonis doesn't quite exercise the political influence he and others think he has, this book still requires scrutiny because it mixes myth and truth, and it has gained some traction in the political middle ground between the extremities of Michael Gove's neo-conservative revolution and the education arguments of the left.

It is important from the outset to understand its overarching narrative. As others have commented, this is a book largely dedicated to justifying Adonis's academies strategy. Adonis argues that comprehensive schools failed, mainly because of the deficiencies of local authorities and the education profession, and a new start was therefore needed to save 'comprehensives'. This was achieved by creating schools independent of local authorities, supported by private sponsorship funds and strong leadership. He goes on to suggest that Labour needs more of the same next time round, and that the private school sector should step in to rescue maintained education. He also ventures into the area of curriculum and qualifications by supporting a divided baccalaureate system of IB-type A-levels and a separate Technical Baccalaureate for those not suited to the academic track. It is a narrative that proposes neoliberal means to achieve social democratic ends.

Its assertions about academies in particular have been taken to task by a number of reviewers, notably Melissa Benn, Richard Pring and the Socialist Education Association. (1) They point to his lack of faith in the 'public' and a belief in the power of the private, privileged and powerful to rescue the concept of the comprehensive. They note his avoidance of international evidence that suggests that the highest performing national systems, such as that of Finland, have relatively no private sector to speak of and little education division. They argue that the logic of his reforms leads to national centralisation rather than to real school freedoms; that his assertions about the miraculous performance of academies do not hold water; and that non-academy schools have made significant progress in recent years.

In this regard, the book revolves around two related exaggerations. The first is its apocalyptic view of state education at the end of the Conservative era - with the blame being laid at the door of comprehensive schools rather than Thatcherism. The second is the greatly exaggerated contribution it attributes to academies in raising educational standards under New Labour; whereas, particularly in London, improved standards can most plausibly be seen to be the result of a combination of policies, including investment in infrastructure, a focus on leadership and school improvement, London Challenge and Teach First. Rather than acknowledging the effects of all of these on the system as a whole, Adonis chooses to devote most of his book to a pet project, and one that started with the exceptional rather than the general - the story of the transformation of Hackney Downs to the Mossbourne Academy.

But the real issue at the centre of this book is not a squabble about New Labour's academies programme and its effects on performance, but its political implications for what is happening now under Michael Gove and the Conservatives. …

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