A fight to narrow the educational divide

Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools, by Andrew Adonis, Biteback, RRP£12.99

In 1995, Hackney Downs School, an appalling London secondary school, was shut down after a sustained period of failure. According to an emotive account published at the time in the Times Educational Supplement, the leading teachers’ newspaper, the poor, hard-working school was the victim of a “murder”. This year, Downhills, a weak London primary, was told it would be closed and reopened under new management. There was a small fuss. But, this time, the TES editor supported a takeover. Failure now has fewer defenders.

That change in attitude is, in some part, the doing of Andrew Adonis. His excellent new book – Education, Education, Education – recounts his role in this shift, first as an adviser to Tony Blair and then a schools minister between 1998 and 2008.

The school system still has pronounced problems: the educational divide between rich and poor is a scar on the country. But things are a little better than they were. And, crucially, Adonis gives much-needed hope that things need not be as they are.

The book is a hybrid: part history, part memoir, part handbook for reformers. It offers a potted history of how English schools reached their current state, his account of reform and what needs to be done next.

The volume is light on gossip. Ed Balls and Michael Gove, the last and current education secretaries, appear in the index only three times each. Adonis is courteous about (most) colleagues. (A cynic might suspect him of considering a return to frontline politics.) That is not to say it is not a personal account: Adonis’s moral drive – and personal story – propel every paragraph. Brought up from the age of three in a Camden Council children’s home, he was liberated by his education in a private school.

Poor children were – and are – blighted by low expectations. Adonis recounts a teacher telling him in Sunderland that school leavers used to turn “left to get a job in a shipyard or right to go down to the mines. All those jobs have gone now. They might as well walk straight on into the sea”. That could have been him.

The book, written in his voice, quotes from his diaries and conveys his academic interests. Adonis recalls breaking the ice at a frosty meeting with councillors in the north-east with a joke about Ramsay Macdonald, who was elected there in the 1920s.

Much of the book is an account of his single-minded pursuit of the “sponsor academy” programme. These were new charter schools, usually set up in place of failing ones, under the supervision of private bodies, not municipal authorities.

This policy, a cousin of the charter school interventions in US cities, has been vindicated. A paper, published by the London School of Economics, found that these fired-up new schools raised results – and those of neighbouring schools. The new leadership of these schools has dramatically improved them.

The totem of the policy, Mossbourne Community Academy, was opened in 2004 on the site of Hackney Downs. In 2010-11, its pupils outperformed the average results for the type of children that it takes by two grades in every subject at GCSE.

These schools were established despite extreme hostility from some local authorities and campaigners, and Adonis writes about how he had to persuade, cajole and fight off legal challenges to the policy. The book is a blow-by-blow account of this fight.

The academy programme is now turning round a few hundred weak schools. It can – and should – go further. Adonis wants successful sponsors to take over more weak schools – including both those run by local authorities and failing academies. It is doable, but only if the government can find enough new sponsors. The best existing sponsors are stretched.

There is a regional problem, too. The leading sponsors run chains of schools in London. This puts them about 200 miles away from the regions with the worst schooling: Yorkshire, Humberside and the north-east.

There is also a big issue to which academies are not the answer. Poor children have been performing badly even in schools that serve their classmates well – so-called “in-school variation”. Even if we deal with weak schools, the poor will still lag behind.

Adonis has a proposal to address that: a programme to raise the quality of teachers. He wants to turn the profession into an elite. One theme that runs through this book is that ministers can only pick a few priorities. This one would be a battle: elite universities would be forced to take teacher-training seriously. But, based on this volume, Adonis would be up for the fight.

The writer is the FT’s education correspondent

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