An open letter (about the Schools White Paper) to grumpy Labour backbenchers

Hello Guys,

I’m pretty sure you won’t argue with me when I say that education is important to national competitiveness but I wonder if you’ll agree with me when I say that Britain’s only real hope in the next twenty, fifty or one hundred years is to be the best educated nation on the planet. A medium-sized, chilly, Northern European country with famously crappy infrastructure and a persistent productivity deficit stands precisely no chance at all in the profoundly altered global marketplace of the next decades without this kind of advantage.

Allow me to repeat myself: the only way to retain anything like our current status against the double-digit growth machines of Asia by the time my kids (7, 6 and 2) enter the workforce is to get started right now on profound reform of our education system with the goal of making it the best in the world. Of course, teachers are like nurses – they can do no wrong. Any attempt, from any ideological direction, to shake the system up, to provide new incentives and to dump wasteful and counterproductive practices will be greeted with horror and most likely fail.

But you, the backbone of Labour’s thin parliamentary majority, have a chance in the coming months to kick off the step change in education improvement that we need to help Britain compete with the new superpowers, to help invent a new model for state education, one that’s so powerful it might begin to bridge the gap with the snooty private schools. Oh… Hold on. Today an excellent private secondary school in Manchester took the plunge and rejoined the state system. I’m stunned. Suddenly we’re presented with the real and exciting prospect of a flow of private schools back into the state system.

Don’t pretend you don’t think that’s a big deal! You now have the power to make the state system so good that the private sector simply caves in and jumps the fence. The white paper (and the bill) presents the very real prospect that the private sector will be reduced to a tiny rump of schools for the super-rich and for the super-weird. Please don’t refuse this opportunity to remake British education and get us on track for the inevitable head-on battle with the Asian superpowers in the twenty-first century’s global marketplace.

Your friend, Steve

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  1. Steve,
    What is it exactly about the White Paper that is going to make schools so brilliant? Is it taking them out of council control? Is it bringing in selection by the back door?
    I grew up and went to school in a place where there was the eleven plus – with grammar, tech and secondary moderns on offer after that event. I know first hand how totally shit some schools become when the ‘talent’ is being creamed off at 11. I know you always believe your kids will get into the top schools – but you wouldn’t want them to go to the crap secondary modern, would you?
    I think we all agree that there is a lot to do to make our schools brilliant. But I don’t think letting some prosper because they get their act together is the way to do it – because that condemns everyone else to suffer the junk. We need a way to inspire and encourage all schools to be brilliant.
    Unless there’s something else brilliant in the White Paper that I missed?

  2. Well, actually, it does contain at the least the potential to inspire and encourage all schools to be brilliant, which I would agree is the most important goal…

  3. You really think that being sat down for 11+ years and told what to do all day is the right preparation for life? That memory retention of small facts is as critial as it was pre-Google?

    It’s no wonder we have 21 year-old oversized children emerging from universities with no real self-respect, because we’ve created a bizarre system that practically excludes the young from meaningful participation in society.

    Soft skills, “character”, time management, self-discipline — all the most critical stuff falls outside traditional curricula.

    The only possible positive outcome we can hope for from the white paper is that some additional diversity in approach is encouraged, because none of us is smart enough to foresee the ‘right’ kind of education needed for a world that will continue to be transformed rapidly. Centralised control of education is the problem, not the solution. Why do we still support a Soviet command approach to education provision when it has so manifestly failed in all other realms of endeavour?

  4. The main problem with loosing the selection rules is that the easiest way for schools to climb up the league tables is to make sure they don’t have so many of the ‘difficult’ kids, the one’s whose parents don’t or can’t care or who are damaged before they get there. So various subtle ways of doing this come into being. And once one school does it, others follow along. And nice middle class parents look away, because they know that they will get their kids into those schools who have raised themselves above the fray. And Tony Blair is nothing if not middle classness personified. So he just can’t see the hipocrisy of this approach.
    On the other hand, I would love to see some real work that would liberate schools to be brilliant. OK, get rid of LEAs, allow anyone to open any school they want, etc – but make the rule of no entry selection mandatory – with prison sentences for breaking the rules. Go further, mandate a mixed intake for all schools – even ‘private’ fee paying schools. There. Now we can see how good those good schools and those church schools really are at climbing up the league tables. I see last week that church schools are as guilty as anyone of keeping out the difficult kids.
    And yes, when I’ve made my tens of millions, I would love to pay for the opening of a secular school. Now, that’s one of the things that the new bill allows, isn’t it? Well, maybe. But acts of worship of a ‘broadly christian nature’ are mandated by law in schools – so I’m already cut out of this freedom to open schools.

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