Not so long ago, a former colleague was honoured by Her Madge for services to education, thereby joining the swelling ranks of similarly-lauded academy bosses. I remember my fellow faculty member from Back When as highly intelligent, thoughtful and measured. These days, she not only calls for the academisation of all state schools to be accelerated; she also would like her particular trust to be the “sole provider of education” in its part of the country. Perhaps these ambitions are the result of exercising the aforementioned thoughtfulness. Or, perhaps, they’re an indication that being a Head can do funny things to one’s, um, head.
Still, I’m relieved to see that my old workmate isn’t (yet) among the backers of Parents and Teachers for Excellence – a new campaign group dedicated, presumably, to stopping Parents and Teachers for Rubbish in its tracks. Founded by the absent-minded Rachel De Souza, whose unerring capacity to mislay important e-mails continues to demonstrate that there really is nothing like a Dame, PTE’s council consists largely of education’s Illuminati: those Blob-phobic advocates of academies and free schools whom I shall dub ‘The Plop’ (Perfectly legitimate over-payments) in a spirit of bantz-inspired reciprocity.
Thus does PTE enjoy close links with several Tory-endorsed MATs, one of which is probably coming to a school near you. Indeed, for a group that describes itself as “strictly non-partisan”, PTE is strikingly hand-in-G(l)ove with certain figures within the Gove-rning party. It is, therefore, unsurprising that, despite the organisation’s name, and with no discernible trace of irony, CEOs and erstwhile political aides significantly outnumber the parents and teachers on its advisory board. At several of the affiliated trusts, so I’m told, it takes thermal imaging and a ouija board to locate a parent or teacher at governors’ meetings.
PTE’s unique selling point is its Damascene focus on what happens in the classroom. Autonomy, knowledge, testing, culture and discipline are all name-checked, before being redefined as either dull-as-ditchwater metrics or Things That No-one In Education Ever Thought Of Before We Did. PTE also seeks our financial support. Indeed, pecuniary, rather than consultative, donation appears to be the main form of parent and teacher involvement envisaged. That and cheerleading – just like all those parent-governors who, having been relieved of their oversight roles by various trusts, have been invited to act as spin doctors local community liaison for the same.
Proclaiming its aversion to further structural change, PTE’s timing is telling, being launched so soon after the announcement that grammar schools are to be reintroduced. With the wisdom of this proposal already being critiqued across the political spectrum, the need for PTE to throw its weight behind the opposition is puzzling, until one considers that grammar schools – or the idea of them, anyway – could pose a serious threat to the unwritten tenets by which many academy trusts are run. Hence the strong whiff of fear emanating from between the lines of PTE’s manifesto.
It’s an open secret that many academy trusts select students covertly, accepting initially comprehensive intakes in the knowledge that problematic students can be managed out (with repeated encouragement to leave), or managed in (with a combination of industrial-strength cheating and blind eyes towards misdemeanours). Explicit selection by ability potentially narrows the intake of institutions that are not grammar schools, thereby leaving academies in this position with two options: to risk deleterious drops in results; or to step up the cheating and be vulnerable to exposure thereof. Academies do, admittedly, have considerable freedoms to rewrite contracts. Nonetheless, subjecting students, parents and staff to pre-emptive ‘confidentiality’ orders is an enormous, if not impossible, ask. A gag is a gag, even if available in the colours of the school uniform.
There is, of course, another possibility – one that converges with the fact that my first response to the grammar school proposal did not involve the usual concerns about late bloomers and the benefits of an academically-diverse student body. Nor did it focus on the issues May’s plans would need, but have yet, to address: the extent to which these schools would be under local authority control; how they would be funded; their place within an academisation programme, to whose continuation Justine Greening has already stated her commitment. Rather, it was a simple and practical question: who the Friar Tuck is going to work in these schools?
Supporters of grammars past cite their success as motors of social mobility, pointing to a generation of now-public figures whose educations enabled them to transcend modest origins. Why their schools were so apparently effective is a complex issue, but one factor may – must? – have been the calibre of teachers. If so, the extent to which new grammar schools will be served by current staffing policies is questionable. It has be when highly competent teachers, some of whom have worked their socks off to career-switch into education, decide that life is too short and precious to waste in environments hell-bent on breaking most of their occupants. And off they go, over the hills, with nary a backward glance.
In an ideal world, teachers would bristle with skills: excellent subject knowledge; pedagogic nous; that ability to shift, almost imperceptibly, between hard bark and heart-wood; humour; resilience; self-reflexivity; organisation; the magnanimity to see the human being within, even when it’s convincingly disguised as a gobby little ****; tenacity/stubbornness… On and on it goes – all of it, necessary; none, on its own, sufficient. If new grammar schools – heck, any schools – are to succeed, these are the employees they will need. But off they go, over the hills, etc. Because, if truth be told, we inhabit a time and place in which many education leaders regard essentials as optional extras, if not unjustifiably expensive fripperies. Just ask the historians reinventing themselves as physicists at a fortnight’s notice, or the caretakers now preparing to teach exam classes.
Certain academy chains have become well-known for misplacing experienced staff as deftly as De Souza does incriminating evidence, while affording unqualified, supply and overseas-trained teachers a hearty welcome. Or, at least, they do for as long as is convenient (i.e. up to the point when recruits think it might be reasonable to have a kip at night or, in the case of OTTs, when the £35,000-minimum-income rule for immigrants becomes law – whichever happens sooner). If aspiring grammar schools have to demonstrate quality and stability of staffing, many academy trusts will be found severely wanting. True, they have the option of establishing selective schools within their chains . But even that could involve diverting some of the loot currently under trustees’ unfettered command in the direction for which it was intended: away from expense accounts and ‘consultancy’ fees, and into the service of students’ education. That’ll be fewer plops, then.
And so, back to PTE – a campaign that is as much, if not more, against curbing any privileges and impunities currently enjoyed by academy trusts, as it is for…well…anything. Parents and Teachers for Excellence is, par excellence, Orwellian blackwhite in action, when what parents and teachers define as excellence is what trust overlords – in whose service this organisation, in truth, exists – dismiss as so much nonsense and damned tomfoolery. Because, after all, what would parents and teachers know about education?
Brave new world.