The current national provision of education in England is in the same degree of crisis as is the provision of health & social care or justice & prison services, the management of our water supply & sewage services, the complex ecosystem of domestic and business energy supply and of course the chaos within national transport systems. Now is not the time to choose one of our country’s greatest successes (and international exports), UK Independent Schools education, and break that too.
Education & the Public Estate
The Independent sector in education is diverse, covering the breadth of childcare needs and schooling for those of privilege, for those who aspire, and those who are most disabled in our society. Without our sector, we simply would not have sufficient nursery, schooling (boarding or day), expert music, ballet, dance or special needs settings for the country. Our existence both compliments and supplements those services that should be available for local families who have children, and if access to those services were freely available, then our sector would not represent 84% of childcare, 7% of school places age 5-16, 25% of the Sixth Form market. Whilst I do not know the %, the existence of almost 800 independent schools providing very specialist educational, medical and therapeutic services highlights just how important our existence is to meet current demand in the UK. By even more specific example here in RBWM, over 20% of the children are privately educated in schools at any given time, though certainly not for every age and stage. The 3 state nurseries across the borough are supplemented by dozens of independent providers (there simply would be no capacity otherwise), and whilst we have 2 very specialist SEN state schools, in addition we have a private school which covers a different need, one for those with social, emotional and developmental trauma related difficulties, opened only 10 years ago and now a national beacon for its provision. Whilst it charges fees for its schooling it provides, almost all its revenue comes from adjacent local authorities, being the only setting suitable for the children concerned.
Of course I understand that our sector has come under particularly careful scrutiny, having seen the antics of the ‘chumocracy’ that has imbued Downing Street’s decision making over the last decade, with the various politicians concerned linked to their former schools and colleges. Those ‘great public schools’ may very well have educated the politicians concerned, but the vast majority of products that come from our sector cannot be tarred with the same brush. The problems education in England has are deep and diverse, further exacerbated in Scotland and Wales, and the cause is certainly not the presence or indeed existence of Private schools.
Nursery & childcare crisis
One of our national charities, Children England, acts as a voice for the children young people and families voluntary sector, promoting the sector’s interest and ensuring its views are heard in national and local decision making structures which have a bearing on work with children and families. It has this to say about the current state of play in the nursery sector: “In 2016, the OECD highlighted that a market-based approach to childcare leaves public authorities with less control over fees and less control over when and where services are provided. It identified that market dynamics can result in for-profit providers drifting away from less profitable areas, so that very young children in poorer neighbourhoods are sometimes left without any provision at all. This is certainly the case in England, where childcare is of high cost but relatively poor quality, as noted by the OECD. High-quality childcare is often only available to wealthier families because access to high quality provision is constrained by income and location. The regulatory framework focuses on how childcare is provided but not on its quality; it does not have a responsibility to ensure equality of access for children and parents or ensure fair terms and conditions for childcare workers. As a result, the childcare system is characterised by inequalities of access, poor quality, financial instability and poor working conditions. In September 2021, during the Westminster Hall debate on the call for an independent review into the cost and affordability of childcare in England, Steve Brine MP (Conservative Chair of APPG on Childcare and Early Education) spoke of ‘market failure in this sector’ and ‘urgent need for reform’.1
Education & reform
One of the most notable features of the current state education landscape is that the various reforms over the last 30 years have ended up with a smorgasbord of provision. Here is one summary from the Finnish educator, Pasi Sahlberg writing 10 years ago in 2012 “In the UK, 30 years of these reforms has led to layer upon layer of change and a degree of complexity that could conceivably take at least another 30 years to unravel, even assuming that the ‘powers that be’ think this necessary. We now have a UK education system which has shifted to decentralisation with over 70 different types of schools, whilst at the same time increasing centralisation through the introduction of the national curriculum and increased testing.”
And what the academic researchers looking at what Finland have reported is that its undoubted success in education is because its schools have avoided the standardisation of curriculum activities to match PISA assessments, the implementation of high stakes testing and the homogeneity of learning materials from global providers as seen almost everywhere else. Sahlberg calls this common way of improvement “The Global Educational Reform Movement or GERM. It is like an epidemic that spreads and infects education systems through a virus. It travels with pundits, media and politicians. Education systems borrow policies from others and get infected. As a consequence, schools get ill, teachers don’t feel well, and kids learn less.”2
GERM infections have various symptoms and occur across multiple industries not just education, though here is Sahlberg again “The first symptom is more competition within education systems. Many reformers believe that the quality of education improves when schools compete against one another. In order to compete, schools need more autonomy, and with that autonomy comes the demand for accountability. School inspections, standardized testing of students, and evaluating teacher effectiveness are consequences of market-like competition in many school reforms today. Yet when schools compete against one another, they cooperate less.”
I run a school that prefers the Finnish model. Our teachers are highly qualified, are supported to become experts in their chosen age and stage, write and develop the curricular activities in line with the best of learning science, enabled by excellent technology, physical and practical activities of sufficient breadth that all interest and aptitudes are met. Whilst academic achievement and examination success are essential outcomes from what we do, so are the personal qualities, resilient nature and employability skills for the future. Indeed what we do almost exactly matches the Times Education commission demands of our country. “The commission has highlighted the importance of taking a serious, long-term approach to education, from the early years, through school, to further and higher education and lifelong learning, to better prepare young people for the challenges they face.” 3
Claires Court offers a route through the childhood years of education as holistic as any could dare to wish for, save for its cost. Because we exist at the scale and size we are, despite the substantial financial investment parents are required to make, if nothing else we are a reminder to the government of what it says its own schools should provide, yet they can’t because the same government won’t make the resources available.
As a society, we did not need to learn this lesson from a Finnish commentator, for at about the same time, Stewart Ranson, Emeritus Professor at Warwick University, was also saying much the same thing: “Over the past 20 years the neo-liberal agenda of choice and competition in schools has undermined public education. When the present contradictions finally implode, the nation will need a Royal Commission that leads a national conversation to rebuild education based on justice. Education should not depend on power and wealth, but on recognising that extending all the capabilities of all children is the nation’s first public good (Ranson 2010:158).”
State v Private
There is no one in business who would ever argue that state monopolies are a good thing. Equally, over the past decade and more, we can see that left to their own devices, the private sector is unable to meet all of the country’s needs without state direction or indeed intervention. Recent spotlight activities, such as checking on the country-wide habit of all privatised water companies to release raw sewage into our rivers and coastal waters. or the failure to invest in the rail infrastructure across the north of England by their franchise holders have led to calls for both these industries to be renationalised. Current discussions around the completely fragmented care system seek perhaps a nationalised solution that echoes the Beveridge plan that created the NHS in 1948. The trouble is with such proposals is that where we have examples of state direction of national services, such as the Court and Judiciary system and its associated prison service and indeed the National Health service some 74 years later, all commentators make clear that their very fragmentation has led to their current crisis, probably may actually have caused them to be broken. And of course, there is little doubt that in recent years, the country’s decision to leave the EU has also badly damaged not just our trading links with our neighbouring countries but destabilized our relationship with Eire and Scotland, the latter of course being part of our United Kingdom.
There certainly needs to be a concerted effort across almost all of the ‘collective’ industries and services to return to a national minimum standard of provision. For Water companies, this clearly would involve returning to the Environment Agency the teeth as well as the power to regularly check (and praise or hold to account) those companies for the provision of water services, and that certainly requires more financial resources to be available. For Rail, much the same is required for the Office of the Rail Regulator, Court services by the Courts & Tribunals Service, the NHS & care services by the Department for Health and Social Care. I have not included the provision of power, electricity & gas, so far in the narrative above, but it too is facing the biggest crisis in our living memory; government rescues started for the smaller power providers who could not cope after all well before the current conflict in Ukraine, but now includes every business and house holder in the UK. Ofgem has some of this authority, though only the Chancellor of the Exchequer had the authority to bridge pro tem with his emergency bail-out.
Benjamin Moore, a Liverpool physician had great foresight and a pioneering vision of the future in healthcare, written in “The Dawn of the Health Age”, leading to his creation of State Medical Service Association which held its first meeting in 1912 some 30 years before Aneurin Bevan opened the first NHS hospital in Manchester. When Margaret Thatcher gave council tenants ‘the right to buy’, she was largely extending Christopher Addison’s Housing Act (1919) that commenced their construction 61 years previously, providing then ‘Homes for Heroes’ returning after the Great War, and alleviating the vast housing shortage of the time. When Richard Beeching’s report on the state of our railways in 1963, it was trying to rescue the almost bankrupt British Rail established 25 years previously; it led to the creation of a national network of railways lines and the closure of 5000 miles of uneconomic branch lines, and the arrival of those improved routes permitted the commuter belt to spread much wider outside the cities, and even proposed both the construction of the Channel tunnel and HS2. Despite subsequent grumbles, Bevan, Thatcher and Beeching’s reforms were much needed at the time and helped solve a host of problems. Where their reforms have been let down, as in the other examples given too, is that the solutions proffered have simply not been followed by the sustained focussed investment needed, in short where politicians chose other routes for the development of their government, they cease to maintain the very investment the programme of reform the authors/architects identified as essential.
Here in 2022, we are suffering the almost perfect storm, where every aspect of public life and national services are calling all at once for major additional investment, at a time of course when because of the 2010 austerity measures and the 2020-22 pandemic have emptied the nation’s bank account. I fear that in the same way our nation was sidetracked into blaming immigration for our many woes and thus leading to a change in government that created Brexit, what we don’t need now is an arms race by the politicians of all hues to blame private schools for the woes of the country too, and thus bring to power politicians prepared to destroy our sector. The suggestion we are all ‘tax-dodging and preservers of privilege’ is so very much not the case with my school or nursery, or the hundreds of others like us. We take almost no public money unless local government enables same (nursery funding for 3-4 year olds and EHCP costs for SEN places), pay full council tax on our properties, corporation tax on our profits, are centres of teacher and nursery worker training, we are investing in all, and are beacons of excellence whose existence benefits the wider community.
And I’ll conclude with the writing of David Gillard, former headteacher, turned journalist and writer, whose free book, Education in England, a history of our schools4 spans 20 years of research (1998-2018) and is its own very good read. His words on teachers, could easily cover nurses, all other public sector workers and those in private businesses covering country-wide services that keep our civil society alive and working: “Meanwhile, across the country, tens of thousands of teachers still care deeply about the well-being and prospects of their pupils, and go to work every morning determined, despite the often unhelpful interventions of politicians, to provide them with the best and most humane education they can.”