1st November 2011 Articles
New Labour’s ‘investment and reform’ of schools was turning the tide on social mobility
A recent spate of studies provide big lessons for Labour’s future. In particular: don’t trash Labour’s record, but learn from past success and adopt the same radical New Labour mindset in addressing the challenges ahead, especially the challenge of growth.
The case for this is clear if we look at the highly positive analysis published by the Financial Times last month of school results between 2006 and 2010. The newspaper looked at GCSE results in the core subjects of maths, English, science, history and geography. As well as the sharp national rise in GCSE results in these four years, schools with the most deprived intakes improved faster than others. It concluded that there was ‘a sustained improvement in the results achieved by children from the poorest neighbourhoods. Between 2006 and 2010, after stripping out the effects of grade inflation, the bottom of the distribution shifted upwards: the gap closed by one-sixth of a grade in every one of these GCSE subjects. There was no significant change in the number of these subjects sat by these pupils’.
Simon Burgess, professor of economics at Bristol University and director of the Centre for Market and Public Organisation, said of the findings: ‘We may have here the first evidence of a turning of the tide [on social mobility].’ He adds: ‘declining social mobility is not an immutable force, but can be changed. Indeed, it seems that it was changed by the education policies of the previous government.’
As Conor Ryan – a key member of the team which drove education reform under Tony Blair – put it: ‘Despite the rhetoric, the truth is that coalition ministers know that Labour’s key policies were working. That’s why they have expanded sponsor-led academies and taken key aspects of the London Challenge – especially the National Leaders of Education – and increased them.’
The London Challenge, launched in 2002, was a programme of sustained support and reform for London secondary schools. It included more and better teachers in the core subjects, a drive to improve school leadership (including seconding headteachers from successful schools to help the less successful, and designating them ‘National Leaders of Education’), converting all comprehensives into ‘specialist schools’, and replacing failing comprehensives with academies. It followed the success of the literacy and numeracy strategies in raising primary school standards.
Much of this was deeply controversial, particularly among the teaching unions and parts of the Labour party. Everyone supported Labour’s huge investment in schools, but the reform side of the equation was contested. Academies were especially controversial. Yet without these reforms, the results would not be there.
The FT study follows two highly positive independent reports in the last year on pre-2010 academies by the London School of Economics and the National Audit Office. They both found academies improving their results fast, and far faster than other schools with similar intakes. They also found a positive effect on neighbouring schools, since academies are non-selective so cannot simply pick the most academically able students. And academies are highly popular – always the test of a good school. According to the NAO, between 2007 and 2009 there were on average twice as many applications each year to academies as there were places available. So yet more reduction in educational inequality, and another boost for social mobility.
Hackney says it all – the most radical reform, and the most radical improvement. Fifteen years ago the borough was a byword for inner-city educational disaster, achieving GCSE results barely half the national average. Now, with five academies, improved leadership across all the schools, huge investment, an independently managed education service, and a directly elected Labour mayor who worked hand-in-glove with me and other Labour education ministers to drive change, it is above the national average. In Mossbourne Academy, opened in 2004, it boasts one of the most successful and celebrated schools in the country – seven students going to Cambridge this year although 40 per cent of its children receive free school meals. A decade ago, Hackney parents were fighting to get their children out of Hackney schools. Now they are fighting to get into them.
So Labour has nothing to apologise for. Our only mistake was not to have reformed more, and faster. There are important lessons in this for Labour’s future, well beyond education.