Defending Success: Comprehensives are not dead in the water

I imagine you’d find it odd going back to work after a six week hiatus in which arson, looting and the total breakdown of society have been laid at the door of your profession, in not so many words.  Teachers all over the country have returned to work and most importantly, many of them have returned with these messages ringing in their ears: you aren’t good enough, we’re going to open new kinds of schools and let the private sector show you how it is done.

Thanks.  Leadership in education is a fine balance between carrot and stick, yet it seems that this week, David Cameron has chosen a large stick and abandoned carrot for good.  His assertion that “those opposing free schools are simply defending the establishment – an establishment that has failed pupils and infuriated parents for too long” made me pause in wonderment.  The declaration that private establishments like Eton could help turn around state education only made my jaw drop further.  David Cameron’s leadership and management textbook chapter this week clearly focuses on how to break your workforce down only to build them up again in some miraculous manner.  Objective achieved, Mr Cameron, I feel rubbish.

The constant reference to the ‘failure’ of current educational models is, quite simply, a lie that is used to serve a political purpose.  It doesn’t work in the interest of raising standards for all.  It does not encourage a sense of collegiality between educational establishments and it certainly does not encourage qualified and professional candidates to join the workforce.  In the past ten years, an astounding amount of work has been put into recruiting teachers into a profession that is valued; why would anyone want to be a teacher when the message from government is that most schools are either ‘coasting’ or ‘failing’?  Why would anyone join the profession when the implication is that you might end up being complicit in the “scandalous acceptance of under-performing schools”?

To return to collegiality, I am sure I am not the only teacher in state education to feel a little incredulous when told that private education can teach us all a thing or two about teaching.  A friend of mine worked in a tough inner-city school in Edmonton, an area notorious for being deprived and dangerous.  When he and his partner relocated to Scotland, he found a job working for a private institution.  He was amazed by the difference in teaching he experienced: no real need for assessment for learning, no reference to objectives or outcomes, no need for any interactivity or independent learning – just a relentless information-heavy hour where the children did very little and still performed very well.  You don’t need to be a genius to work out that teaching in a private school is very different from teaching in an inner-city state school with high levels of deprivation.  In the most uncollegial way, I would like to see exactly what a private school teacher could teach me about teaching.

I’m afraid I am a little confused about Mr Cameron’s exact aim.  If he wants to replicate the Swedish education system, he may have to do some serious rearranging of British society.  Swedish society is largely homogenous and their education system does not cater for the diversity of our population, nor the large gap between the richest and the poorest.  If he wants to allow all middle class parents to place their children in schools where the presence of the poor is limited, he cannot be on the same chapter as me in the great history of this nation – I was certain that the agenda was increased social mobility, not a segregation of rich and poor from an earlier age than previously recorded.  If he wants to improve education, is he really going to do it by making a large percentage of his workforce feel like they have failed?  That’s not how I raise attainment in my classroom – if I did that, I would fail in my objective – to ensure that each and every child feels like they can achieve something in their time with me.  Nobody wins when they are constantly told they are doing it badly.

It feels like our government’s understanding of change in education is very different to mine.  For me, change in education is only possible through the collective movement towards an improved delivery of knowledge, a sharing of pedagogy and a deep understanding of the needs of each echelon of society.  It is not the creation of competition; it can only be improvement through collaboration.  All too often, even now, successful schools guard their success jealously – becoming exclusive boxes, islands in the middle of boroughs, rich and poor.  We need replicable models, built on fair intakes – and I refer specifically to the news that some free schools will only have a fifth of their intake on free school meals.

To put it simply, by defending the many thousands of schools who get it right every day, sometimes in tougher circumstances than David Cameron can ever imagine, I am not defending failure.  I am defending success.  Comprehensive education is not dead in the water.  It has produced successful people who now prop up society in all sorts of ways and I would hope that I am one of those people.  And, as a product of the comprehensive system and a teacher who started her career in a comprehensive school in Newham, I guess I am more qualified than Mr Cameron to know what it gave me and what it gives thousands of children on a daily basis.



  1. dont feed the pixies

    Firstly i’d love to see a teacher from Eton transfer to a working class school in a deprived area and achieve a similar result with people from a poor background to that of someone from a priveleged background. Secondly its always easy to comment on the success or failures of something when you have no direct experience of what is involved

    Thirdly – pehaps making their minds up as to what they want to achieve rather than moving or entirely changing the goal posts every 4-5 years would help?

  2. Zeba Clarke

    In the Observer this week, there was a long piece on the Swedish free schools – not all that, and Swedes themselves are voting increasingly not necessarily against the free schools but the notion that schools should be run as profit-generating organizations.

    Both Labour and the Tories have embraced the marketisation of the public sector uncritically, accepting the notion that anything free market must be good. But the increasing evidence coming out of the charter schools and the Swedish free schools is that achieving better education is not about implementing free market reform. And in fact, if you believe in league tables and assessment-led data, it is perfectly clear that the areas and countries doing best in PISA have complete commitment to publicly-funded education – Shanghai, Korea, Singapore and Finland are all prepared to raise taxes for and spend state money on education. Not oodles and oodles but significant sums that demonstrate a fundamental commitment to systems that seem to ensure that a significant proportion of their population of 15 year olds achieve specific levels in reading, science and maths.

    Unfortunately, in the UK, education has been politicized so heavily for so long that it is subject to the vagaries of economic fashion. And being the UK, inevitably, we are a bit slow to pick things up and even slower to put our new toys down when it looks like they include a coating of toxic paint.

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