Duller Than Double French

Writing in the Guardian in November, Tristram Hunt described the “great relief” he felt when “only a few days into my new job as shadow education secretary, Peter Mortimore’s wise and useful book on the British education system landed on my desk”. He said he found Education Under Siege a “highly enlightening primer”. 

The wisdom Labour’s education spokesman found in this book is not readily apparent. It opens with the sentence “Education is important”, a platitude symptomatic of what follows. Chapter four (“Learning”) begins with a similarly vapid line: “Everyone knows that the process of education involves two distinct activities — learning and teaching: two sides of the same coin, different but (hopefully) connected.” The banalities refuse to let up: “People surely hope that their children will live in a society both peaceful and fair”; “The feeling of happiness is difficult to put into words, as many poets and philosophers have discovered.” 

This continual statement of the obvious renders the early parts of Education Under Siege duller than double French on Friday afternoon. Eventually, though, Mortimore, who was the Director of the Institute of Education from 1994 to 2000 and before that a teacher, lets his true colours seep on to the page. If the introduction of academies by New Labour and free schools by the Coalition constitute an education revolution, then Mortimore is an out-and-out reactionary. 

Education Under Siege is a broad survey of the educational landscape and Mortimore has two predominant complaints about recent reforms. The first is that, because academies and free schools report directly to Whitehall, too much power has been taken away from local authorities. The second is that “our education system has systematically been transformed into a market economy — as if schooling is similar to shopping or using an estate agent”.

Characteristically shallow reasoning leads Mortimore to the first of these criticisms: “While [England’s] land mass might be small,” he writes, “the population is not…For this reason, local government appears to be the appropriate democratic middle tier to take responsibility for educational provision and quality.” Yes, the introduction of academies and free schools means local authorities now control a smaller proportion of schools than they once did. But it is mostly headteachers and governors, not the Department for Education, who have swept up this power. The logic of the reforms Mortimore so loathes is that politicians, local and national, should do less and teachers should do more. Academies and free schools are exercises in radical localisation, not centralisation as Mortimore would have you believe. 

With dreary inevitability, Mortimore grumbles about the “marketisation” of education. According to his version of events, “the principle that only financial reward can motivate” is what underlies the introduction of academies and free schools. Not only is this untrue — no one running state schools in England does so for profit and Michael Gove has made clear that this will remain the case as long as he is in charge — it is also an insult to people like Katharine Birbalsingh. The teacher and Standpoint contributor lost her job as a teacher after condemning the standard of state education at the 2010 Conservative Party conference. She will open a free school in north-west London this year. Birbalsingh and the numerous teachers, parents and charities setting up or already running free schools have no interest in profit. They are motivated by the simple conviction that our children deserve better. 

In the Nineties, Chris Woodhead faced a harsh backlash from the educational establishment, led by the teachers’ unions, for his work as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools and before that chief architect of a new national curriculum. Borrowing the title of a 1958 science-fiction film, the exasperated Woodhead labelled his opponents “the blob”. In the film, the blob is an amoeba-like alien that grows more powerful with every attempt to destroy it. Peter Mortimore is the blob personified and the desperation he displays in the final pages of Education Under Siege suggests it can be beaten. He sinks to a feebly low level in his defence of a broken system: “Those seeking change will be up against strong opposition from all who see such ideas as dangerously liberal. Right-wing think tanks — funded by anonymous donors — will do their best to rubbish the arguments.” Astonishingly, Mortimore then asks, “Who knows who has been behind the systemic fragmentation of the education service?” 

He will be disappointed to learn there is no malevolent conspiracy at work here. Parents, politicians from each of the main political parties, teachers like Katharine Birbalsingh and administrators like Chris Woodhead are tired of a system that has failed to tackle the gap in attainment between the well-off and the less fortunate and that lets down thousands of children every day. 

It is of little comfort that Tristram Hunt says he “doesn’t agree with all of [Mortimore’s] prescriptions”. Young adults in Britain rank 22nd out of 24 OECD countries for literacy and 21st for numeracy, and Education Under Siege oozes with the orthodoxies that landed them there.  

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