Compelling: Lord Knight reviews 'About Our Schools'
Detailed and insightful, Tim Brighouse and Mick Waters’ study of four decades of education policy and practice should be required reading for anyone trying to make sense of schooling in England
This is a mighty book. The authors have many years of wisdom to impart about what works in schools and education policy. Their magnum opus, despite its 900 pages, should be required reading for anyone trying to make sense of schooling in England. It is also a compelling unspoken application for the two of them to join the crossbenches in the Lords!
Tim Brighouse successfully led the London Challenge and Mick Waters was the lead official on curriculum in England when I was schools minister, to name but two of their many achievements. Their generosity in distilling over a century of combined experience and leadership into a single volume is remarkable – as is the effort of talking to almost every living former secretary of state about the ups and downs of their time in office.
The early parts of the book serve as a guide as to how we got to where we are now in England’s schools. The rise and fall of the local education authority, the growth of centralisation of the curriculum, of teacher training, of inspection and the governance and regulation of schools. Indeed, the recent Schools White Paper seems to take multi-academy trusts to roughly where local authorities were before Kenneth Baker’s reforms of the 80s.
The authors then dive into detail on the essential elements of what happens in schools – the who, what, how and the outcomes. I was struck by their insights that very few policy makers have been able to cover all at once, with the possible exceptions of Baker, David Blunkett, and Michael Gove. They took on workforce, curriculum, pedagogy and, to an extent, assessment. The latter is the tail that wags the dog of the system but changes the least.
I was also struck by how much both Gove and Blunkett benefitted from their time in opposition. They came into office with clarity, both had time to deliver, and both worked at pace. It would be refreshing for party leaders to reflect on the importance of time and a breadth of vision.
Brighouse and Waters also set out their 39 steps for the future.
I was struck by how much both Gove and Blunkett benefitted from their time in opposition
I agree with them that we urgently need to reset inspection and accountability. I am also pleased that they don’t see merit in unpicking the multi-academy trust system but would want governance and accountability to have more local and regional engagement. It was striking that they had a lot of time for taking a more whole child approach, much as Ed Balls had done during his tenure.
Ministers would do well to reflect on this message with regards to their aim of 90 per cent of 11-year-olds achieving the standard in literacy and numeracy by 2030. With an extra half million children in poverty – meaning more in insecure homes with nowhere suitable to study and no connected device for homework – and soaring waiting times for child mental health services, it is worth remembering that schools do not operate in isolation. We will only level up the third of children currently failed by schooling if we support them both at home and at school.
Finally, this book is a compelling case for change. Schools are not businesses competing for market share, they are the universal public service for children. They should be fully inclusive, locally accountable and have a curriculum and pedagogy that both gives intrinsic motivation to teachers and prepares children for this century more than the last.
Lord Knight of Weymouth is a Labour peer and former minister of state for schools
About Our Schools: Improving on Previous Best
Written by: Tim Brighouse & Mick Waters
Publisher: Crown House Publishing
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