Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Divisive and anarchic

I’ve got passionate views about the sort of school system I’d like to see in the UK.

These come from personal experience. I grew up in Kent, an area that still has grammar schools even now, and as a consequence still has secondary moderns (now rebranded as high schools). I was one of the lucky ones because as an 11-year-old swot in 1983 I had an aptitude for taking tests. I passed my 11+ exam to get into the local grammar school, one of only five out of the 50 in a big year group at my village primary school. I watched as some of the 45 who did not pass cried in the playground because they were being separated from their friends and sent to different schools or because they had set all their hopes on passing and were now told, aged 11, that they had ‘failed’ and were ‘11+ failures’. I watched as others expressed shock that the test they had not taken seriously had been the dreaded 11+ that we had sat about a dozen mock versions of in preparation. I watched as parents whose children had not got into one of Canterbury’s four grammar schools (divided by gender and also by status in those days between two ‘real’ grammar schools and two with that name which were known to be ex-’technical’ schools, an old layer between the grammar and the secondary moderns), scrambled around evidencing CofE or Catholic faith to get them into faith schools that were perceived as having a social cachet the mainstream secondary moderns didn’t. Meanwhile, I sat another day of four exams to win a free place at a local independent school as part of Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Assisted Places’ scheme that gave scholarships to kids from poor backgrounds.

Four years down the line the divisiveness of the system hit my own family: my little sister did not pass her 11+ or her Assisted Place exam and wasn’t able to go to the same school as me or my brother. The tears I had seen in the playground came to my own house.

So I hate systems that force parents and children to make ridiculous choices at 11, to compete for scarce places at popular schools.

I’ve already had to explain to my son when he was five that he wasn’t going to the primary school where most of his friends were and where he had spent three years in the crèche and a year at nursery. I didn’t explain that this was because we couldn’t afford the insane house prices needed to buy a house within a few hundred metres of a school that is only 500 metres from our home.

Free schools seem to me likely to add to the insanity of a school system that’s all about dividing children up, not bringing communities together, and about lying to parents that they have a choice of school when in fact they can only guarantee getting in to a popular school by buying their way in to a tiny catchment area, or jumping through a hoop in some form of covert selection.

In my ideal world all kids would go to their nearest state primary school and then their nearest state secondary school.

I would focus on standards rather than choice. If every state school had high standards why would anyone want to exercise choice unless they were a snob and just didn’t want their kids mixing with the rest of their local community?

So I’m not massively fixated with the internal structures and branding of schools. If they are genuinely comprehensive schools that serve the whole of their local community and deliver a good education, I’m not fixated by the degree of local authority control or the composition of the governing body.

As a Hackney councillor I can’t ignore the reality of what Labour’s academies have done for local children. We’ve gone from LEA-controlled schools that failed generations of Hackney children to schools like Mossbourne Academy that are getting children from deprived backgrounds on some of the toughest estates in inner London to score stunning exam successes and get into Oxbridge. This is transforming my constituents’ life chances.

But in Hackney we insisted that all the five (to be six) new academies were non-denominational, mixed gender and truly comprehensive, taking pupils from their local area banded by ability (ie a fixed percentage from each band of ability from pupils with special needs through to the gifted).

If freeing heads from LEA oversight was what was needed to enable Sir Michael Wilshaw to create Mossbourne, so be it.

But I remain convinced that local education authorities have a role to play in deciding how many and what kind of schools an area needs where, providing guidelines and coordination on fair admissions, and central support services that individual schools would struggle to provide. Ultimately there needs to be some local democratic oversight of schools so that voters can punish councillors at the ballot box if schools are not up to scratch.

I don’t want free schools because they add to the anarchy in the system and the divisiveness that I think harms communities and pupils.

But I know good people who are involved in creating free schools and I cannot condemn them for it. People who have lost faith in their LEA to provide the kind of school they want. People who realise the free school initiative is their best chance under Gove of getting a new school that’s needed in their area. People who define community by faith rather than geography and if it’s a minority faith may feel that the only way to sustain their community’s identity is through a faith school. Not everyone involved in creating a free school is as annoying as Toby Young and we shouldn’t shun them because he is trying to provoke us.

By the 2015 general election there will be four year groups of pupils in free schools. If we tried to abolish them we would be destroying institutions that will be established school communities with all that that means in terms of the relationships between parents, pupils and staff. We would be going to war with thousands of parents who just want the best for their children.

I think Stephen Twigg as the new shadow education secretary got our positioning right on this when he said:

‘On free schools, I am saying that we need to apply a set of tests, that we are not going to take an absolute policy of opposing them.

‘The tests should be: will the school raise standards for pupils and parents, will it contribute to a narrowing of the achievement gap between rich and poor, and what is the wider impact of that school?’

We wouldn’t have created free schools.

Given a blank sheet of paper, a clean slate, I would create an education system where everyone went to the good local school nearest their home, and children and communities were not divided up.

But we will be starting from the reality of the UK in 2015 after five years out of power, not in a vacuum, inheriting structures that we did not design, and Stephen Twigg will have better things to do for Britain’s schools that starting by trying to shut some of them.


Luke Akehurst is a constituency representative on Labour’s NEC, a councillor in Hackney, writes regularly for Progress here, and blogs here


Photo: Shira Golding

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Luke Akehurst

is director of We Believe in Israel and a former member of Labour's National Executive Committee


  • This began as a surprisingly sensible article, but it was ultimately disappointing (and a little predictable). Stephen’s tests are not the tests that free schools will be taking; and the experience of free school in Sweden suggests that free schools, as a rule, will not pass those tests. So will a Labour government close free schools that don’t pass those tests or not?

    We have to remember that we have some power and influence now, we are no entirely frozen out until 2015. A strong campaign by the Labour Party could help to strangle free schools at birth.

  • there is a descrimination that occurs though isn’t there that is unaknowledged so hard to legislate against ,the organisers of these free schools know that full well and exploit accordingly . North Westminster school used to have two sites for the lower school and I heard people say on more than one occasion ” oh choose the white site ,tell them it’s nearer for your kids to get off the tube /bus there” So my youngest son went to Holland Park. My oldest son did have an assisted place,yet after maths/physics A level being accepted by Bristol and 3 others for Aeronautical Engineering went to art school instead.(bloody kids)

  • A good article which however tackles only one of the two factors in free schools. It deals with admissions and how to ensure a year group across the ability range, excellent but does not deal with funding. There needs to be a level playing field on funding with additional support for those with learning difficulties but no hand outs for free schools and some limitations on tying curriculum and staffing so heads cannot cut coners for pet projects.

  • I’ve a lot of time for Stephen Twigg who I campaigned alongside in my student days and when we were both Young Fabians (that great contradiction in terms but there you go). However, this free school line is a total cop out – like Brown’s tests for joining the Euro. Those who favoured the idea saw them as Labour offering hope. Those who didn’t saw it as a fudge. No-one really thought it was a transparent and coherent position.
    Instead Stephen should be clear and categoral. Free schools are by definition very costly for anyone who doesn’t get in as they take money out of LEA budgets and therefore away from all other schools. They are under regulated, poorly planned and outwith wider strategic planning for things like admissions. They can and will employ cheaper teachers who need not be qualified. On these terms they may improve choice but not provision. He should say now under Labour no more free schools. One’s set up may continue to receive state funding if they meet the same rigourous Ofsted standards other state schools require. If not the funding stops and they’ll have to convert to charitable fee paying schools to remain open.
    Any other line is weak and lcks the coherence Labour candidates will need to convince parents that we have a credible alternative education policy based upon appropriate, coherent, strategic funding and monitoring of schools. A few schools will always be seen as poor and some will be burdened by a reputation dating back decades that maybe unfair. So local perception isn’t fact but parents are biased and will want “choice”. But we can’t and shouldn’t pander to the Mail reading minority or doom mongers. We should celebrate our achievements i education over the last 17 years and point out the difference between that and Gove’s ideological nonsense. As a parent and Chair of Governors (and ex teacher) I know which line will be most welcomed and successful. We didn’t lose votes in 1997 by saying we’d abolish grant maintained status…

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