It’s not a rigorous education – an interview with Fiona Millar

Roisin Ellison
May 13, 2016
KR Interviews

Fiona Millar is a  journalist and campaigner on education and parenting issues, being a  regular contributor to Guardian Education. In 2009 she published the  book “The Secret World of the Working Mother”, which explored the challenges facing working mothers. In 2011 she published “A New Conversation with Parents”  – a report looking into what parents want from schools – with the  charity Family Lives and the Pearson Centre for Policy and Learning.  Fiona is a co-founder of the Local Schools Network website, Chair of  Comprehensive Future and chair of governors at a North London secondary  school. She tweets as @schooltruth.

I want to start by talking about  social justice and education. Considering there is this persistent and  growing gap in England between the wealthiest and the most  disadvantaged, what are the main challenges young people from  disadvantaged backgrounds face today?

There are a lot of challenges but the  main challenge is that, however good schools get at closing this gap,  the most aspirant and advantaged parents will be making sure that their  children progress at an even faster rate. Narrowing the gap would be  difficult, given the culture of choice and competition that we’re in –  David Willets called it a “parental arms race” – but even then, parents with the most will always ensure their children do the best.

If we really want to narrow the gap, we need to put the  same resources, time and pastoral care behind children from the most  disadvantaged backgrounds that we put into those from the wealthiest  backgrounds; both in and beyond schools.

The Labour government recognised the  importance of community and home environments to students, but that has  gone out the window now with the current Conservative government in  office.

Schools receive ring-fenced money now for disadvantaged pupils (Pupil Premium)  but all it does is fill a gap. It has been useful in drawing attention  to the progress and attainment of certain groups of pupils, but it is a  drop in the ocean when you think of the amount of resources schools need  to support these pupils. Pupil premium does not give a young person  from a disadvantaged background the same opportunities as David Cameron  had, which is where we need to get to if we want to have a truly fair  society. It’s a structural issue – we also need to be considering income  and social inequality.

Do we put too much emphasis on education to fix problems that are the consequence of structural inequality?

Yes, we are probably just tinkering  around the edges – we need to be thinking about housing, communities and  out-of-school learning environments, such as parental education, access  to local libraries and the many other services families need outside of  school.

As a campaigner, it is important to  recognise these limitations, but we also still need to be pragmatic. The  issue of inequality is a political one and needs to be won at a  different level – though, unquestionably, it does need to be won if we  are committed to closing this gap.

What role do private schools have to play in the education system – should we abolish them?

If we were starting from where we are  now, we would not have private schools – the fact is, they are here and  no-one is going to abolish them. So, better arrangements whereby they  work more closely with state schools, helping those poorer children get  the same chances as their better-off peers and justifying their  charitable status, would be a good place to start.

It is a particular problem in some  cities – London, Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol – where there are very  high rates of entry to private schools; and then these students go on to  get disproportionate number of places at the top universities. The  Children’s Poverty Commission found in  their State of the Nation  report (2015) that, even if state school students do achieve the top  grades from the best universities, employers are still looking at what  school you went to and what social capital you bring. Young people from  poorer backgrounds can’t win.

Moving on to a subject you passionately campaign on: school admissions – what’s the problem and what needs to be reformed?

There should be an obligation for  schools locally to come together and work out how to get most balanced  intake for each individual school. At the moment, there is no  transparency about how some schools are engineering their admissions  more favourably compared to others, so we need to ask how this is  impacting the schools that are left with the children that a lot of  others don’t want.

In the current climate, where everything  is geared towards exam results, it is more difficult to get  “outstanding” results from students who have a lower starting point.  People say that to do as I suggest is ‘social engineering’ but the great  English public schools are a huge instance of social engineering. So  let’s stop some schools being able to select what pupils they take.

How do you stop parents gaming the system, such as buying a house in a particular school catchment area?

You could have a lottery for school  admissions – that means if you do buy a house in the catchment area,  there’s no guarantee that your child will be able to attend that school.  That then becomes a risky undertaking. However, a lot of people see  this as taking away parent choice, and parent choice has ruled the  debate for 25 years. Indeed, parent choice is not a necessarily a bad  thing, but not every parent is getting the full range of choice and that  is fundamentally unfair.

Arguably, we also have a problem  with university admissions – as you said earlier, those from  independent schools hold a disproportionate amount of the places at the  top universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. Should university  admissions be changed?

What’s unfair about admissions at Oxford  and Cambridge is the amount of help that some students get to prepare  for the interview. This is by no means always available to many young  people in the state sector. It’s about who you know. Students from state  schools may not have a parent or family friend who has been who can  explain the process. I can see why these universities think they need to  interview but it is definitely discriminatory. Though, saying that,  plenty of applicants from private schools are not successful at securing  a place at Oxford or Cambridge.

Indeed, we find ourselves in a very  unequal society, and it is getting more unequal –  English politicians  seem to have no interest in tackling that.

Nonetheless, I am hopeful that the  ‘comprehensive generation’ will start to come through. We are getting to  the point where those in power, who went through the grammar school  system in the 50s and 60s, will begin to be replaced by those who went  through the comprehensive system.

Do you think this is also about  empathy – that current politicians just can’t or don’t choose to  empathise with what it is like to be in a low socioeconomic class?

I think it’s very difficult to empathise  if you went to Eton. You can say you understand but inevitably you will  not have the same sense of connection or empathy with a child who did  not have the same advantages.

The problem with the political system at the moment is  that it is run by people who don’t have real experience of what that’s  like.

My children grew up in a privileged  middle-class family but going to their local state schools has given  them friendships across the social spectrum and n understanding of other  people’s lives.

Moving onto the topic of  teaching, we are now facing a teacher recruitment and retention crisis  in England with nearly 50% of teachers leaving the profession within 5  years. Why do you think this is happening?

The Labour government made great  attempts to make teaching a high-status, attractive profession and lots  of very good people came into teaching. After the 2008 financial crash,  when a lot of jobs looked insecure, teaching was an attractive option.  Now the economy has improved, this isn’t the case anymore, especially  for graduates from subject disciplines like mathematics or the sciences.

There’s also this constant rhetoric that  teachers are useless – why would anyone want to join a profession where  the politicians are constantly telling you that? This is alongside the accountability culture  for teacher performance in schools, a highly prescriptive national  curriculum and ‘high-stakes’ testing, pressure from league tables and  inspections from Ofsted  (The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and  Skills). The outcome is that schools are now unpleasant places to work.  There isn’t trust. I can understand why people look at teaching and  think it’s not a career where they will flourish or have a good  work-life balance.

You’re also not going to get the good  headteachers you need either, with a leadership recruitment crisis also  on the horizon and one million more pupils entering the school system in  the next ten years.

We have to change the rhetoric and make teaching a  high-status, highly valued profession that is well paid. Teachers don’t  feel valued.

Ofsted is part of the problem. I  understand the need for accountability but it now runs on fear and lack  of trust. We need to recalibrate the whole inspection framework and make  it much more about peer review with other headteachers around the  country. Ofsted then becomes a body to hold these peer reviews to  account and focus the process on being more encouraging, helping  individual schools on what they could do better.

What’s happening now, with the  decimation of local authorities and fragmentation of the school system  through academisation means often schools are left with nobody there to  support them. We need local oversight and accountability – eight  Regional School Commissioners cannot do the job of 150 local  authorities. That does not mean we should go back to the old local  authority model – some local authorities
were not very good when it came to school improvement – but we do need a local system in place.

What do you think of the forced academisation agenda?

The latest plans to force all schools to academies  is madness; unnecessary, costly and disruptive at a time when there are  so many more pressing issues facing schools. The government is obsessed  with centralisation masked under talk of ‘autonomy’ and ‘freedom’. The  rationale can’t be about standards because the evidence shows that  academy status does not magically result in school improvement. But it  might be about the introduction of for profit providers in the future.  How much easier is that to introduce if every school is in a chain,  which they are prevented from leaving as their have lost their own legal  identity, and that chain has a contract with the Secretary of State for  Education?

What would make a positive impact on the  education system would be fundamental reforms to the curriculum,  qualifications and accountability; and most crucially, raising the  status and quality of the teaching profession – not structural changes  with no obvious long-term purpose.

So how should we be educating young people for the future?

They need to be educated for  flexibility, a love of learning – which is stifled under the current  accountability regime – as well as resilience and acceptance and  learning from failure.[4]   It is time to get rid of GCSEs, open up the curriculum to make it a  more interesting and engaging process, and make subjects like drama,  music and art valued. To have a final assessment at only at 18.

Everything is too exam-oriented. Of  course qualifications matter but at the moment, we start with outcomes  in terms of exams and then decide what the accountability system should  look like and then pupils get the curriculum to fit around it – that is  the wrong way round. Politicians are terrified of getting rid of what  they perceive to be a rigorous education. It’s not a rigorous education,  it’s a very narrowed-down offer, which only reflects one part of what  it means to be a well-rounded educated person.

Academic subjects are very important,  however, because unless you give working-class children the opportunity  to study these subjects, they won’t be able to get into the top  universities. Some schools were not doing that, they were enrolling  these students at 14 into vocational qualifications with basic English  and maths. So I am not opposed to the idea of having core academic  subjects, but I do not agree with how the government wants to measure it  – through the English Baccalaureate metric – which means other subjects  like music and art will get pushed out because they are not on the list  of compulsory subjects.

We mustn’t forget that we also have a  better generation of teachers and headteachers then we have ever had,  certainly in my lifetime, and a lot of people are working very hard in  disadvantaged communities to make a difference. But this needs to be  recognised and celebrated if we want more people to do the same.


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Roisin Ellison