Children deserve more than slums in the sky

by Terry Wrigley

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School provision now in England is built on the dreams of Conservative thinkers of the 1970s and 1980s, but the dream is fast becoming a nightmare.

Neoliberal ideologists in the Conservative Party thought they could dispense with planning: in fact Keith Joseph once said “We have a bloody State system. I wish we hadn’t.” (interview with Stephen Ball in 1990)

Their dream was that encouraging choice would lead to unpopular schools withering and closing, and that more popular schools, with control of their own budgets, would simply expand. (See 1977 Black Paper, Cox and Boyson) They introduced SATs and league tables to stimulate competitive school “markets”.

In reality, it led to social polarisation: many schools located in poorer council estates lost out to schools in private housing areas, including church schools and those with large sixth forms. The schools in poorer areas were left with vacant places and had to absorb all the pupils expelled from more surrounding schools. This were then stigmatised as “failing schools”, and eventually we had the Blairite response: privatisation in the shape of academies.

The last five years have seen the nightmare develop. Government ministers, obsessed with academies and free schools, have neglected the need to provide sufficient school places. They have prevented local authorities from building schools: only academies and free schools allowed.

The situation is made worse by the complex admissions rules which individual schools are able to invent.

School choice is not leading to greater satisfaction. It seems that 1 in 7 families do not get a place in their first-choice school (1 in 4 in London), and around 1 in 25 do not get any of their choices (1 in 20 in London). What must that feel like? Children of 11 travel across big cities to and from school.

Is market competition leading to higher achieving schools expanding? It seems not. A new report by New Schools Network (albeit with the motive of securing an expansion of free schools) claims that half the additional school places created in the last 4 years are in schools with declining GCSE results, and nearly 1 in 5 of the additional places are in schools in “special measures”.

The Government’s panic solution, after years of neglect, is to push for gigantic schools and even high-rise blocks. At least 17 areas will have secondary schools with 12 forms of entry, generally over 2000 students. Two are planned to contain 3000 each, based on 16 forms of entry. Barking and Dagenham now has a primary school with over 1000 pupils.

Government minister Lord Nash is advocating high-rise schools, pointing to examples in New York where some schools are housed in skyscrapers. “If you go to New York, there are skyscrapers where the first five floors are offices, then there is a factory, then there is a state school, then there’s a charter school.”

A bonanza for property tycoons with space they can’t let, but a nightmare for students and teachers.

Government ministers might regard this kind of institution as fine for other people’s children but not for their own. In fact, Sarah Welsh, the new chair of the Independent Schools Association representing 370 private schools, has warned against this misguided solution, comparing it with the cheap high-rise housing built in the 1950s and 1960s which eventually had to be demolished.


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See also our earlier blog post Are giant secondary schools the answer?  for further arguments against gigantic schools and in favour of smaller schools.

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