Caveat: I wrote the following piece based on a report in today’s Daily Telegraph. I have since spoken to Michael Gove’s office, and was delighted to hear that Michael does not in fact propose to impose “fair banding” on schools. He is merely saying that it is a way in which they might wish to consider setting up their admissions policy. It seems that the Telegraph over-egged the story, with its contentious headline “Middle classes to lose their grip on schools”. I am nevertheless running the piece on my blog because I think it still makes some important points. In it, I ask Michael not to impose “fair banding”. I am delighted to learn, and place on record, that this was not his intention in the first place.
I’m just home from a short holiday (Dorset, not Tuscany), and I came to earth with a bump when I saw that Michael Gove proposes to use a “fair-banding” system of schools admissions. Essentially, this system ensures that all school admission policies use the same ratio of ability bands. The objective is to prevent the sharp-elbowed middle classes from dominating admissions to the best state schools. But as I (and Jeff Randall) have pointed out elsewhere, bright parents tend to have bright kids, and able people tend to achieve in life and to gravitate towards the middle classes. Thus a preponderance of middle-class children in good schools is evidence, not of “unfairness”, but of heritable intelligence.
I have supported Conservative education policy, and praised Michael Gove’s plans to hand control to schools, parents, staff and governors. It’s one of the best and most important things that this government is doing. But I’m afraid that this “fair banding” proposal is wrong, for three reasons.
First, we can’t on the one hand talk up localism, and offer to pass control of schools to the schools themselves, and then impose a hugely prescriptive and (in my view) dangerously misconceived admissions policy centrally from Whitehall.
Secondly, if we want UK plc to succeed in the world against global competition in an information economy, we need to promote excellence, and to maximise outcomes from available resources. In my thirty years in business, I learned that you invest behind success, not behind failure. As a matter of national policy it is right to ensure that the brightest kids go to the best schools. Of course less able children are entitled to an education, and help to do as well as they can, but they should not receive a disproportionate share of resources. It is right that we invest more in a PhD student than in the less able.
The third point is a more subtle one. Gove seems to assume that good schools are created on a random basis by a benign Providence, and that all children, bright or not, should have equal chances to attend them. But it’s not like that. Good schools don’t happen by chance. They are created by many factors, but two key factors are the quality of the intake, and the quality of the staff. Schools that over the years build a reputation and achieve good results will attract both the ablest pupils and the best teachers – teachers who want to spend time enthusing children with a love of knowledge, not trying to exercise a semblance of discipline over a bunch of feckless ne’er-do-wells. This is as it should be. It creates a virtuous circle of able pupils, excellent teachers, and first-class results.
Gove’s “fair-banding” approach cuts right through that virtuous circle. It destroys the very foundations on which aspiration and excellence are based. Rather than ensuring that less able children get a fair share of the best schools, it ensures that there will be no excellent schools at all in the state sector. It also ensures that no child – whether of an academic or vocational bent – will end up in a school dedicated to their particular needs.
I joined a Conservative Party that unashamedly believed in aspiration, and achievement, and excellence. I still believe in those things. But the Party, having perversely set its face against grammar schools, now seems determined to mandate mediocrity. It is flirting with sub-Marxist ideas of equality and social engineering. I’m sorry, Michael, but this is wrong. Please think again.
(P.S. Can it be possible that this is all a cunning plan to promote the private sector by forcing middle-class parents of bright children to look outside the state sector? If that’s the plan, then fair-banding should certainly achieve it!).