Three Cheers for Liquorice Allsorts Schools!

According to an educational academic, the UK has “too many types of school”.  Cameron and his government are creating “Liquorice Allsorts schools”.  This of course is a reference to Michael Gove’s “free schools”, which seem to be doing rather better than many people expected.

The Indy writes: “One senior academic said the Prime Minister was creating a “liquorice allsorts” system with a bewildering array of different types of school.  Instead, argued Professor Alan Smithers, a senior adviser to the Commons Education Select Committee, ministers should concentrate on improving standards in all state schools”.

For an alternative view, let’s turn to Mao Tse Tung, who in this case may have had a better idea than Professor Smithers.  He said “Let a thousand flowers bloom”, or as Wikipedia puts it in its revisionist way: “Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences and a flourishing socialist culture in our land.”  A hundred schools of thought.  Or in Michael Gove’s case, a hundred types of school.

Pedants, and students of history, will recall that Mao waited only a few weeks for his hundred flowers to bloom, and then proceeded to lop the heads off the tallest poppies — but that’s another story.

For decades the British educational system has been bedevilled by the crackpot ideas of the “educational establishment”, who spend half their time protecting the producer interest and the role of the local authorities, and the other half coming up with trendy theories intended to improve education, but which too often proved to have the opposite effect.  Learning through play, and reading by word association are good examples.  It’s like the nutrition advice industry, where whatever was good ten years ago is exactly wrong nowadays.  In fact it might be an excellent thing if Professor Smithers and his ilk were sent to China for a few years’ re-education.  He would find that Chinese schools do rather well, despite the lack of modish theories.

I well recall twenty years ago standing outside a school in Korea (where I lived at the time) and listening to a sound that was very clearly a whole class reciting its multiplication tables, with great rhythm, vigour and enthusiasm.  I never mastered the language, but the cadences were unmistakable.  And guess what — surprise surprise — Korean children are way ahead of our own at maths, despite rather large class sizes.

Yet we should not be too hard on the good Professor.  Politicians who should know better — especially Lib-Dems — react to any proposal for innovation, choice or variety, in education or health, with demands to “improve all schools/hospitals, not fritter way resources on new ideas” (and above all, do nothing to shake the iron grip of local councils on schools).

They are missing the point.  Michael Gove shares exactly the same objective — to drive up standards in all schools.  But he has the sense to realise that introducing choice and innovation will do precisely that.  Parents, by and large, want their children to have a good education, and will make great sacrifices to give their kiddies the best chance.  They will soon work out which are the best schools, and will clamour to send their children there.  So what does that do to less good schools?  Of course it creates huge and immediate pressure for poorer schools to learn lessons from the good ones, and to emulate them.

This, Professor Smithers, is the best possible way to “improve standards in all schools”.  Protecting the dead hand of local councils and the educational establishment, educational academics and the teaching unions is a recipe for stasis and mediocrity — and we’ve had too much of that in our schools.

P.S.  Why do I think of “Smithers” as a name reserved for Victorian housemaids?

PPS. I have received a response from Professor Smithers, which (given the robust tone of my blog) is remarkably measured and courteous.  He believes that his views were over-dramatised by the Indy.  He intended not a wholesale attack on diversity of provision, but rather to ask how the DFE is going to manage its role under the new dispensation.

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