Tories announce new education policy: schools free to do exactly what the Government tells them to

by Stephen Tall on September 3, 2014

The Guardian reports that new Tory education secretary Nicky Morgan is about to make her first major policy announcement – and it’s, erm, interesting:

Compulsory setting according to ability in England’s secondary schools is to be proposed by the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, in her first big initiative since she took over as education secretary. She is due to make the announcement as early as today.

Here’s why it’s a bad idea:

In principle – for years the Conservatives have been banging the drum for setting schools free. The whole purpose of Michael Gove’s academies programme and new free schools was to increase autonomy: to put school leaders (and parents) in charge. Whatever you think of the policy – my view is it’s a noble enough aim, but one which has needlessly sacrificed local expertise and democratic accountability along the way – it was at least coherent. In a stroke, Nicky Morgan has wiped out any claim the Tories could make that they trust schools to know best how to achieve success for their kids.

In practice – the evidence is pretty clear that setting (grouping pupils according to their prior attainment) is not effective at improving pupils’ attainment. Actually, that’s not quite true. It probably helps the top-performing kids a little bit (though other approaches are far more effective). But it actively hinders the other kids: middle- and lower-attaining pupils. As those groups by definition include most pupils, the overall effect is negative. And, unsurprisingly, kids from poorer backgrounds are most likely to be the ones that suffer academically as a result. (This is the same argument which applies to those who want to bring back grammar schools.)

So, there you have it: Nicky Morgan’s first policy announcement is doubly wrong: in principle and in practice. I wonder what Michael Gove would make of it?

Update: the announcement, if one was planned, has been called off. Or is that postponed? The well-informed edu-tweeter Sam Freedman says the Tories say there’s “no intention to mandate setting”. Which invites the question where the story came from: though I’m not the Guardian’s greatest fan, I find it hard to believe Patrick Wintour wrote his story without having a good source somewhere high up in the Tory party.