Nick Davies

Why Britain's Schools Are Failing

Nothing I have ever written has produced a reaction like the Guardian stories on schools which are collected in this book - a torrent of readers' letters spilling over with passion, more than 100 invitations to speak at public meetings, a couple of journalism awards and a personal denunciation from the prime minister and the secretary of state for education. The current Guardian editor says the response was of a different order to anything else he has seen since he took over the paper (and this is the editor who presided over the demise of Aitken, Hamilton and Mandelson). What was that about?

I think something rather odd happened. Normally, when you publish an investigation in a newspaper, you hope you are uncovering something which nobody knows. With these stories, however, we did the reverse - we delivered something which masses of people knew but which no one with any power would admit. That torrential response was not shock or horror but a clamour of recognition of a reality that was being denied. And there's the real lesson of the School Report.

In the eighteen months I spent researching these stories, I got deeper into the workings of a government department than I have ever done before. It was not a reassuring experience. I went into this with a vague feeling of unspecified benevolence towards the Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett.

I came out with a feeling close to contempt, having peered into a department which, I eventually concluded, was habitually lying and cheating and was presiding over a shambles - something which it was enabled to do mainly by the scale of that self-same dishonesty. I came away with a picture of ministers beset by problems and lost for solutions - lost, either because they simply didn't understand the issues well enough to know what to do, or because they did know and couldn't bear the political consequences. Rather than admit they were stuck, they were reaching for pseudo-solutions, policies which gave them something to talk about, offered the appearance of action, threw the pundits something to chew on while the real problems lay unsolved in the background, because (as the ministers often very well knew) the alleged solutions were entirely bogus, bound to fail.

Look at the story of Fresh Start, Mr Blunkett's brave new cure for the weakest schools - and at the weight of evidence which had discredited the idea in the United States, where it originated in 1984, long before Mr Blunkett ever pulled it out of his briefcase and started to wave it around like a magic wand. Look at "special measures", the routine procedure for dealing with a school that failed its Ofsted report: pause for a moment over the statistics we dug up (after months of negotiation to get access to them) and compare them to the ministers' grandiose claims of success. Or look at the official claims for the virtues of the "mentoring" scheme, set against the department's own devastating findings of its miserable weakness. This is high-octane guff. The underlying problem, as you will see in the first two or three stories, is that the entire strategy of Mr Blunkett's department is based on an analysis of school failure which has the intellectual weight of a joke in a Christmas cracker. Everything else flows from that analysis, and the simple reality is that it's phoney.

And then there are the outright lies. In one of the early stories, we gave credit to Mr Blunkett for securing a £19billion increase in funding for education - a few months later, we discovered that we had been conned.

Well, the whole country had been conned. Here is a Secretary of State who takes the central core of his departmental activity - his budget, the fuel for every move he makes - presents it to Parliament, press and public, and grossly and repeatedly lies about it. And he gets away with it. To be precise, he was taken to task only once, in the House of Commons, by the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, Phil Willis. Hansard records the Secretary of State's reaction. He laughed. And that was that (although he never again repeated the £19billion lie).

This is a lesson not just about the cynicism of politicians but also about our own gullibility - particularly our gullibility as journalists. We allow Whitehall to manage us: Mr Blunkett makes a big announcement about extra funds for Fresh Start schools; we report it, as though there were some kind of sense in it; and then we go off into micro- criticism of its detail, whether this is quite enough extra cash, whether there is really such a thing as a superhead - without explaining that the whole project is a proven failure. We are pushed into a sideshow.

Within a week of Mr Blunkett first telling his £19billion-whopper, he was caught out by the Treasury Select Committee, who exposed the most successful of his several sleights of hand. They did the same for the then Health Secretary, Frank Dobson, whose claims about new cash for his department were similarly fictitious. The point is that the press missed the story. The Treasury Select Committee's report sank like a stone, the journalists chased off to the next press conference, and the various ministers carried on fibbing for eighteen months before they were caught out.

(Frank Dobson's budget was exposed as a hoax by BBC Panorama, by coincidence, in the week after we took apart Mr Blunkett's.)

I spent the first three or four months of this research being as stupid as it is possible for a journalist to be without getting sacked. I started, in the approved fashion, by reading files of old newspaper stories; I read the book by the former education minister, George Walden; I went to see senior people at the Department for Education and Ofsted. And I emerged with the clear view that school failure was primarily caused by bad teachers and, in particular, by bad teachers who had been led astray by "trendy teaching methods" from the 1960s. Then two things happened. First, I read a book called Failing School Failing City by Martin Johnson, a veteran teacher. Then I started going into schools. And I realised that my working theory was complete garbage, that the truth was simpler, nastier and very plain to see, as the first two stories, set in Sheffield, should make clear: you cannot make sense of why some schools fail and some succeed without taking account of the corrosive impact of child poverty, which has soared in this country in the last twenty years. Combine that with the effects of the Conservative education reforms of the late 1980s and you have a design for educational failure.

You can look at any area of our schooling system - the effect of private schools on their state counterparts, the scale and distribution of funding, teacher stress and teacher pay, syllabus and teaching technique, truancy and exclusion, the outbreak of teacher cheating in exams - and you will not be able to make sense of it unless you take primary account of child poverty and Kenneth Baker's reforms. There are other factors in there as well, but those two are essential. And yet David Blunkett has sidelined them and laid down a smokescreen of pseudo-solutions.

The reality is that unless he acknowledges the fundamental effect of child poverty and unless he finds the political courage to scrap almost all of the market-driven reforms of the late 1980s, none of the dinky little schemes which he has launched will save our schools from crisis.

24. März 2001

Comments are welcome