Friday, December 01, 2006 

My legacy, my legacy, my legacy!

If there's one thing you can't accuse Tony Blair of, it's giving up. His last few months as Prime Minister are destined to be full of activity. On Monday, he's apparently to announce that we're going to waste billions of pounds on a new nuclear deterrent, for little other reason than to give BAe something to do, and because we couldn't let France be the only EU country with nukes. That would just be too horrible to imagine.

Yesterday however was a return to Blair's stated alleged first, second and third priorities on entering office, other than bombing, banning and bribing. Yes, it was time to go and wind up the teachers with his latest plans for reorganising the school system. As Blair prepares to leave office, the first and foremost thing on his mind, apart from when Inspector Knacker is going to come calling, is his legacy. We know it, he knows it, his advisers know, the media knows it. Every little detail is going to be scrutinised for how it might effect how history judges the 21st century's first prime minister, even though we all know the only thing that he's going to be remembered for is Iraq, unless Knacker steps in and arrests him. In short, unless the situation in Iraq improbably and unprecedentedly turns around, after a few hundred thousand more deaths or so, and Blair's reputation makes the biggest comeback since Lazarus as a result, he's royally screwed.

Making his speech at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust conference, this was Tony in full Pollyanna mode. Parents are just dying to get in the new academies, according to him, which instantly means that they're a huge success. This ignores how nearly all the new academies either have new buildings or have been extensively refurbished, not to mention how the first load have mainly replaced formerly failing comprehensives, which is going to magnetise parents towards them in the first place. As with the schools being sponsored, the buildings themselves are typically, if not always built under the private finance initiative, meaning that the money for the contractors is off Gordon Brown's books, but leaves the next generation of kids paying for the current generation's brand spanking new halls and computers.

The actual evidence on whether the new academies have improved standards or not is decidedly mixed. A study by Terry Wrigley, a senior academic at Edinburgh university suggested that the number of pupils gaining 5 A-C grades at GCSE compared with the schools the academies replaced had gone up by a whopping 0.2%, equivalent to three pupils per school, which seems like an outstandingly good result from the amount of money put in. By contrast, one academy in Brent in London was given a glowing review by Ofsted. All is also not well with the money given to the academies by the sponsors in exchange for having a major part in setting the curriculum and school ethos. A Guardian investigation showed that of those up and running, only four academies have actually received the full £2 million meant to be handed over. One suspects that business and other benefactors may also be put off by the loans for peerages scandal - any sort of donation which appears to help Labour and leads to an honour of some kind is now likely to be heavily scrutinised.

Then there's the fact that these academies are predictably attracting the attention of religious crazies laying down their own values and rules as part of their control over the school. The Trinity academy at Thorne near Doncaster, part of car dealer, friend of Blair and evangelical Christian Sir Peter Vardy's empire, suspended 148 students within its first six months - leaving parents suspecting that covert selection was taking place with free-thinking being cracked down upon. While Blair in his speech lauded the idea of giving pupils choice, that doesn't seem to extend to pupils challenging authority or deciding whether or not they should be taught creationism alongside evolution.

It's little surprise that Blair sees academies as reflecting his own image. They're new, shiny and pleasing to look at, but underneath they're still suffering with the same problems as before, except with new groups of governors running the show. Despite Blair's claims that 200 will be up and running by 2010, it's a promise that like the existence of God, should be believed when it's seen. Just to make it even more unreachable, at some point in the future Blair wants there to be 400. Where all the sponsors are going to come from isn't explained.

After rejecting Mike Tomlinson's call for GCSEs and A-Levels to be replaced with a diploma, Blair's new wheeze is to expand the International Baccalaureate from being available at a few elite schools to err, being available at a few more elite schools. While some have suggested that academies and trust schools will lead to a two-tier school system, the availability of IB could do something very similar. With universities increasingly having to select from students with a whole ream of A grades in the required A-level subjects, the elite are bound to be more than receptive to those who get the opportunity to take the IB instead. Those privately educated and who are either lucky enough to be near a high performing school, or whom have moved in order to be so, will undoubtedly once again be crowding out the riff raff from the bog-standard comprehensives.

Concerns over A-levels though is perhaps missing the big picture. The proportion of students getting 5 A-C grades at GCSE is stubbornly remaining below 60%, meaning that 40% are still effectively failing. The sad fact of the matter is that by 14 it may already be too late; faced with carrying on in academic lessons that they wish they weren't in, that 40% may well have been better served by Tomlinson's diploma, which would have also have taken voluntary qualifications into considerations. Instead, Blair's new idea is to have an entirely separate diploma at 14, tied in with apprenticeships. It may turn out to be a good start, but it's probably too little. There's also increasing evidence that those at 14 who aren't performing "adequately" in academic subjects are being forced into GNVQs instead of GCSEs, which despite the government's claims aren't anywhere close to being as challenging, purely to help the school's place in the government league tables. The option of being either all academic or all vocational is far too stifling.

Still, what does it matter to Blair? He's tried, he's most likely failed, but at least he'll be remembered for starting off academies and the Tory-loved trust schools which they're itching to get their hands on. Won't he?

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