“They were all doing it, he just did it better”

A few months ago an entry in this blog began with the words “well it looks like the French were right; Lance Armstrong is a cheat”.   Even if the publication of the USADA report back in October left the tiniest bit of doubt for his most ardent supporters then the Armstrong ‘confession’ to Oprah Winfrey last week left us in no doubt that he had indeed ‘done it’, and ‘done it’ on an almost titanic scale.   But the problem remains that Lance Armstrong is an incredibly plausible and even believable character, the cancer hero who succeeded in the most demanding sporting event in the world.   But to conquer it, he cheated.

We don’t like cheats, and politicians in particular don’t like cheats (even when it is the politicians themselves who are doing the cheating with their second homes for relatives or duck houses for friends of a different variety), especially when it comes to education.   Was I the only HMC head who was made to feel a little like a cheat during the Labour years of government?   Why was it that my pupils in my fee-paying, independent school seemed to do so well?   Why was it that they seemed to have an advantage over many of their maintained school counterparts?   Why was it that money could buy privilege and an apparently unfair advantage?  

To some it just did not seem right and as a charity, even as the head of a charity that supported the very disadvantaged children who were apparently now being given an unfair advantage,  it came as no surprise when the Charity Commission were sent after us.   And although we won in the High Court, we didn’t really, because the pressure is still on, the unfairness is still there, and even under a Conservative government, a little like Armstrong, they are going to find us out in the end.   But it all begs the question; what is going to be found out?

In the UK we have a strange attitude to success.   We all crave it, we all applaud it (for a while at least) but ultimately we either overtly or covertly seek to undermine it.   One man’s success is another’s failure; one school at the top of the performance table means another at the bottom; one successful Oxbridge candidate means three more disappointed.   Yes, one man’s success means another man’s failure.

Successive governments have seen the success of our schools as a problem.   We are too successful; we convey privilege to the chosen few, provide an unfair advantage, and if you believe some of the commentators, this must be stopped.   For Labour it was the Charity Commission taking us down a peg or too, pushing us into 100% bursaries, and the mantra of broadening access (as if we didn’t do that anyway!).   For the Conservatives it is all about the (stolen) idea of our DNA, transplanting it into academies and free schools; in effect giving some of our ‘ill-gotten’ advantage to the weakest schools and the children in greatest need of help.   Why wouldn’t we do that?

But that isn’t enough.   Don’t our students get better preparation for university entrance, better careers advice, better sports coaching, more Olympic medals, more Facebook friends, Christmas cards, Nectar points….   You name it, we are a privileged lot in the eyes of some, and that just won’t do.   They are right of course; this huge disparity of opportunity won’t do, but it also won’t do to demonise schools that are using their resources in the most efficient and effective way they can to deliver the best education they can to every pupil.   We aren’t using performance enhancing drugs, we aren’t cheating, we are simply responding to need: the need of many parents to invest in the best possible education for their child.   And can you blame them?

If the maintained sector is not good enough then it is the responsibility of elected government to make it better.   In a global competition you do not win by denigrating the opposition or accusing it of cheating.   No, the route to success is to be better than we are.   In this regard perhaps the time has come to question two key principles that have underpinned UK education for far too long: is party politics the best way to run an education system, and why do we spend around £6000 per year on a pupil’s education and not, say, £10,000?

The current Secretary of State is faced with the same dilemma as all of his predecessors.   He has a vision for a better education for every child in this country, but he only has a short time in which to articulate, implement and evaluate the vision.   What is more his government’s five-year term of office barely provides enough time to assess what is needed let alone ‘articulate, implement and evaluate’.   The 2015 finishing line is in sight and the sprint is on.   Academies, free schools, new GCSEs, new A levels, new pay and conditions, a new Ofsted focus, a new school leaving age; the list goes on.   But it is not going to happen, is it?   Or if it does, then it can only end in tears.   The job will be rushed, ill-conceived, un-piloted, too simplistic, and sadly all too temporary.   Come 2015 a new Secretary of State will be picking over the bones, seeing what might still work, and then papering over the cracks before the next five-year plan is hatched.

A brave, altruistic Secretary of State would establish something akin to the Monetary Policy Committee for education.   A body that has real teeth, a body that can set about a ten-year reform programme for education, a body that can consult, evaluate, pilot, resource and regulate; a body that would have the best minds in education at its disposal; a body that is in it for the long-term.

And having done that, perhaps the same enlightened Secretary of State might ask a similar group to decide what a world-class education really costs.   Rather than start from the premise that we have £6000 to spend, why not start from the idea of what is needed, particularly in a twenty-first century world where schools do far more than simply teach a curriculum; where schools are filling gaps in the fabric of society, where schools are as much the agents of social change as they are deliverers of education.

Lance Armstrong’s first book was called It’s not about the bike; well clearly he was right; it was all about the drugs really.   Successive governments have suggested that every child matters; but really it is all about the politics and the next election.   Perhaps next time it will be ‘not about the politics’ but ‘all about the child’.

By Ian Power, HMC Membership Secretary