Back to the future - Keith Budge on the ISC blog

Posted on 10th June 2016

In a recent blog for the Independent Schools Council, Headmaster Keith Budge argues that government’s commitment to the academisation of grant-maintained schools, drawing on independent sector educational approaches, may require a reassessment of current orthodoxies.

Government’s recent U-turn on its plans for a blanket conversion of state schools into academies has been subjected to conflicting interpretations – evidence of chaos say critics, or the result of a welcome willingness to listen on the part of the Minister, according to supporters. Keith Budge’s take on the concession is that conversion will be less a case of ‘if’ than ‘when’, with the government keeping as its aim full-scale conversion.

In placing the governance of schools under academy chains and putting trust in headteachers to “use their creativity, innovation, professional expertise and up-to-date evidence to drive up standards,” the authors of the recent Education White Paper seek to break the “geographic monopolies” of the local education authorities and mirror what happens in the independent sector. Keith Budge explains that whilst he all for independence, he is puzzled by aspects of government’s rationale.

He says: “In accepting that ‘the country’s best school leaders know what works’, and that these leaders are to be found in both the state and independent sectors and pursuing a range of philosophies and approaches, policy makers suggested a willingness to embrace diverse approaches to education.”

He continues: “I have no quarrel with this sentiment, but would observe that such an ambition perhaps sits uneasily with the current ministerial appetite for traditional chalk-and-talk teaching methods, the knowledge-based curriculum and distaste for all things progressive.”

Government’s line on state education is that that the middle of the twentieth century saw the beginnings of a creeping and harmful educational trend in which confidence in direct instruction was replaced with a misguided belief in children’s ability to discover knowledge for themselves. Keith expresses some unease at this sentiment which, he says, represents “a serious impediment to any reconciliation of the traditional and the progressive implied in the White Paper.”

It is also, he suggests, an interpretation of history that invites challenge. Whilst it is true that the Plowden Report legitimised the idea of a child-centred education in the 1960s, with an accompanying stress on sociological understandings, similar attitudes were to be found in government policy documents from decades earlier. The 1950s educational orthodoxies held so close by this government have little equivalent in prescriptions from the decades before or afterwards, he says.

The White Paper aspires to bold reform and is a candid admission that the independent sector model is worth imitating, which Keith finds gratifying. However, he believes the jury is out on whether the fledgling academy structure is ready for the expansion envisaged, irrespective of the government’s recent rowing back. Rather, policy makers must overcome a powerful attachment to certain understandings and methods if the merits of independent sector approaches are to be realised.

To read Keith Budge’s regular term-time blogs, click here