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It’s not a rigorous education – An Interview with Fiona Millar

Fiona Millar is a journalist and campaigner on education and parenting issues, being a regular contributor to Guardian Education. In 2009 she published the book “The Secret World of the Working Mother”, which explored the challenges facing working mothers. In 2011 she published “A New Conversation with Parents” – a report looking into what parents want from schools – with the charity Family Lives and the Pearson Centre for Policy and Learning. Fiona is a co-founder of the Local Schools Network website, Chair of Comprehensive Future and chair of governors at a North London secondary school. She tweets as @schooltruth.

I want to start by talking about social justice and education. Considering there is this persistent and growing gap in England between the wealthiest and the most disadvantaged, what are the main challenges young people from disadvantaged backgrounds face today?

There are a lot of challenges but the main challenge is that, however good schools get at closing this gap, the most aspirant and advantaged parents will be making sure that their children progress at an even faster rate. Narrowing the gap would be difficult, given the culture of choice and competition that we’re in – David Willets called it a “parental arms race” – but even then, parents with the most will always ensure their children do the best.

If we really want to narrow the gap, we need to put the same resources, time and pastoral care behind children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds that we put into those from the wealthiest backgrounds; both in and beyond schools.

The Labour government recognised the importance of community and home environments to students, but that has gone out the window now with the current Conservative government in office.

Schools receive ring-fenced money now for disadvantaged pupils (Pupil Premium) but all it does is fill a gap. It has been useful in drawing attention to the progress and attainment of certain groups of pupils, but it is a drop in the ocean when you think of the amount of resources schools need to support these pupils. Pupil premium does not give a young person from a disadvantaged background the same opportunities as David Cameron had, which is where we need to get to if we want to have a truly fair society. It’s a structural issue – we also need to be considering income and social inequality.

Do we put too much emphasis on education to fix problems that are the consequence of structural inequality?

Yes, we are probably just tinkering around the edges – we need to be thinking about housing, communities and out-of-school learning environments, such as parental education, access to local libraries and the many other services families need outside of school.

As a campaigner, it is important to recognise these limitations, but we also still need to be pragmatic. The issue of inequality is a political one and needs to be won at a different level – though, unquestionably, it does need to be won if we are committed to closing this gap.

What role do private schools have to play in the education system – should we abolish them?

If we were starting from where we are now, we would not have private schools – the fact is, they are here and no-one is going to abolish them. So, better arrangements whereby they work more closely with state schools, helping those poorer children get the same chances as their better-off peers and justifying their charitable status, would be a good place to start.

It is a particular problem in some cities – London, Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol – where there are very high rates of entry to private schools; and then these students go on to get disproportionate number of places at the top universities. The Children’s Poverty Commission found in  their State of the Nation report (2015) that, even if state school students do achieve the top grades from the best universities, employers are still looking at what school you went to and what social capital you bring. Young people from poorer backgrounds can’t win.

School admission tests. Source: Telegraph.
School admission tests.
Source: Telegraph.

Moving on to a subject you passionately campaign on: school admissions – what’s the problem and what needs to be reformed?

There should be an obligation for schools locally to come together and work out how to get most balanced intake for each individual school. At the moment, there is no transparency about how some schools are engineering their admissions more favourably compared to others, so we need to ask how this is impacting the schools that are left with the children that a lot of others don’t want.

In the current climate, where everything is geared towards exam results, it is more difficult to get “outstanding” results from students who have a lower starting point. People say that to do as I suggest is ‘social engineering’ but the great English public schools are a huge instance of social engineering. So let’s stop some schools being able to select what pupils they take.

How do you stop parents gaming the system, such as buying a house in a particular school catchment area?

You could have a lottery for school admissions – that means if you do buy a house in the catchment area, there’s no guarantee that your child will be able to attend that school. That then becomes a risky undertaking. However, a lot of people see this as taking away parent choice, and parent choice has ruled the debate for 25 years. Indeed, parent choice is not a necessarily a bad thing, but not every parent is getting the full range of choice and that is fundamentally unfair.

Arguably, we also have a problem with university admissions – as you said earlier, those from independent schools hold a disproportionate amount of the places at the top universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. Should university admissions be changed?

What’s unfair about admissions at Oxford and Cambridge is the amount of help that some students get to prepare for the interview. This is by no means always available to many young people in the state sector. It’s about who you know. Students from state schools may not have a parent or family friend who has been who can explain the process. I can see why these universities think they need to interview but it is definitely discriminatory. Though, saying that, plenty of applicants from private schools are not successful at securing a place at Oxford or Cambridge.

Indeed, we find ourselves in a very unequal society, and it is getting more unequal –  English politicians seem to have no interest in tackling that.

Nonetheless, I am hopeful that the ‘comprehensive generation’ will start to come through. We are getting to the point where those in power, who went through the grammar school system in the 50s and 60s, will begin to be replaced by those who went through the comprehensive system.

Do you think this is also about empathy – that current politicians just can’t or don’t choose to empathise with what it is like to be in a low socioeconomic class?

I think it’s very difficult to empathise if you went to Eton. You can say you understand but inevitably you will not have the same sense of connection or empathy with a child who did not have the same advantages.

The problem with the political system at the moment is that it is run by people who don’t have real experience of what that’s like.

My children grew up in a privileged middle-class family but going to their local state schools has given them friendships across the social spectrum and n understanding of other people’s lives.

Moving onto the topic of teaching, we are now facing a teacher recruitment and retention crisis in England with nearly 50% of teachers leaving the profession within 5 years. Why do you think this is happening?

The Labour government made great attempts to make teaching a high-status, attractive profession and lots of very good people came into teaching. After the 2008 financial crash, when a lot of jobs looked insecure, teaching was an attractive option. Now the economy has improved, this isn’t the case anymore, especially for graduates from subject disciplines like mathematics or the sciences.

There’s also this constant rhetoric that teachers are useless – why would anyone want to join a profession where the politicians are constantly telling you that? This is alongside the accountability culture for teacher performance in schools, a highly prescriptive national curriculum and ‘high-stakes’ testing, pressure from league tables and inspections from Ofsted (The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills). The outcome is that schools are now unpleasant places to work. There isn’t trust. I can understand why people look at teaching and think it’s not a career where they will flourish or have a good work-life balance.

You’re also not going to get the good headteachers you need either, with a leadership recruitment crisis also on the horizon and one million more pupils entering the school system in the next ten years.

We have to change the rhetoric and make teaching a high-status, highly valued profession that is well paid. Teachers don’t feel valued.

Ofsted is part of the problem. I understand the need for accountability but it now runs on fear and lack of trust. We need to recalibrate the whole inspection framework and make it much more about peer review with other headteachers around the country. Ofsted then becomes a body to hold these peer reviews to account and focus the process on being more encouraging, helping individual schools on what they could do better.

What’s happening now, with the decimation of local authorities and fragmentation of the school system through academisation means often schools are left with nobody there to support them. We need local oversight and accountability – eight Regional School Commissioners cannot do the job of 150 local authorities. That does not mean we should go back to the old local authority model – some local authorities
were not very good when it came to school improvement – but we do need a local system in place.

Teachers threatening to strike over the government's academisation agenda, Source: Telegraph.
Teachers threatening to strike over the government’s academisation agenda, Source: Telegraph.

What do you think of the forced academisation agenda?

The latest plans to force all schools to academies is madness; unnecessary, costly and disruptive at a time when there are so many more pressing issues facing schools. The government is obsessed with centralisation masked under talk of ‘autonomy’ and ‘freedom’. The rationale can’t be about standards because the evidence shows that academy status does not magically result in school improvement. But it might be about the introduction of for profit providers in the future. How much easier is that to introduce if every school is in a chain, which they are prevented from leaving as their have lost their own legal identity, and that chain has a contract with the Secretary of State for Education?

What would make a positive impact on the education system would be fundamental reforms to the curriculum, qualifications and accountability; and most crucially, raising the status and quality of the teaching profession – not structural changes with no obvious long-term purpose.

So how should we be educating young people for the future?

They need to be educated for flexibility, a love of learning – which is stifled under the current accountability regime – as well as resilience and acceptance and learning from failure.[4]  It is time to get rid of GCSEs, open up the curriculum to make it a more interesting and engaging process, and make subjects like drama, music and art valued. To have a final assessment at only at 18.

Everything is too exam-oriented. Of course qualifications matter but at the moment, we start with outcomes in terms of exams and then decide what the accountability system should look like and then pupils get the curriculum to fit around it – that is the wrong way round. Politicians are terrified of getting rid of what they perceive to be a rigorous education. It’s not a rigorous education, it’s a very narrowed-down offer, which only reflects one part of what it means to be a well-rounded educated person.

Academic subjects are very important, however, because unless you give working-class children the opportunity to study these subjects, they won’t be able to get into the top universities. Some schools were not doing that, they were enrolling these students at 14 into vocational qualifications with basic English and maths. So I am not opposed to the idea of having core academic subjects, but I do not agree with how the government wants to measure it – through the English Baccalaureate metric – which means other subjects like music and art will get pushed out because they are not on the list of compulsory subjects.

We mustn’t forget that we also have a better generation of teachers and headteachers then we have ever had, certainly in my lifetime, and a lot of people are working very hard in disadvantaged communities to make a difference. But this needs to be recognised and celebrated if we want more people to do the same.


Roisin Ellison works for the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), where she leads on a variety of education programmes for the RSA Family of Academies. She has also recently co-authored a paper with the RSA Director of Education on ‘Giving Schools the Power the Create’. Roisin read Philosophy at King’s College, Cambridge from 2006-2009, going on to train as a primary school teacher and complete an M.Ed in Politics, Development and Democratic Education at the Faculty of Education in Cambridge. She tweets at @roisinellison.