Flat Earth News

A book about schools

The Guardian, November 2000

Nothing I have ever written has produced a reaction like the Guardian series on schools which is now being published as a book - a torrent of readers' letters spilling over with passion, more than a hundred 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 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.

In the eighteen months I spent researching them, I got deeper into the workings of a government department than I have ever done before. It was not a reassuring experience. I started 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, gave the appearance of action, gave the pundits something to chew on while the real problems sat unsolved in the background, because (as the ministers often very well knew) the alleged solutions were entirely bogus.

We looked at Fresh Start, David Blunkett's brave new cure for the weakest schools - and found a mass of evidence which had discredited the idea in the United States years before Mr Blunkett ever pulled it out of his briefcase and started pretending it should be taken seriously. We looked at 'special measures', the routine procedure for dealing with a school that fails its Ofsted report - and (after months of negotiations) we dug out statistics which completely contradicted the ministers' grandiose claims of success. We looked at the official claims for the virtues of our 'mentoring' scheme - and then unearthed the department's own devastating findings of its miserable weakness. These initiatives are high-octane guff. And they reflect the great underlying problem, 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 David Blunkett for securing a £19 billion increase in funding for education - a few months later, we discovered that we had been conned. Well, the whole country had been conned. What was worse, the conman got away with it. On the single occasion when he was challenged about it - 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 £19 billion 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 £19 billion 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 sunk like a stone, the journalists chased off to the next press conference, and the various ministers carried on fibbing for 18 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 and now president of the NASUWT union. 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, attempted to 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 cannot explain what is happening 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. The reality is that unless Mr Blunkett acknowledges this and until 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.

* The School Report, published today by Vintage, £6.99.

>>> Archive of Nick Davies work >>> Flat Earth News is now out in paperback Flat Earth News >>> Reporting Masterclass