Ask most parents, children or teachers to identify the main problems and in all likelihood a core of issues will be held in common by all three groups.
Classes are too large, there is too little money for resources, too many classes are taught by unqualified teachers or teachers not qualified in the subject they are expected to teach.
The government does not agree.
In last week’s government education White Paper Professor Alan Smithers of Buckingham University set out the problems as he saw it — left-wing councils, university training departments and the teaching unions.
The Sunday Times headlined the White Paper as “giving leftie teachers a good caning”. These are the forces most often described by the right as “the education establishment”.
In a bizarre parallel universe inhabited by Cameron, Clegg, and Michael Gove, the persistence of inequality of outcomes in education is nothing to do with social inequality, poverty or the tearing up of working-class communities by their predecessors in the 1980s. What holds back all children, but particularly poorer children, is a combination of local elected councils, trendy teaching ideas and powerful classroom unions.
The antidote to this is maximum autonomy for schools.
Freedom from local authorities will come via a huge expansion of the academy system and a reduction in their responsibilities and the money available to fund local services.
Teacher training will become more school-based, so that colleges can no longer, as Michael Gove put it, “get people into the wrong mindset”.
And, the hope is, teacher unions will be significantly weakened as individual schools set their own pay and conditions and it becomes harder to negotiate all-staff local agreements. And the growth of academies and free schools could threaten the ability of elected lay union reps to defend and organise members by undermining union facilities arrangements.
Outside of the more unhinged right-wing commentariat (Melanie Phillips, the Spectator, Chris Woodhead) there is no serious research or evidence to suggests that an end to national pay, lots of different kinds of schools, and much weaker local authorities will improve schools.
The White Paper cites OECD studies of pupil performance across the economically advanced world to justify its proposals. It cites selectively, very selectively indeed.
Among conventional liberal capitalist societies, regular studies of outcomes in numeracy and literacy carried out by the OECD have persistently shown that the best results are achieved in Finland and Sweden, with South Korea and Japan close behind. The most striking thing about the school system in those countries is how comprehensive it is. Almost all children go to state-run, local authority-managed schools, and there is little or no selection or diversity between schools.
Finland and Sweden also have large and universal welfare states, and all four countries much have much lower levels of social and income inequality than Britain.
The White Paper completely ignores all this, and hones in on fairly peripheral aspects of those systems as the key to success. Sweden has some free schools, though recent government reports have found that they worsen social segregation and there appears to be a retreat from that idea. Finland requires teachers to have good first degrees, so Gove has borrowed that idea.
In fact the real model for this White Paper is the USA. Gove’s free schools are based explicitly on the US charter schools, which despite much spin to the contrary have not improved outcomes for inner city children and have done immense damage to the rest of the public school system.
There is also, as usual with the Tories, a sprinkling of barmy policy ideas such as getting injured soldiers into teaching to instil discipline, and reintroducing Latin and classics to ensure rigour and intellectual challenge in state schools.
Where the Paper comes close to identifying some real problems, it then promptly proposes more of the same policies which caused these problems in the first place.
It complains, for example, that too many schools have dropped proper academic subjects at GCSE in favour of courses that are not recognised as equivalents by colleges or employers and conned pupils, particularly working class pupils, out of a decent education. There is a lot in this, but the main culprits have been academies and they have done it to win the immensely high-stakes battle to “prove” they can raise “standards” (i.e. exam results).
Elsewhere the Paper boasts that academies have improved standards better than other schools. This is actually a lie; only about a third of academies can claim that, and they have done it by selecting different children and/or teaching different and “easier”, less demanding, courses.
This White Paper should by rights be thrown out in Parliament. Not only every Labour MP should vote against, but so too should every Lib Dem, if they have any sense at all.
All the attention at the moment is on the Lib Dem betrayal of their election pledge to abolish tuition fees. It can easily be forgotten than they also pledged to oppose academies. That was another part of their claim to be more radical and progressive than Labour.