The school report is fairly small volume containing a series of articles published in the Guardian newspaper last year. The author, Nick Davies spent eighteen months investigating British schools and has concluded that state school children, particularly those from poor backgrounds, are continuing to be unfairly treated under New Labour.
"I came out with a feeling close to contempt, having peered into a department (Education), which I eventually concluded was habitually lying and cheating and presiding over a shambles - something it was enabled to do mainly because of the scale of that self same dishonesty." (Davies (2000), pp vii-viii)
The first chapter, entitled, "Poverty invades the classroom" provides fascinating, individual narratives of pupils and school staff. It is compulsive reading, aided by Davies' excellent portrayal and punchy, journalistic style. Davies goes on to argue that factors affecting school ability are variable and reliant on political ideology rather than the consideration of the facts. Theories of causes of failure differ from trade unions, political parties, teachers and Ofsted, all citing each other in order to lay the blame. Davies emphasises that the major determinant is poverty.
"The evidence that poverty undermines education is overwhelming - and has been for decades. Yet governments deny it. The last government denies the poverty itself. This government admits the poverty, but denies its impact." (Davies (2000) p8)
The School Report argues that educational failure of impoverished children has been intensified by the reforms, which were implemented by the Conservatives in the 1988 Education Reform Act. The Act heralded the marketisation of schools. A key principle of the Act means that schools must ensure the enrolment of the maximum number of students. Parents can send their child to the school of their choice as long as there is a space and the education is appropriate. Davies argues that this has led to severe polarisation of schools and that selection has started using the postcode to effectively replace the eleven-plus exam. The argument is that comprehensive schooling, if properly implemented, is effective, but there needs to be a mix of abilities and social class. Since parental choice was implemented the mix has been eroded. However, this has always been a problem, even prior to parental choice due to environmental factors. Although some parents are able to move nearer to their school of choice or transport their children, many will choose the nearest school and assume that there is a similar level of education. The middle class parent is more effectively able to engage in the educational market in order to access the best for their child. This gives them a distinct advantage over their working class peers.
Davies has included some of Blunkett's arguments and responses to author within the book. Some Guardian reader's letters are also in the book. Generally they are in favour of Davies, but we cannot know how these letters were selected or even if Blunkett's responses were edited in any way.
The final section of the book is given to truancy problems and finding solutions. Given the occasional depressing nature of the writing, the reader may prefer a longer section on solutions, which although well thought out are not particularly realistic in the current political climate.
Detailed accounts are given of individual children who have been excluded or are missing from school. Again, we are drawn into their world of deprivation and lack of hope. Anyone who has lived on a deprived council estate will recognise them, but may not understand the problems and "sadness" which Davies describes with such eloquence. He declares that mental illness is a common factor in truanting children and that omission of children is heightened when they are unattractive to a head teacher seeking higher exam results and fewer special need problems. Financially, it is often in a head teacher's interests to exclude difficult children. The child is seen to fail the school, not the school failing the child. Davies notes those family problems such as mental illness and domestic disputes, which are often ignored. Measures by the government, such as heavy fines for parents of truants do not take into account that they may be in need of help themselves. each other.
Davies considers the Dutch methods of education where much more concentration is placed upon vocational training. Throughout the book he denigrates the 1988 Educational Reform Act and adopting Dutch methods would mean a complete overhaul of the educational system. Given the commitment that New Labour has shown to the continuation of the system, it is extremely unlikely that Holland would be looked to for inspiration. This is a pity, because they appear much more focused towards equality within education. Some of the Dutch school exercises that Davies suggests we look to are very similar to the "trendy teaching methods" that the 1988 Reform Act were set up to destroy.
This book was found to be innovative and informative. The most interesting parts of the books were the individual narratives of children, describing in their various ways in which education has failed them. These pieces incite emotion within the reader that can only come from excellent writing and serve to remind us whom education is meant to be for. Unfortunately Davis is right to assert that until the 1988 Education Reforms are superseded, inequality within schools looks as though it will continue