Adonis: Education's restless reformer

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent

image captionAndrew Adonis was a key architect of the academy programme - and remains a big supporter

"All politics is autobiography," says Lord Andrew Adonis, and his own life story goes some way to explain his role as a restless reformer of England's education system.

His journey from a Camden council flat to the House of Lords has taken him through children's homes, a comprehensive so violent he was afraid of going to school, an independent boarding school, Oxford University and Downing Street.

It's the sort of improbable trajectory more associated with a Dickens novel than contemporary political biography. When so many politicians seem to have come out of the same jelly mould, he is the political insider with the insights of an outsider.

Speaking in his Westminster office, this former Labour education minister and key adviser to Tony Blair, says his own experience has given him the "instincts and prejudices" about what needed to change.

"Schools matter fundamentally, almost as much as families in the shaping of children, for good or ill - and where they fail, children find it very hard to recover."

In the 1990s, as an education correspondent for the Financial Times newspaper and then as an adviser to Tony Blair, he says he systematically visited schools - and was "shocked and horrified at how bad many comprehensives were".

"Not just that they were providing a poor standard of education, but that they were unsafe for children, bullying was rife, there could be very little proper control, teachers who had virtually no interest in the classroom, let alone outside."

He recalls that on one school visit he was locked in an office because the staff wouldn't allow him to walk around when the pupils were there.

Academy inventor

Lord Adonis became one of the chief architects of a new model of school, designed to tackle underachievement. It was the academy - state schools with the autonomy of independents. It might be said this hybrid of state funding for an independent education was what had worked for him.

Academies were controversial under Labour - and have carried on being controversial under the coalition government. But they have now become a majority among secondary schools in England.

Lord Adonis remains an unflinching supporter, saying that all under-performing schools, secondary and primary, should now become academies.

Universities and outstanding schools should be doing much more to support fledgling academies, he says.

Lord Adonis also argues against over-complicating what constitutes a good school.

"My rule of thumb as a minister was not to agree to anything that I wouldn't want to apply to my own children - and not to regard as acceptable any school that I wouldn't send my children to.

"Whether something is basically acceptable or unacceptable I think is very easy to judge in education and it's simply by the application of the test - would I subject my children to this?"

And he argues that progress has been held back by the lack of direct personal investment in state education by those making the decisions.

"One of the biggest problems in education for the past two generations is that so many ministers making decisions about state education have not themselves either been to state schools or sent their children to them.

"I think it's frankly thoroughly undesirable to have ministers of education who don't send their own children to state schools because they don't feel a sense of personal or moral responsibility for the decisions they're making."

No golden age

In his book, Education, Education, Education, Lord Adonis describes how Labour sought to re-invent and re-energise state education.

image captionAdonis went from backroom adviser to minister during Tony Blair's governments

And he argues that by "any objective measure our schools are fundamentally better".

He firmly rejects the idea that there was a golden age in education - and says his children's generation are much better served than his own in the 1970s.

Pupils are now taught by better teachers, in better-equipped classrooms, in greater safety and with many more achieving good qualifications. Too many people in his generation had left school with nothing - and too few had gone to university, he says.

The next level of improvements will come from raising the quality of teachers, he says.

As well as schools needing to carry on improving, Lord Adonis, has sharp words for the political class.

"There are too many people in politics who want to be something rather than do something, for whom the pinnacle of achievement is being appointed to a job, getting the red boxes and being able to sit in the back of the car.

"That's a great pity, because the government ought to be about serious social change or it's about nothing."

He also describes how different the political process can seem from within.

"There's this paradox - to those outside government, it appears all powerful; while to those inside government, it appears all impotent. That's how many people in government felt."

Rationing excellence

Lord Adonis highlights the characteristics of the most successful countries in education - in Asia and Scandinavia - and the weaknesses in England's schools.

The best education systems expect the vast majority of pupils to achieve a good level of education, he says.

In England, a distinguishing feature is the idea that excellence has to be rationed - that parents and their children will always face a shortage of high quality educational opportunities. There will never be enough of the best to go round.

Although he says there is "lip service" paid to the idea of fairness, this is countered by a suspicion that there will be some kind of "dilution" if the best is shared too widely.

With some honourable exceptions, he is dissatisfied with the independent school sector's efforts to engage with state schools.

Such weaknesses he argues are linked to an underlying problem - what he calls a "class segregated system".

"The 20th Century in England was the century of class and bitter class divisions. We have to put that behind us - and that means having an aspiration to do away with class divisions, starting with education. It is possible to do that as a society."

If that's a big challenge, he says: "I'm a professional optimist."

Education, Education, Education: Reforming England's Schools. By Andrew Adonis, published by Biteback Publishing