Part one gives a political history of English education since 1945, covering the role of secretaries of state for education, the workings of the department and how policies are made, and changes in the "middle-tier" with the shift towards academy trusts and away from local authorities. Part two covers "the confused and disputed arenas", with chapters on curriculum, pedagogy and assessment, on teacher training and retention, and on school leadership and improvement. And part three has chapters on admissions, exclusion and behaviour, on special education needs, on circumstance, disadvantage, parents and communities, on accountability (how to improve Ofsted), and on governance and funding (returning to academy trusts and local authorities).
This is mostly descriptive, though with some recommendations for action, but a final chapter sets out a complete program for reforming the English school system. This goes as far as describing six new "foundation stones" to be created — complete with acronyms, so STEPS would be the "Seeking Talent and Extending Participation Scheme" — and thirty-four specific actions to be taken.
There are occasional places in About Our Schools where Brighouse and Waters seem to be just punting, or to have latched onto one perspective — on, for example, details of the role of AI in education. While now retired and outside the system, they are clearly restraining themselves in a few places from writing what they really think, perhaps because they don't want to burn their bridges to the people involved. They don't have much on the experience of ordinary teachers or on parent expectations of and attitudes to the education system and how those have changed. And they are a bit too fond of puns.
But these are minor complaints. Most of what Brighouse and Waters write clearly comes from an immense depth of experience, and they draw on interviews with and input from a wide range of people. About Our Schools manages to make a hugely complicated, sprawling topic remarkably accessible: it is a hefty tome, but it is broken down into short sections, uses quotes effectively, and avoids tables or charts. The authors themselves recommend just reading sections, but I ended up reading it cover to cover. It could, I think, usefully be read by almost anyone involved with the English education system, from involved parents — it would make a good backgrounder for someone thinking of becoming a school governor — to (one hopes) current and future secretaries of state for education.
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