Interview: Lord Adonis

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IMAGE/CiceroGroup
IMAGE/CiceroGroup

Andrew Adonis is out to fix Britain’s failing comprehensives. The former Minister for Education is Labour to the core, a champion of Teach First, and the driving force behind academy schools. He is, in short, the living embodiment of Tony Blair’s old mantra, “education, education, education.” Hardly surprising, given his own decidedly unconventional background. Adonis’ life story reads like a Dickens novel: aged eleven, Andrew was awarded a scholarship to attend boarding school in Oxfordshire. He hopped neatly from school to Keble, from Keble to Christ Church, and from Christ Church to-where else?- the corridors of power. His rise has been nothing short of meteoric.

And yet, sitting on a bench in Balliol’s Garden Quad, Andrew Adonis seems reluctant to discuss his own experiences of the state education system. To what extent did his schooling inform his policies? He sidesteps the question with such ease, it’s all I can do not to burst into spontaneous applause. “Fifteen years ago,” he explains, “one-third of comprehensive schools were pretty much no-go areas for the middle classes.” I wait for the party line, and he doesn’t disappoint. He credits Labour’s academy programme for “eradicating this long trail of seriously underperforming comprehensives, by improving their governence, leadership, teaching, and facilities.” And now, he tells me, “most schools in those in deprived areas are getting good results, and establishing strong traditions of sending students to university.”

He’s absolutely right. Ish. Whilst inner city schools like Hackney’s Mossbourne academy flourished under his watch, and GCSE results soared, Adonis’ stance on education marks him out as the exception rather than the norm within his party. In fact, for all his Labour sensibilities, the man wields some serious cross-Parliamentary clout. A decade ago, Adonis’ shiny new fleet of commercially sponsored, quasi-independent academy schools won him more than a few true blue Tory fans, with Michael Gove once declaring him to be “on the same page” as the Conservatives.

How disappointing, then, that a gutsy maverick like Adonis should fall into the same trap as every other politician under the sun: Oxbridge-bashing. The elite universities, he tells me, “need to engage in the state school system, particularly with comprehensive schools- much better than they have in the past.” Not this old chestnut again. In his recent book, ‘Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools’, Adonis continues to rip chunks out of his alma mater’s supposed lack of social engagement. He pins the blame for the chasm “between Oxford, Cambridge…and the majority of comprehensive schools,” squarely on the shoulders of the vice-chancellors, who “do a plausible job of claiming to be tackling it, while year after year little changes.” This is more than a tad unfair, given that Oxford alone holds around 1,500 outreach events each year, reaching 78% of all state schools and shelling out more than £8m on access initiatives, bursaries, and student support.

In his defence, Adonis does acknowledge that state school teachers must up their game. “You need both a stronger push factor and a stronger pull factor,” he says, urging  “the leading universities to encourage their best students to become teachers through the Teach First programme- because that will transform both results and aspirations in schools.” Indeed, he identifies Teach First as “the single most effective policy for attracting more able students from the state system. Because as we all know, it’s about who teaches you and the aspirations they give you.” Well said. Teach First has undeniably been a runaway success, attracting top graduates to inner city schools, and fast-tracking them to leadership roles. Adonis, as a trustee, has played an integral part in the scheme’s development. This much is clear: Andrew Adonis cares desperately about the state of comprehensive schools, and he is willing to transcend party politics to ensure your grandchildren will grow up in a meritocratic Britain. Long may he continue to be an honourary Tory!