Will Michael Gove’s reforms outlast him?Posted: May 2, 2013
On his Spectator blog recently, Fraser Nelson asked the question “will Michael Gove’s reforms outlast him”.(at http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2013/04/is-goves-school-reform-genie-out-of-the-bottle/). The highly encouraging answer was quite possibly not. Tory pessimism about the 2015 election is very real.
As usual, there is a claim that Gove’s programme represents “perhaps this government’s single greatest accomplishment –compared with the state of the economy, the state of the health service and the looming disaster of universal credit he may of course have a point.
But there is real concern about how little real progress on the right’s real agenda Gove has yet made. So Nelson laments that:
“Sure, half of all secondaries have academy status right now – but it is by no means clear that this status change will make the slightest bit of difference to the schools”
“By the next election some 240,000 primary places will be needed, but free schools are expected to deliver just 8,000”
“for the vast majority of parents the idea of free schools will be theoretical. If Labour were to end their freedom, not many would mourn”
It’s an interesting exercise to try to work out what would constitute real success in the eyes of Tory ideologues. There is no mention of any evidence about the quality of education and the actual achievement of young people. There’s an assertion that Gove’s programme will “help the poor”. No attention is paid to any evidence such as Stephen Machin’s recent finding that “Irrespective of whether we rank pupils by the school or national ability distribution, the effects of academy conversion are insignificantly different from zero – and possibly negative for later conversions – in the bottom 10% and 20% of the ability distribution, suggesting no beneficial effects on tail students in academies.”
To judge by this article, evidence of success would be:
– Destroying the teacher unions – “The Labour Party does not work for parents, it works for the unions. The party is more a tool of the unions than any time since Michael Foot’s days. The agenda is to restore political control over the secondary education system”
– In 10 to 15 years, most secondaries will be run by one of a dozen chains (such as ARK, Harris etc). That’s the optimistic scenario.
The idea that Gove is not seeking to assert political control over the entire system is of course laughable. His ideas will determine how and what teachers teach, how exams are constructed and who is allowed to run schools. And in any case, is it really better that schools are run by a few self selected bankers and carpet salesmen rather that elected politicians?
For Nelson, key reasons for the vulnerability of Gove’s programme are the failure to embrace profit making schools and to give schools the right to borrow money. As a result it has not been possible, he claims, for the programmes to grow quickly enough to meet the needs of a rapidly growing pupil population. What he doesn’t admit openly is that the DfE has had to allow local authorities a role in planning capital spending and new schools otherwise demand would never be met.
He then points out how easy it would really be for a new government to change direction. This is often talked about in the context of closing down academies and free schools. But there would of course be no need for that. The first step would, as he recognises, simply be to “put them under the supervision of the local authority”. As specific proof of his predictions, he refers readers to an interview with Stephen Twigg in The House magazine (at http://www.politicshome.com/uk/article/76565/examination_time.html.)
And on this he exaggerates the horror, but is not wrong about the overall thrust. The direct quote from Twigg is “I do think there’s a role for the local authority as an overseer of the schools in their area and I would say that includes all of the state funded schools in their area.”
In the same interview, he also says “What’s been lost in the system is the sense of a voice for the local community, including parents. When you have a system that is… market led, very fragmented, there are real risks that you lose that local community dimension of giving that voice to parents in the area. Gove alone decides who gets a free school”.
That will not be the end of the story. There will be a need to re-establish a level playing field between schools and to ensure that all schools work within a common framework whether it be in relation to school meals, admissions, funding, SEN or exclusions. But importantly, it is all to play for and the right knows it.