Will Michael Gove’s reforms outlast him?

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.

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3 Comments on “Will Michael Gove’s reforms outlast him?”

  1. Richard Hatcher says:

    John asks how you measure how successfully Gove’s reforms have achieved Tory goals. One key aim – and arguably the decisive one – is the completion of the transformation of the school system into a market for private profit. See for example A Manifesto Fit for 2015: 15 Ideas to Transform Britain, a report presented at the Conservative Party conference in September last year by the Free Enterprise Group, which was founded by Elizabeth Truss, now the Minister for Education and Childcare).

    ‘Reward our educators. We live in a country where we allow people to make very good money for running a chain of restaurants or hotels, but not for running a chain of schools. We need to stop undervaluing those who have the skills and expertise to ensure our children are numerate, literate and ready for adult life. The free schools programme is a welcome first step, but we need to allow the profit motive to ensure real lift off. ‘

    Gove has not managed to deliver this aim, even though he has established the conditions for it: academies, free schools, chains of private sponsors, the marginalisation of local authorities, breaking national union pay and conditions, allowing unqualified teachers, welcoming Murdoch’s and K-12’s online curricula to change the school labour process… But you just have to compare the stage the school transformation is at with the effective privatisation of the NHS from this April to see how far Gove still has to go, with not enough time to do it.

    But the question remains, how much of what Gove has achieved will be left in place, even if tinkered with, by Labour? John seems to be pinning some hopes on Twigg’s statement that “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.” Twigg has calculatedly avoided making any commitment to get rid of the Gove legacy and this is no exception because the meaning of ‘overseer’ is completely vague.

    One acid test is this: will private sponsors – AET, ARK, EACT, Oasis and the rest of them – still be able to own and control chains of state-funded schools? The indications are that Twigg will have no objection, he will just subject them to a little more regulation. To the SEA and any socialist this should be utterly unacceptable.

    So it is worrying that CASE, in its policy paper for negotiation with the Labour leadership, ‘Issues facing the English school system’, also seems willing to accept the continuing semi-privatisation of schools by sponsors.

    The document says the following: ‘Place all publicly funded schools within a common administrative and legal framework’. This might be interpreted as meaning that academies and free schools would be fully integrated into the local authority system. But they can’t be as long as they are owned and controlled by private sponsors, and the following sentence in the section on Democracy makes clear that sponsors would still remain:

    ‘Require all state funded schools and any linked trusts and sponsors, the DfE and all government agencies to be accountable for their decisions and for the use of public money by complying with freedom of information and publishing data of all kinds.’

    The full integration of academies and free schools into a reconstructed local authority system requires that no school is controlled by an external organisation. (This is not intended to affect denominational schools.) All academy and free school Funding Agreements should be rescinded, and the governing bodies of schools which were previously academies should be re-formed to ensure that they have the same composition as maintained schools. (NB David Wolfe’s presentation at the CASE conference in November demonstrated that there are no major legal obstacles to doing this.)

    Richard Hatcher

  2. patrickjdainley says:

    In my view, this is a very complacent article. Please see my book with Martin Allen ‘The Great Reversal’ (radical £4.99) for an analysis of how rapidly and irreperably Gove AND WILLETTS are moving towards privatising all levels of state education in England.

  3. patrickjdainley says:

    radicaled that should have said (It’s on word press. Just google it – us and ‘Radical Ed’ in the USA!)