Michael Gove’s childish nonsense in calling his critics “Ideologues happy with failure” has forced me back into the blogosphere.
A useful rule of thumb in politics is that the more a politician feels they are under pressure the shriller they become. And for Gove to accuse someone like David Lammy, who knows more about social mobility that the Secretary of State ever will, of being ‘happy with failure’ is as ridiculous as it is insulting.
Why would Gove feel under pressure? He is determined that all school become academies and but primary schools – the vast majority of schools in the country – are resisting his charms. The Local Government Intelligence Unit says that, to date, less than two percent of primary schools have converted to academy status and the rate of applications is slowing dramatically. At this rate it will take almost seventy years before he achieves his aim of every school becoming an academy.
Gove weakens his argument by deliberately conflating the two separate academies programmes he is pursuing.
The first, and much smaller in size, is to continue Labour’s policy of converting schools believed to be consistently under-performing into ‘sponsored academies’. This policy has, in the main, achieved its objectives of improving some inner-city schools; although I would argue that this is more down to the massive investment and new leadership that went with conversion rather than something inherent about the change of status itself. But this programme clearly isn’t the priority for Gove because only a small proportion of schools that have become academies since the last election have done so with a sponsor.
The vast majority of converters are part of the Government’s separate programme to persuade all other schools to convert without the extra help or investment that a sponsor might bring. I’m not aware of any compelling evidence that simply changing the status of an already good or outstanding school will further improve it, yet Gove is throwing hundreds of millions of pounds of scarce public money at this project.
And anyone who questions this is apparently an “ideologue”.
This begs the question of who really is the ideologue here. Gove can point to no tangible results at all from his main programme of converting already good schools at great cost (each school thinking of converting gets £25,000 to spend on the exercise as well as, in many cases, more generous funding after conversion).
So why is he doing it?
It’s because of his deeply ideological belief that unleashing market forces will improve schools. Gove believes that Councils managing a school system (local authorities haven’t actually controlled the operations of schools themselves for at least 20 years) restricts the free operation of the market because we do things like plan school places, try to stop schools poaching the pupils that are easiest to teach and ensuring vulnerable children aren’t forgotten.
Therefore the removal of these restraints on competition is central to his ideologically driven programme to unleash market forces into the school system. And after all, unrestrained market forces proved so helpful in improving the banking sector.
Even those who are supportive of the academies programme think that the removal of the ‘middle tier’ of institutions that regulate and monitor the school system is a mistake.
Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former Head teacher of the excellent Mossbourne academy recently appointed by Gove to be head of Ofsted, recently said: “We need some sort of intermediary bodies which can detect when things aren’t going well [with a school], look at the data and have their ear very close to the ground to determine when there is a certain issue.”
Hear, hear! However, such ‘intermediary bodies’ seem to be exactly the things that the Secretary of State is busy trying to make redundant (although, in all fairness, I should point out that Sir Michael was calling for a new schools inspectorate not a role for Local Authorities).
The other countries on which Gove has based his market revolution in schooling – Sweden, the USA and Chile – have experienced mixed results. Because, as night follows day, the introduction of a free market leads to winners and losers. I have no problem with, say, kebab shops on my local high street competing against each other because it doesn’t really matter if one of them going out of business. However, if a school fails in the same way then hundreds of children will have had their life chances snatched from them in a way that will affect the rest of their lives.
Some things are too important to be left to fail. Schools are one of those things.
So what should Labour’s response be? First, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be caught in a Tory trap of defending the indefensible. Where school standards are not high enough we should – at every level of the party from Labour appointed school governors, to councillors and our leaders – be working to improve children’s education.
But we should also try to break out of the frame for debate that Michael Gove is trying to establish – those that support me support success and those that don’t support failure – by coming up with our own set of school polices driven by our values. Stephen Twigg made speech this week that was bold, thought-provoking and wonderfully free of the obsession with a school’s governance arrangements shown by the current Secretary of State. I’m going to write more about this shortly.