Unhappy returns

9 Sep 10
As the new term starts, the education secretary faces some tough tests, not least from the Treasury. Conor Ryan tracks how the coalition's star pupil became a struggling low achiever

By Conor Ryan

9 September 2010

As the new term starts, the education secretary faces some tough tests, not least from the Treasury. Conor Ryan tracks how the coalition’s star pupil became a struggling low achiever

As a new school term begins, Education Secretary Michael Gove hopes to breathe fresh life into his troubled education plans. The pace of reform has been slow and headlines have focused on Gove’s botched review of Labour’s school building programme. Only 23% of people think the coalition is doing a good job on school reform, according to last month’s polls, with 42% saying it is doing a bad job.

Gove is hoping to regain the initiative – and his reputation as one of Prime Minister David Cameron’s star performers – with plans for a pupil premium, an overhaul of the curriculum and a review of capital investment in schools. But the success of these measures will depend on how his department fares in October’s Comprehensive Spending Review.

Gove’s troubles began with his cancellation of the £55bn Building Schools for the Future programme, which included scrapping more than 700 planned projects. Gove claims that ­comparable schools in Ireland have been procured at two-thirds the cost of the BSF. He ­expects his review, led by Sebastian James, director of electronics retailer DSG International, to produce comparable savings when it reports later this year.

In addition to the cancelled projects, 152 more were delayed. One of these was a £20m makeover for Outwood Academy Adwick, which was put on hold in July. The 1,200 pupil academy has replaced North Doncaster Technology College, which received a ‘poor’ rating from Ofsted in 2008. Outwood wants to rebuild the school and replace a scaffolding-encased block, which has required students to enter the building through a tunnel. One boy was injured trying to swing from the ground-level scaffolding last year.

The academy is sponsored by a trust led by Outwood Grange Academy, an ‘outstanding’ school in Wakefield. Its chief executive, Michael Wilkins, has turned around several Yorkshire schools and recently received a national award for ­system leadership from Gove.

The trust argued its case to the Department for Education but the project was delayed again in August. The decision on Outwood and a further 75 academies must now wait until the Spending Review.

Wilkins is hopeful but realistic. ‘We recognise that money is a lot tighter now,’ he says. ‘But we do have a very serious worry about Adwick. Our main concern is that the building will need replacing sooner rather than later.’ 

BSF has had its critics, including some academy sponsors who complained about its consultancy costs and bureaucracy. At the same time, a surge in demand for primary school places has placed a strain on the existing primary capital programme. With Chancellor George Osborne demanding cuts, Gove felt on strong ground suspending many existing BSF plans until his review had reported. But a combination of backbench complaints and an erroneous list of axed projects turned a difficult decision into a political fiasco. It also led to last weekend’s defection of the Conservative deputy leader of Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council, Elaine Costigan, to Labour. Sandwell schools initially thought their building plans would go ahead only to have their hopes dashed.

While Gove publicly accepted responsibility, the DfE traded blame with the school building quango, Partnership for Schools. But the partnership’s chief executive, Tim Byles, was bullish about the programme’s costs, telling the Commons education select committee: ‘The average cost of consultants or advisers for local government in entering into these procurements is running at about 2.8% of the capital cost. That is a low number in comparison with other similar types of procurement.’

The sudden shortage of BSF capital might undermine the coalition’s wider reforming ambitions. Government insiders admit it is harder to introduce structural changes such as new academies alongside spending cuts. But they argue that the combination of new sponsors, a changed ethos, a new head and getting rid of ‘dead wood’ (poor teachers) can raise standards. Many existing academy heads believe their new buildings inspired confidence in disadvantaged communities and contributed to an improvement in GCSE results this year that was three times the national average.

‘Any sponsor who is asked to take on a new academy will be very cautious about the standard of the building stock now,’ says Michael Wilkins.

Over-optimistic lists have added to the problems. In July, Gove named 1,700 schools that had expressed interest in becoming academies. At the same time, the government-funded New Schools Network maintained that 700 parent- or teacher-led ‘free’ school projects were well advanced.

However, only 153 existing schools had applied to become academies by the end of last term, with just 32 opening this term (in addition to 64 planned by ­Labour) and 110 more due to open during the school year. Ministers blamed a tight timetable, despite their rushing through of the necessary legislation. There were just 62 firm proposals for free schools by July, with 16 likely to open in 2011.

Gove has been bullish about the ­numbers, pointing out in TV interviews that only two parent-promoted schools opened under Labour. However, his critics in the teaching unions say that the small initial numbers are a sign of failure. ‘For a policy that was supposed to be a flagship change for education, it is something of a failure to have so few schools opening at this stage,’ said Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, which has been ­actively opposing academy conversions.

Gove’s allies say the government has been too slow to make the necessary legal changes. ‘I don't think that capital in itself will be the constraining factor,’ says Rachel Wolf, director of the New Schools Network. ‘The really crucial thing that needs to happen quickly is planning changes. These haven't gone through yet and they are massively slowing down the process and making things much more expensive. They have to be in place, at the very least, for the 2012 schools.’

Other supporters of free schools think Gove needs to abandon his commitment that only not-for-profit providers will be allowed to run them. The original Swedish model allows profit-making companies to team up with parents’ groups to invest in the schools. Dale Bassett, research director at the Reform think-tank, says: ‘The free schools programme is an admirable attempt to increase choice in the system, but without the ability for profit-making companies to set up schools, it seems unlikely to create a revolution of sufficient scale to have a systemic impact on quality.’

Gove’s predecessor, shadow schools secretary Ed Balls, who opposes free schools, shares this analysis: ‘I believe the government will follow the Swedish example by allowing private companies to make a profit from opening up taxpayer-funded schools, even where there are already enough places,’ he says. ‘That's how free schools took off in that country.’

But such a move would spark concerns about privatisation. Ministers still expect 150 not-for-profit free schools to open in 2013, including many in the primary sector – in response to a shortage of places as a result of population growth. The government also believes that more good secondary schools will choose academy status given they will receive an average of £400,000 for services previously ­provided by the local authority.

However, the Conservatives’ coalition allies are not helping:  a motion to the Liberal Democrats’ conference in Liverpool next week brands free schools as ‘socially divisive, likely to depress education outcomes and an inefficient use of resources in an age of austerity’. Such grassroots LibDem opposition to free schools ­explains why the pupil premium, giving schools extra cash for poorer ­pupils, could be the coalition’s most ­important autumn education reform.

At present, inner-city schools get ­significant extra cash for disadvantaged pupils, but those in the suburbs and shires generally do not. But the impact of the premium will depend on its size and distribution. While Prime Minister David Cameron told MPs in June that it would be funded from ‘outside the education budget’, the coalition agreement says only that it will come from outside the schools budget. The Treasury wants it to be funded from other education cuts.

Even if the premium is significantly more than £1,000 a pupil – as Gove hopes – it is still likely to be less than the £2,500 the LibDems originally envisaged. If the Treasury has its way, it could come at the expense of existing school funds. A consultation document has already suggested that schools could lose some of their earmarked funding for poorer pupils and staff training to local authorities, which could give it to other schools. However, there would be a minimum funding ­guarantee for all schools  in the first year.

The change is part of a longer-term move towards a national funding formula – academies are already nationally funded, although what they receive reflects local norms. A national formula could shift some resources from schools in poorer urban areas to poorer pupils in schools in better-off counties and boroughs. This could create as many complaints as cheers. Gove’s reputation – and the future harmony of the coalition – will depend as much on his success in winning the funds necessary for the successful introduction of the pupil premium as on his handling of BSF.

At the same time, ministers are planning further legislation on the national curriculum, school discipline, inspections and accountability. Schools minister Nick Gibb is leading an overhaul of the curriculum and qualifications. This could include introducing a new Baccalaureate to encourage pupils to take a range of academic GCSEs; strengthening the role of traditional subjects, such as history and science; and giving schools more freedom on subjects such as sex education, citizenship and cooking. Changes to league tables could reduce the weighting for vocational courses, while Ofsted’s recently expanded empire could be cut back to a focus on poorer performing schools. A November white paper, which will include stronger discipline powers, is likely to be followed by legislation in 2011.

All this reforming zeal could be undermined by any autumn spending cuts. Although the DfE has semi-protected status, it will still have to cut 10%–20% from its £61bn resource budget. The DFE has lost £670m already this year, and further cuts could threaten funding streams on which schools rely, including specialist school cash (worth £129 a pupil to most secondary schools) and funding for
in-service training.

Even if frontline school budgets are protected, there could be big cuts in the £5.8bn youth support budget, affecting youth services, Connexions advice and education maintenance allowances for over-16s in education. Refocusing the Sure Start children’s programme on poorer families could reduce the £1.7bn under-fives budget.

School budgets might be cushioned by cuts in staff pay and pensions. Teachers’ pay has increased by 2.3% this month, but is likely to be frozen next year. John Hutton’s review of public sector pensions might reduce the £11bn annual cost of the teachers’ scheme. However, many schools might still have to shed staff as a result of changes to funding methodology and an end to existing funding pots.

Gove entered government with a ­reputation for radicalism and sure-footedness and many Cameron supporters saw his reforms as central to their project in power. That reputation has been seriously dented in the coalition’s first four months in office, and the extent to which he can recover will depend on his ability to advance his radical agenda while minimising the frontline impact of Treasury cuts this autumn. How he negotiates that difficult balancing act will determine not only whether his reputation for radicalism survives the pressures of government – but the futures of millions of schoolchildren and their teachers as they return from their summer holidays.

Conor Ryan blogs at www.conorfryan.blogspot.com. He is a former senior adviser on education to Tony Blair and David Blunkett

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