Blue school thinking

30 Jul 09
This could be the last academic year under a Labour government. So what would the future hold under a Conservative administration? Conor Ryan interviewed shadow schools secretary Michael Gove to find out
By Conor Ryan

30 July 2009

This could be the last academic year under a Labour government. So what would the future hold under a Conservative administration? Conor Ryan interviewed shadow schools secretary Michael Gove to find out

Schools are out for the summer. And if the polls are right, when teachers and pupils return in September they could be starting their last year under this Labour government. So there will be careful studying of what the Conservatives have to offer.

Claims of a huge leap in parent power – through a combination of extra academies and Swedish-style new schools – might prove to be somewhat exaggerated. The truth is that many of the Tory education plans extend what is already under way.

But the focus on these headline changes has obscured a potentially more contentious proposal. The Conservatives plan to restore a traditional curriculum to the classroom at the expense of recent trends towards teaching greater life skills and emphasising wider community links.

However, this is one of the few areas where the Labour and Conservative approaches diverge significantly. Schools Secretary Ed Balls and his Tory shadow, Michael Gove, exaggerate their other ­differences for partisan purposes. After a lengthy interview with Gove, it is clear that the policies of the two parties have much in common.

The first example of this is the Tory plan to extend Labour’s academies, which are state-maintained but externally sponsored independent schools. Since becoming secretary, Balls has expanded academies but tweaked their powers, requiring a core curriculum and co-operation with local authorities. The recent schools white paper promised 300 academies by 2010, with 200 this September.

The Conservatives promise to provide more newly built academies. They would continue to target poorly performing secondary schools and would grant the best schools (as judged by Ofsted) the right to academy independence provided they partnered with a weak school. Again, ­Labour has already given some good schools academy powers within such partnerships.

The Tories would also allow primary academies, which despite criticism from some ministers is actually another extension to Labour policy. A recent Specialist Schools and Academies Trust report showed that 20 academies will take ­primary-age ­children from this September.

But the third strand of Tory academies policy is more radical. ‘New academies’ would involve more private and faith schools entering the state sector. Although Labour has funded ex-independent schools as academies in Liverpool and Bristol, and new Anglican, Muslim and Sikh schools, the Conservatives would add Montessori and Steiner schools, and many more Catholic and Muslim schools. An authorising body, ministers and ­Ofsted would weed out extremists. ‘It is right to allow faith groups to set up schools provided they meet clear objective criteria with a triple lock of approval,’ Gove told Public Finance.

More significantly, the Conservatives hope to increase parental choice by providing 220,000 extra school places (there are 7.3 million pupils in English schools). These schools would be run by the chains that already run academies, such as Ark, the Vardy Foundation and the Harris Trust. Balls also backs more chains.

Many of these new schools would be free schools, along the lines of the Swedish model. Some 8% of primary and 15% of secondary pupils in Sweden attend free schools, and their numbers are growing. Over a third of the schools in the capital, Stockholm, are independently operated, and half the city’s 16–19-year-olds go to free schools. The recent crisis in school places in England helps the argument for more schools: Balls had to allocate £200m for extra reception classes after a failure to predict falling private school demand in the recession. But that recession will also make it harder to fund the Tory expansion – which could cost in excess of £1bn a year – at a time when the shadow chancellor has pledged to protect only the health and aid budgets. The Conservatives are now reviewing the extent and pace of their commitment.

Controversially, the party would top-slice 15% of the Building Schools for the Future budget to build their new schools. Schools minister Vernon Coaker argues that this cut from the BSF would amount to £4.5bn. ‘This would mean one in seven future school building projects across England – over 360 – being scrapped under the ­Conservative plans,’ he says.

Some senior Conservative councillors are also sceptical, including Birmingham councillor Les Lawrence, who chairs the Local Government Association’s children and young people board. He told the Commons schools select committee in April that: ‘Looking at recent debates in ­Sweden, they are beginning to wonder whether they need to go in the opposite direction. Having been through the experiment, it has taken them about 20 years to create 900 of these schools, separate from the other, more traditional, schools.’

Moreover, Swedish funding was provided only for day-to-day teaching and running costs, as parents set up in church halls or private providers bore the capital costs. The Tories intend to exclude profit-making providers and pay capital costs. The result might be that a combination of insufficient providers – and a lengthy ­vetting process – would slow the process even more.

However, Gove is confident that parental pressure will drive change. ‘Critics say that these opportunities will be taken up most by the articulate middle classes,’ he says. ‘But I find that those who are most unhappy with the existing choices are articulate working-class parents.’ The Conservatives say they are building on former prime minister Tony Blair’s 2005 proposals – and they received explicit endorsement from leading Blairite Alan Milburn, when he presented his recent social mobility report to Gordon Brown. So the parties differ more on the pace of change than its direction of travel.

There are also areas of agreement in what happens in schools. Recently, both parties have appeared to embrace greater curriculum devolution and less accountability. Balls scrapped testing at 14 and the national literacy and numeracy strategies. Gove sought and won union plaudits when he proposed handing the Key Stage Two tests for 11 year-olds to secondary teachers (though he would still use the results for league tables and probably insist on external marking).

Both parties also support traditional teaching in primary schools. And both are likely to kitemark approved phonics programmes for teaching reading. ‘We will only fund teacher training courses that include phonics and appropriate maths,’ adds Gove, who would also introduce a national reading test for seven year-olds and expect new primary teachers to have a B in GCSE English and mathematics as well as a 2:2 degree. But there is rather less agreement on other subjects.

The national curriculum has steadily moved away from prescribing subject content to encouraging more thematic cross-curricular teaching. A growing number of schools – including successful academies – emphasise research and study skills, projects and teamwork as much as facts and detailed subject knowledge. Combined with literacy and numeracy, this approach can help pupils develop modern workplace skills and constantly update their knowledge.

As a result, exams have become more modular, and the curriculum has acquired greater flexibility. Subjects such as psychology and media studies are more popular, while fewer pupils study languages and history (although physics and chemistry are regaining their popularity).
But Gove believes young people are being denied traditional knowledge. ‘To deny children the opportunity to extend their knowledge.... is to perpetuate a very specific, and tragic, sort of deprivation,’ he said in a recent lecture at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce (RSA).

As a result, he is likely to overhaul the national curriculum again, abolishing the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, and setting the curriculum in his department. There would be more subject prescription, with history compulsory to age 16 (instead of 14).

The same requirement might be restored to modern languages, while citizenship, personal social and health education and cooking could go. Ofsted would police these changes, with secondary teachers encouraged to do masters degrees in their own subjects.

Critics fear that a rejection of skills would be a step backwards. The RSA, for example, has developed one of the most popular skills-based curriculums, Opening Minds, which is being used in 200 schools as well as the RSA academy school in Tipton in the West Midlands.

RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor believes that schools ‘have chosen to respond to the challenge of educating today’s children in today’s society while simultaneously pursuing the goals of raising standards, widening participation and preparing young people for the uncertain world that awaits them’.

This is a view shared by many head teachers, including academy leaders. Their opposition could expose a contradiction at the heart of Tory plans. But Gove believes exhortation and freedoms will square the circle. ‘I have a strong prejudice in favour of a knowledge-based curriculum,’ he says. ‘But if it is the case that there is a genuine parental demand for a different approach to the curriculum, we will see schools providing it. If I’m wrong, I’m setting up a system allowing them to get the curriculum they want.’

An even stronger ‘dividing line’ between the parties is opening up in the purpose of schools. Balls has been particularly keen for education and children’s services to work more closely together, a process started after Lord Laming’s 2003 report into the death of Victoria Climbié. Local authorities have merged services and schools are expected to provide more welfare services. In Whitehall, the education department was split in 2007, separating schools from colleges and universities to develop closer links between education and social policy.

Gove would probably reverse all this, although he recognises that administrative upheaval could distract from wider policy delivery. ‘The amount of energy that has gone into improving protection has been nowhere near as much as has gone into improving teaching,’ he admits. ‘But there’s a problem about the way in which schools have moved on from being judged primarily on teaching and learning.’

The result could take government and agencies back to their ­pre-2003 position, with a single education department, separate local authority departments, and agencies such as Ofsted and the National College of School Leadership focusing on schools, while losing their children’s services functions. Inspections would judge schools only on lessons, progress and results, and their success in closing achievement gaps ­between poorer and better off children.

Local authorities would retain a role in education, though it would diminish. Colleges and new schools would be funded by a central funding agency ­(Labour already funds academies centrally) and a national pupil premium would fund disadvantaged pupils, ending local formulas that target deprivation.

However, the Tories are unlikely to introduce a national funding formula or agency for all schools in the absence of money to compensate losers.

 But central government would ­override local objections to new schools, and councils could see their best schools becoming independent academies. ­

‘Theoretically, there might be a local authority where all the best schools wanted to stay with the authority and academies willingly invite local authorities to be partners on their governing body,’ Gove says. ‘And if that’s the case, I’m not going to stop them. But lots of local authorities treat schools as passive recipients of largesse. We need to prevent such authorities from challenging  ­contestability and pluralism.’

So, a Conservative government would use central powers to create and fund more academies. And as they offer these schools new curriculum freedoms, they will pressure other schools to adopt ­traditional teaching.

 In doing so, they might end up fighting on two fronts: with Tory local authorities over their structural reforms, and with many heads and teachers over their plans for the curriculum.

Their hope is that parents will join them on the barricades.

Conor Ryan was senior adviser on education to David Blunkett and Tony Blair. He blogs at

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