Monday, 8 March 2010

Conservative contradictions

I have written this post for the Public Finance blog:

The Conservatives’ shadow schools secretary is finding himself in an increasing muddle as he starts to put flesh on his schools’ policy. One day Michael Gove is extolling the virtues of free schools, liberated from the shackles of Whitehall, with the touchy-feely charms of Goldie Hawn jostling alongside Swedish companies to deliver. Days later he is laying down the level of detailed knowledge that every youngster should have of their kings and queens, their classical poetry by heart and their algebra under the tutelage of the Tories’ Maths mistress Carol Vorderman.

Gove’s confusion on education policy, one of the few areas where the Tories have at least done some homework, seems to mirror his party’s wider confusion as it wobbles in the polls. This is exemplified in planning, where Gove has pledged to railroad through new local school plans in Whitehall regardless of local objections while his shadow cabinet colleague Theresa Villiers apparently wants every parish council to have its say on any high speed rail link.

Meanwhile, the funding problems that I outlined last month in Public Finance have been exacerbated by a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies which suggests that a £2.5 billion pupil premium would only have a modest impact on social mobility, and even then the sums involved – about £2500 a pupil – would be similar to the extra £2460-£3370 which the IFS says are already spent on such pupils by the Labour government. Even Ed Balls has started to detail £500 million in cuts for his department, yet Gove has £3.5 billion of unfunded spending commitments, including funding the pupil premium without reducing existing school spending.

Gove has also pledged to introduce some symbolic legislation within days of a Tory government winning an election, whch would apparently give greater freedoms to academies and introduce further changes to the frequency and scope of Ofsted inspections. Even here there is confusion: Gove’s colleagues maintain that they would enforce their traditional curriculum in ‘free schools’ through Ofsted, yet outstanding schools are to exempted from such inspections (even though a significant minority of schools fall back over time).

And whether Gove needs primary legislation to introduce either change is a moot point: much legislation is done for political show, and this looks like no exception. Indeed he might be better spending his time resolving the built-in contradictions that are growing more apparent the more he tells us about his policies, explaining what parts of the curriculum would be compulsory and how he would fund his ambitions. Unless he gets this right, there will be a lot of confused heads and teachers if he gets the chance to implement his blueprint.

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