Michael Gove has been at pains to stress the radicalism of his school reforms, as critics charge that it all amounts to a bit of a damp squib. While his critics are wrong to argue against the expansion of academies and the growth of free schools, Gove is guilty of taking his eye off the ball - and misunderstanding the nature of academy improvement under Labour.
By focusing on the 32 'new academies', Gove largely ignored the 64 academies that had been planned by Labour. Yet it is the latter group that can do most to raise standards - building on a further 7% point rise this year in open academies - and by expending so much political capital on encouraging outstanding schools to take on academy powers, the Education Secretary is in danger of sidelining their crucial role in reform.
During the passage of the Academies Bill, Gove said that the new academies would be expected to work with other weaker schools to help them to improve. Yet this aspect of their role has been all but forgotten. Without even having a sponsor, they are closer to foundation schools than existing academies. Their moral purpose needs to be restated clearly.
But the success of the existing academies has not just been about sponsorship, strong leadership and a new ethos. Ministers underestimate the importance of new buildings and facilities at their peril. If the academies drive in disadvantaged areas is not to falter, there must be a clear sense of the capital that is available in schools that require more than basic refurbishment.
Finally, today's free schools list must be a big disappointment to ministers. Five of the new schools are religious schools - Labour significantly expanded their number, embracing other faiths too. Few of the other eleven could not have opened under existing legislation, at least with a sympathetic minister in charge. With money limited, it will be particularly hard to develop the free school model but it will need considerably more innovation than this group suggests for the policy to live up to its radical billing.
Interestingly, Gove floated a promising idea for a GCSE-Bac yesterday, where students would gain credits for gaining a broad mix of GCSEs. This would be a positive alternative to simply denying any credit for vocational qualifications, as ministers had previously proposed. And with the right support, it could also give a boost to the International Baccalaureate in state schools. It will be interesting to see the details as they emerge.
I'm not sure why you feel that critics are wrong to argue about the expansion of academies and/or free schools. There seem to me to be many good arguments against both policies. As for changes in the curricula and qualifications being offered within high schools, I agree with you that the notion of a GCSE-Bac seems like one of Gove's more sensible ideas. But, as you say, the devil is in the detail and we'll see what transpires in the imminent white paper.
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