Michael Gove's speech at the National College conference today looks like being a welcome refocusing of academies policy where it really matters. By promising scores of new primary and secondary sponsor-led academies, he is focusing more effort on the schools in disadvantaged areas that need the help most. Liz Sidwell's work as Schools Commissioner is clearly starting to bear fruit and the many frustrated academy sponsors will be pleased that the core of the programme is finally to be re-energised.
Accompanying the academies announcement is a hugely ambitious - very brave, minister, as Sir Humphrey would have set - floor target of 50% of pupils in every secondary school or academy gaining five good GCSEs including English and Maths. I welcome the great importance that Gove gives to floor targets, though ambition is only half the battle.
And it is on delivery that there will be doubts. Of course, the 2015 target results will not be known before the next election, though Gove has set himself the challenging task of all secondary schools reaching 40% by 2013, another 407 schools (or perhaps 250 after this year's exams). Nobody is a greater fan of floor targets than I am, but one reason they succeeded was because they were challenging but realistic: if too many schools don't hit these targets, it will be seen as Gove's failure. The National Leaders of Education who will be charged with delivering these ambitions will have their work cut out for them. The primary goals seem more realistic: converting the worst 200 primaries to sponsored academies next year and putting another 500 on a three year warning to improve or be converted.
Gove's briefers sneer at the levels of progress achieved under Labour. Just remember that in 1997, after 18 years of Conservative government, 50% of secondary schools - 1600 schools - did not have 30% of their pupils gaining the GCSE goal. Today fewer than 100 are in that category. The reason we made such good progress with floor targets, first introduced in 2000, was because they were ambitious but staged. Last year, Gove declared 35% to be the new target now that virtually all schools had reached 30%. That would have been a reasonable 2012 goal. Now schools which had no date for their 35% target are told that in the 2013 GCSEs they must reach 40%. A school typically needs two years to work with a GCSE cohort to achieve such goals, and adjust their curriculum and teaching. Schools should have been warned of the 2013 target before they developed their 2011-13 GCSE programmes and options.
One reason Mossbourne, which Gove cites with some justice, has been so successful is that it was able to start with a completely new intake, and mould them with everything from the excellent Year 7 mini-school environment through the disciplined teaching and learning environment admirably created by Michael Wilshaw. The danger is the too rapid moving of the goalposts will create more frustration than ambition, though it is fair also to say that there are a growing number of schools that have shown the capacity for rapid progress.
But there's a related problem. There is clearly a capacity issue in the creation of academies. The sneering briefer was at it elsewhere in the Guardian, saying that 89 sponsor-led schools over two years - by 2012 - (let's remember) was more than Labour created between 2000 and 2008. Come off it. Between 2008 and 2010, Labour was responsible for the opening of nearly 200 secondary or all-through academies, and a lot of the hard graft enabling such progress was done by Andrew Adonis before then. And before 2008, sponsors had to provide money not just support. Labour created the environment for Gove to operate in. Yet between 2010 and 2012, just 89 new sponsor-led secondary academies are apparently promised while around 200 schools may be declared 'failing' on the new 40% target in 2013. The primary goals are rightly ambitious; I wonder if the secondary promise is enough to deal with the fallout from the new targets.
The truth is that Gove did take his eye off the ball for too long, diverting huge resources in the DFE to helping outstanding schools convert, an entirely reasonable process that could be achieved in most cases simply with the £25,000 grant provided to them. Legal firms charge around £15,000 to complete the process. Instead of maintaining the pace in deprived areas, the focus was on a numbers game rather than tackling the hard cases. Today's Financial Times story by Chris Cook, on which Gove came so badly unstuck on Today, suggests that the government got its financial sums wrong - this reflects the absurd refusal by officials to road test their figures in real situations, something that seriously endangers moves to any national funding formula. The promise that the outstanding academies would have to help weaker schools is not being treated seriously either, unless the schools themselves are keen for it to happen.
Thankfully, this speech suggests that the academies programme is starting to move back on track. Let's hope that Gove's departmental resources are put fully behind these ambitious goals too, rather than duplicating the efforts of well remunerated lawyers.
This piece was updated on 16 June to reflect additional reported details. It also appears at the Public Finance blog.