Sunday, 21 November 2010

Sports axe highlights key flaws in Gove thinking

Today's reports about the deep dismay in sporting circles and the Cabinet over the decision to axe funding for school sports partnerships highlights a fatal flaw at the heart of Michael Gove's approach to schools. The partnerships have been remarkably successful, not only increasing participation with the numbers of pupils getting two hours PE a week rising from one in four to four in five, and an increase in competitions. It is absurd to suggest, as Gove did on Marr, that by removing ringfencing such activities could continue, since the co-ordinators are funded specifically to work across schools not in a single institution. In any case, the money is being removed from individual school budgets and handed to local authorities which can distribute it as they choose, a decision that makes little sense if Gove is no longer planning a National Funding Formula, as he now maintains.

But this decision also exposes two flaws that are becoming starker as Gove prepares to publish his White Paper this Wednesday. The first is the wholesale removal of leverage. Gove was able to dodge Marr's questioning about the curriculum adeptly this morning. But there remains a real contradiction between his wish to see a back to basics approach and his granting of considerably more freedoms to schools. Many academies, for example, want to use more thematic teaching and some of the vocational qualifications that the Government doesn't like. It is right to want a more rigorous approach to English grammar and spelling - and that was at the heart of Labour's literacy strategy - but the only way to ensure it happens is through strong pressure and accountability. At the same time, those academies can point to real success through curricular innovations and their voice will become louder if a more prescriptive approach is adopted.

And that also highlights a second flaw in Gove's thinking. For partisan reasons, he chooses to pretend that he is starting from scratch with some of his ideas. Yet he is not. For example, the so-called 'no touch' rule does not exist: David Blunkett published guidance on the use of restraint in 1998 that has been enshrined in the right to discipline within the 2006 Education Act. The problem is not a lack of legislation, it is a fear among teachers of litigation. And it is hard to see how Gove can prevent that happening, any more than his anonymity for teachers unjustly accused of abusing children can prevent village gossips retailing the charges widely.

The fact is that he has failed to resolve inherent contradictions in his approach: between curricular prescriptions and freedoms; between local authorities controlling pursestrings and the transparency of national funding; between permissive legislation and restrictive litigation. While there may be much that is good in this week's White Paper, not least the expansion of in-school teacher training, building on Labour's Teach First and graduate teacher programme and the development of collaboration between academies, the failure to think through the wider impact of funding decisions and to resolve such contradictions could seriously undermine his ambitions.

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