Tuesday 10 April 2012

Gove's educational challenges

I have written this column in the April edition of Public Finance.

At the Conservative spring conference in March, David Cameron pointedly praised Education Secretary Michael Gove for his free school and academy reforms.

The prime minister offered no such comfort to his beleaguered health secretary, Andrew Lansley, whose reforms have received much criticism from doctors, nurses and even government backbenchers.

Gove has scored notable successes, lifting academy numbers from the 280 planned by Labour to 1,635, by enabling successful maintained schools to convert. Twenty-four free schools, with academy freedoms, have opened with 72 more planned. And despite problems over sports and capital funding, the education secretary has encountered only sporadic opposition from the teaching unions.

Gove has trod more cautiously than Lansley. Academy status was voluntary, unlike GP fundholding (an area where Lansley has retreated). Gove has rejected newly selective and profit-making schools. And he has presented his changes as Blairite continuity rather than the clean break the health secretary claimed.

Yet the speed of school change could yet be Gove’s undoing unless he resolves urgent questions on capacity, commissioning and the curriculum.

Gove’s academy expansion has been largely through giving successful secondary schools more freedoms. Their conversion is easier than replacing failing schools with sponsored academies, as the Department for Education brokers each arrangement. Sponsors, such as the education chains or faith groups, are held responsible for improving performance. There are just 337 sponsored academies compared with 1,298 converters.

Here Gove faces his first capacity problem. When he launched primary academies, he declared that schools where fewer than 60% of 11-year-olds reached Level Four in English and maths would have to convert and be supported by other academies.

But there are not enough existing academies to support all the 1,000-plus primary schools that fail to make the grade. Gove wants successful heads to step in, yet only 37 of 1,298 converter academies have done so. And the recent row over Downhills School in Haringey, north London, where Gove has sacked the governors to ensure it becomes an academy, shows how difficult it can be to achieve such change. He needs lots more sponsors.

That’s not the only capacity issue. Demand for primary places is projected to increase by 434,000 by 2018, particularly in cities such as London, Manchester and Bristol. Yet new free schools aren’t always located where demand is greatest. The programme will need to refocus if it is not to seem like an unaffordable extra as thousands of other children are left without schools.

This is where commissioning matters, especially as local authorities have lost their education capacity. Despite academies’ freedoms, they answer to Gove through funding agreements. With almost half of secondary schools likely to become academies, Whitehall seems ill-equipped to address failure and plan new places without local intelligence.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the new chief inspector, thinks local commissioners could provide an early warning of failure. Others want them to co-ordinate new schools and broker new academy sponsors where existing arrangements aren’t working. Some want them to be elected, like police commissioners, or answerable to elected mayors; ministers would prefer to appoint them. Either way, the issue raises questions about the government’s commitment to localism.

The third issue could expose the biggest contradiction in the academies programme. Many academy principals treasure their freedom to offer more practical lessons to students who would otherwise have disengaged.

Ministers have already reduced the league table value of many vocational qualifications.But heads and teachers worry more about the future of practical learning. Professor Alison Wolf’s review of vocational education said that 14–16 year-olds should spend no more than a day a week on practical subjects. Gove elevated geography, history and languages above technical subjects in the league tables. And the national curriculum review has suggested that those subjects could be made compulsory to age 16, as the status of computing and technology is reduced.

These changes would reduce head teachers’ freedoms to provide a practical curriculum; but academies fear that inspections and league tables will force them into line too.

Otherwise, such change seems pointless if half of secondary schools are effectively exempt. A new curriculum would not take effect until 2014, but ministers must choose freedom or compulsion this year. Gove’s political tact has led some commentators to see him as Cameron’s successor. His challenge now is to resolve the dilemmas that the speed of his changes has created. His success or otherwise will determine whether those leadership predictions are premature or not.

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