Monday 3 September 2012

Do Gove's changes add up?

I've written this column for the September edition of Public Finance magazine:

There’s little that Michael Gove and his advisers like more than crunching numbers. The education secretary is very proud of the mountains of data, previously shared only with schools, that are now publicly available.

So, the figures for academies and free schools appear encouraging. By July, 1,590 English schools – mostly successful secondaries – had chosen greater independence as academies. Another 540 will convert this term, making more than half of England’s 3,200 secondary schools academies, although just 6% of primaries.

Another 367 schools are sponsored academies, with external support, often from a school chain such as Ark or Harris, used to improve standards. Some 280 are close to approval, including 187 poorly performing primaries.

In terms of free schools – new academies sponsored by parents, teachers, charities or faith groups – 68 are opening this term, adding to the two dozen already open; 102 more are planned, some focusing on special educational needs or ‘alternative’ provision for disaffected youngsters.

But these numbers alone won’t produce better results. And this new school year will test the effectiveness of the coalition’s laissez-faire approach.

It is easier to persuade a school to convert to academy status than to transform a failing school. And while some converter academies chose independence to change their curriculum or timetable, three-quarters did so to improve their financial position and avoid budget cuts.

Nationally funded academies receive extra money for services previously provided by local authorities, often greatly exceeding their value. For secondary schools, this could add several hundred thousand pounds to their annual budget. Significantly, Gove now plans to reduce these differentials, making converting less attractive.

But he must also persuade converters to support weaker schools. Gove resisted making this a condition of their funding, so relatively few have done so. This is particularly a problem for primary schools. Some attempts to force change have attracted local opposition. A bigger obstacle is the absence of sponsors.

The big chains have focused on secondary schools. While they will sponsor a few primaries, they won’t support hundreds. Gove needs successful schools to step in, but his refusal to link such change to the extra cash has made his task harder.

His other primary problem is whether there will be enough places. The focus on free schools – some in areas with little demand for new schools – has led to a potential shortage of places for primary-age children, particularly in cities. The Department for Education gave £500m to help resolve this in April, but now estimates that 736,000 more places will be needed by 2020. Meeting this demand would cost at least £3bn extra a year.

Some schools are considering double shifts to cope. If significant numbers of children don’t have a place, the emphasis on free schools could become a political headache.

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg has already shifted Labour’s position from opposition to free schools to focusing new schools on meeting parental demand.

The government says its main goal is narrowing the educational gap between rich and poor pupils – poorer children perform significantly worse at GCSE and in tests at age 11 than others.

Yet without the right levers, it might fail to do so. Already, there is evidence that the pupil premium, which gives schools extra cash for pupils entitled to free school meals, is not being used where it might have most impact. A Sutton Trust study showed that 28% of teachers did not know how the cash was being used, and others were using it in ways that had little proven impact.

The government has no way to ensure that the pupil premium – which is set to absorb £2.5bn of the education budget by 2015 – is well spent or to link it to outcomes. Indeed, critics believe the premium could stand as a metaphor for the coalition’s education reforms: strong on inputs but weak on outcomes. This school year, Gove must show that his reforms can deliver results – and not just with the low-hanging fruit.