Michael Gove and the academies

Guest post by a Harry’s Place reader

One thing I discovered during my brief stint as a Labour leafleter during the 2005 election campaign is the loathing Lib Dem activists seem to inspire in their Labour counterparts. Hypocritical, self-righteous, power-crazed, bearded fools seemed to be the general sense of it. With the recent accession of our ConDem masters, it is tempting to view this judgment as confirmed. Mature and thoughtful political observer that I am, I am resolved not to jump to overly premature conclusions and to restrain my tribal instincts. For now. The issue of education, however, could prove a useful and powerful test case to ascertain how committed the Lib Dems are to their social democratic heritage, or whether their desire for power will render them the dreary libertarians they are accused of being. Will they step up and offer a serious critique of Michael Gove’s schools policies?

Michael Gove, the new secretary of state for education, is not a hugely appealing man to say the least. I have heard him speak and he comes across as cold, humourless (though he doesn’t think so) and arrogant. He is, however, undeniably very intelligent and engaging and he deserves to be listened to. The NUT’s fiercely anti-academy campaign strikes me as unhelpful; much of what Gove proposes makes sense, but it is the context in which it is framed that is so dangerous.

I work in an inner London academy and daily witness the benefits of its being an academy. It is not some miraculous cure for educational under-achievement, but the freedom, energy and resources academy status brings can turn a school around. My school is a clear example of this. The extension of academy freedoms to more schools is no bad thing: giving schools greater autonomy over their own budget, their curriculum, staffing decisions and general strategy makes a great deal of sense. Doubtless some schools will fail to improve following this injection of freedom (as indeed some academies have), but many will succeed and any serious attempt to encourage innovation in such a heavily bureaucratic profession should be welcomed.

The bizarre aspect of the proposals is the framework Gove has chosen for these policies: a massive and rapid extension of Labour’s academies programme. He wants to transform an innovative (and hugely expensive) scheme designed to turn around failing schools into an opportunity for the best schools to free themselves from the “shackles” of local authority control. This begs the rather obvious question: if the 600 outstanding schools that will be offered a fast track to becoming academies (and who could blame them if they accept the offer) are so great, why do they need to become academies? And, more important, what will the wider impact be?

Of course the impact is not entirely clear and won’t be until it’s too late to do much about it. But some things do seem certain: these academies will no longer be answerable to the local authority with regards to admissions or educational provision for special needs students. Academies will be freed from the restrictions of national pay and conditions and will be able to attract better teachers (and especially better senior staff) through more attractive packages. Most seriously, this policy would make competition between local state schools a serious business for the first time. Whereas currently a small number of failing schools have had the opportunity to innovate through becoming academies, now (in theory) the majority of schools would join them (rendering dubious the value of the title?), each of them competing for teachers and pupils with each other, outside the framework of the local authority.

I am not nostalgic for local authority control. Most teachers I speak to are scathing about the local authority in terms of the value for money it actually provides for the school. But it does play the essential role of not letting things get out of hand in terms of admissions and in holding the schools to account in fulfilling their responsibilities toward special needs and disadvantaged pupils. The new system would create an unregulated, multi-tiered system of schools, with excellent academies at the top, mediocre academies beneath them and a whole load of crap local authority schools at the bottom. Not to mention the issue of whom these expensive, publicly funded academies would be accountable to. Directly to Gove? Nobody?

It is not difficult to foster a spirit of competition between local schools; it already exists and needs no further encouragement. But it doesn’t take much reflection to appreciation that collaboration is more effective than competition in the huge task of improving state education. The massive expansion of the academies programme, along with the ludicrously over-hyped “free schools” programme, may make a few good schools even better (they will certainly make some senior staff richer and produce a lot of nice, glossy school magazines) and will probably improve some mediocre schools. For most schools it won’t make much difference, but it will mean failing schools are left behind (though, bizarrely: seriously crap schools will apparently be able to become academies, just not quite crap ones) and it will undermine local government’s ability to create good educational provision in their area.

Which surely is the whole point. Along with being a fairly unsubtle attack on local government by a “decentralising” government, academies and “free schools” serve as a useful distraction from one major cause of the consistent failure of many state schools to perform: that so many middle class children are educated in the almae matres of Cameron/Clegg/Gove and co.