Opinion: Give Gove the shove

I was asked yesterday what I thought would be the key issues for the Coalition over the next 12 months. Political predictions are always dangerous (what did you predict would be the main stories in August?) but I plunged in and said that education was emerging as a clear division between the Coalition partners.

There has been a great deal over the past few days over the creation of the first free schools. The BBC tells us hourly that they are free from local government control: quite where they (and some politicians in our own Party who should know better) get this idea I do not know.

As any LDV reader knows, schools have not been controlled by local authorities for years. This has brought some advantages (more discretion for Heads), some disadvantages (more control by largely unaccountable governing bodies) and some major problems, not least a disengagement from the community and some covert selection.

I don’t as such have a problem with the idea of free schools. In my own area I have backed two bids because the Conservative county council’s incompetence has meant that we are short of three primary schools (not three forms of entry – three entire schools).

I don’t even have a problem in principle with profits being made, except that – as with so many other privatised public services – profit attracts cowboys and private sector incompetence (both public and private sectors are incompetent – just in different ways).

And free schools can increase diversity of provision which in any sector is potentially healthy – to suggest that the existing system of community schools is the best of all possible worlds is refuted by the attainment outcomes that we all worry about it.

Conference may not like it but its repeated desire to dismantle faith schools for reasons of educational purity is simply wrong-headed. (At times like this I look to Mill for guidance and he usefully backs me on diversity. But he opposes faith schools and even free education – so best draw a veil.)

But the real problem is the middle classes versus the rest. The essential weakness of the Big Society agenda – a slogan in search of an ideology – is that it makes sense in the middle class areas represented by senior Tory ministers but verges on folly when applied across the board.

There is a real danger that free schools, set up by parents seeking their best for their own children, will suck resources out of the rest of the sector. There is a clear sign of that with the capital budget and it will soon extend, if we are not careful, to the revenue budget.

As Nick said:

Free schools must not be the preserve of the privileged few – creaming off the best pupils while leaving the rest to fend for themselves, causing problems and draining resources from other nearby schools.


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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Conference may not like it but its repeated desire to dismantle faith schools for reasons of educational purity is simply wrong-headed.

    Totally disagree. The problem hasn’t been conference expressing the desire, the problem has been, as it has on so many other issues, that the parliamentary party lacks the guts to make a big deal of the issue for fear of scaring the horses.

  • Martin Willcox 6th Sep '11 - 1:43pm

    A much more reasoned and intelligent piece that the – frankly juvenile – headline suggests. But in the end I disagree: I have less choice – and less influence over – my children’s education than I do over almost any other aspect of my or their lives. That lack of choice stifles the competition that is needed to improve standards and it also forces the vast majority of kids through a “one size fits all” education that doesn’t work for too many of them. Gove is at least trying to address these issues and I give him credit for that.

  • Ed Maxfield 6th Sep '11 - 1:52pm

    What Tom said.

  • Isn’t the real problem in a lot of cases the children of families who don’t value education in the first place, who are disruptive to the education of others due to discipline problems. How are free schools supposed to solve the problem of those who don’t value education anyway?

    By the way, to throw a complete spanner in the works of the debate, the government recently published statistics for spend per pupil for each school alongside the percentage of pupils gaining at least five good GCSEs. There is actually a NEGATIVE correlation between spend per pupil and results at GCSE. i.e. high spending schools got worse results. I have to say, I find this a really important finding that no-one appears to have picked up on.

    Now this does not mean that we should spend less on schools, but it means that there are important non-financial influences on the quality of our education system. What is more important than allowing different faith and class groups to cherry pick resources from our system is to ensure that all schools meet certain core standards. On top of that, we need to be looking more closely at what is letting down many children in the environment outside home, namely a dumbed down, anti-learning culture. How you solve that problem is a bigger and very much thornier issue.

  • Why the surprise that there’s a negative correlation between spend per pupil and results at GCSE? It takes a long stretch of the imagination to suppose that there’s causation in one direction – that spending more gets worse results, which seems to be the unspoken conclusion of RC’s comment, but not much in the other – that schools whose children start off with greater educational needs for whatever reason should require extra resources to allow them to develop their potential. And rightly so; if, say, you’re growing up in a deprived area with poorly educated parents or English as a second language, it is hardly fair to be told that your education is to be cut back because middle-class kids miles away can manage with less?

  • “There is a real danger that free schools, set up by parents seeking their best for their own children, will suck resources out of the rest of the sector. ”

    If they have as much money per pupil as before, what different does it make?

  • “some disadvantages (more control by largely unaccountable governing bodies)”

    Which begs the question what have Lib Dem run authorities done to make them more accountable given they appoint a fair chunk of the governors?

  • Karen Wilkinson 7th Sep '11 - 10:02am

    Tom: “Also, one reason why children become disaffected is because the way they are taught is not stimulating. One of my hopes for free schools is that they will really shake up how children are taught. For many, the curriculum is a lot less important than the way that it is delivered.” Completely agree. Also think there is room for debate around a 3rd option between state & free-schools: namely giving parents a real voice in their school. Currently there is no way for parents to exact change in a school – parent governors are merely “representatives of” parents and are distinctly told they are *not* there to represent the views of parents. The thought of “amateur” parents having a say in education seems to send the education profession into spasms but at the moment the system appears to have lost track of whose children these are.

  • Peter Chivall 7th Sep '11 - 11:42am

    I would support the ‘Free Schools’ if it allowed more diversity in education provision and moved us away from the ‘one size fits all’ of National Curriculum and GCSEs and a target-oriented philosophy, enforced by OFSTED, which takes little or no account of how the majority of children learn and develop. The educational and moral poverty of the thousands who were drawn into the orgies of looting and arson last month can never be addressed by a policy of ‘more of the same, but harder’ which is the essence of those who criticise the schools for not succeeding where the rest of society has failed.
    Where Chris’s article and headline come together is that Gove has totally failed to address this problem. He has concerned himself exclusively with the top 10% in academic terms (the so-called ‘English Baccalaureate’) and the preservation of ‘A’ levels (an outdated qualification designed 60 years ago) as the sole indicators of educational worth.
    A ‘free school’ that was prepared to buck the trends of ‘teaching to the test’, would allow every child to enhance their feelings of self- worth by succeeding in a variety of areas of activity. Some ‘tough love’ combined with more collaborative learning and more activity-based learning (which are inevitably harder to organise and assess than straight-up ‘teaching from the front) might have fewer Level 3 ‘passes’ at the 11plus SATS or A* to C GCSEs than its neighbours, but it might also have lower truancy levels overall, fewer pupils permanently excluded in those crucial middle years from 8 to 13 and therefore less involvement of its pupils with gang culture.
    I also have a beef with Gove about the way he has totally failed to address the role of Design Technology and Art and Music in enhancing both personal achievement and the practical understanding needed to underpin the physical sciences and engineering. There is also the whole issue of parity of esteem for Vocational Education from 14plus. Perhaps if Gove and his advisors spent less time gazing across the Atlantic and took the train to Cologne, Stuttgart or Munich they might realise how skill levels in German industries are so much higher than our own and why The Recession has hardly touched Germany by comparison with the US and UK.

  • Chris alluded to the mistaken notion of feee schools and academies being freed from the LA. Please will someone tellus what they are being freed from? If Gove and some of our own members repeat nonsense often enough it becomes’fact’. Similarly why should Heads acountable only to their Governors or to the Secretary of State be freed from the constraints of the national Curriculum? What makes their judgement, ability integrity professionalism superior to a Head who works for the Local Authority? What makes some Liberal Democrats ( orange bookers?) so obsessed with creating ‘competition’? 21 years experience in Local Governemnt has reinforced the obvious : competition is inherent in professionalism. Head taechers and staff know only too well how other schools in the community are performing. If they don’t then their recruitment numbers tell them.
    The Free school & Academy experiment has not been demonstrated to be successful anywhere in the world – this is from research by my own Deputy Director (Education) and I beleive him
    Those of us who remember the Grant Mainained phase have a feeling of deja-vu We had to spend millions restoring the buildings of some of the ex GM schools.
    But the real frustration is the knowldge that a successful school requires good teachers in front of every class supported and monitored by a really good Head Teacher who in turn is supported by an arms length LA (which enables him/her to concentrate on the classrooms and not property managemment etc.) and supportive parents. How does changing the system create this?

  • Old Codger Chris 7th Sep '11 - 5:12pm

    @Peter Chivall
    “There is also the whole issue of parity of esteem for Vocational Education from 14plus”

    Many LAs and schools invested time and money in the Labour government’s Diploma plan. I don’t say it was perfect but it could have been made to work. Of course, it was scrapped by the new government.

    It isn’t LAs and leftie teachers that education is riddled with so much as governments – from the 1960s comprehensive v grammars debate onwards – treating our children as a party political football.

    Let’s abolish the whole Dept of Education (as it’s currently called – governments can’t even resist constant change of names) along with Mr Gove.

  • ‘I don’t even have a problem in principle with profits being made, except that – as with so many other privatised public services – profit attracts cowboys and private sector incompetence (both public and private sectors are incompetent – just in different ways).’

    I do have a big problem with profits – Profit making from schools & education in general is totally unacceptable (that is why I am against private education as any Liberal should be as it creates privilege). The so called free schools and academies are equally unacceptable as they just allow religious lobbies (especially those ‘teaching’ the nonsense of creationism) to take power of them in order to brain wash and thus warp our children’s minds (any religious control of schools should be banned outright!); they also attract (as has been said) cowboys etc. to ruin our education system. We should reject any of Gove’s and the Tory Party’s extreme(ly) ridiculous ideas.

  • Richard Patient 4th Jan '12 - 10:28pm

    So are you for or against free schools? I seems as if you want to sit on the fence on the issue.

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