In his four years or so as Education Secretary, Michael Gove has accelerated the pace at which English state educational provision has been fragmented.
New Labour proved itself just as hostile to democratic comprehensive education (as an ideal and where it existed) as the Tories and the Coalition. But by adding to the plethora of school types, and enabling more and more individual schools to be acquired by edu-management trusts, academy chains, charities, faith groups and social entrepreneurs, Gove is deepening the damage.
Local accountability for, and local involvement in, the running of local schools is continually eroded. The government’s policy is for academy (and free school) trusts to have almost complete flexibility to shape their governance arrangements and design the constitutions of their boards of governance as they see fit. This removes the requirement to have staff representation on bodies that make the key decisions, and allows there to be only two elected parent governors. In reality the lead sponsor of the academy has control.
As Ross McKibbin puts it: “The right to determine the relationship between schools and society... is being removed from elected institutions, gathered up in Whitehall and parcelled out to friends and supporters of the ruling party” (London Review of Books, 3 April 2012)
Some academies operate as test beds for Gove’s educational experiments.
The Great Yarmouth Primary Academy aroused parental opposition with its plans to keep children at school from 9 am until 6 pm in line with one Govian initiative.
The Academy was set up by Theodore Agnew’s academy chain, the Inspiration Trust. In common with many Norfolk primary schools it routinely buys in certain commercial programmes to teach “literacy” and maths.
It also uses an externally-devised programme to teach history and geography, one explicitly modelled on the ideas of E D Hirsch. Much lauded by Gove, Hirsch prioritises the need for pupils to be able to recall, and if necessary to rote learn, factual knowledge.
Agnew has been named as a possible successor to Sally Morgan, the current chair of OfSTED. Gove appointed Morgan, an erstwhile Blairite, but has not renewed her contract. This decision drew sharp criticism from within OfSTED circles, including from the Chief Inspector. OfSTED inspects Academies and free schools, the boosting of which is vital to Gove, so the appointment of Morgan’s successor is politically highly charged. An obvious conflict of interest will arise should Agnew, who heads a group which runs an academy chain, secure the post.
Agnew is a millionaire Tory donor. He has been a trustee of the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange, and of the New Schools Network run by close aides of Gove and dedicated to ramping up the number of academies and free schools.
Agnew now chairs the DfE’s Academies Board, which looks for sponsors to take over academies. He reports to another millionaire Tory donor and academy sponsor, John Nash, an under-secretary of state in the DfE. Nash was recently given a peerage.
These people and others like them connected through think tanks, lobbying groups, charitable foundations and personal ties, comprise a powerful unelected network in which educational ideas are propounded and initiatives implemented on the ground in schools, the better to advance a view of what education is and how it should be ‘delivered’. This view endorses a transmission model of teaching and learning and an ideology of fixed, innate “ability”. It requires that reading be taught to children in only one way. It wants to see subject specialists play an increasing role in primary schools, thereby undermining the holistic work of the class teacher and, paradoxically, making it harder for some pupils to learn in a given subject area. It disregards the criticisms of educational experts, even those it has invited to serve on working parties and to offer advice. It is receptive to the call that schools be run for profit.
In a speech last May, Gove claimed he was “getting the state out of the way” in educational matters. In fact he is using his powers to set up, extend, manage and calibrate a market in as many aspects of education as possible. He is not stripping out the role of the state but re-configuring it in relation to the nature and provision of formal public education in England. Each academy and free school now has a core financial arrangement with Gove’s own office: a stunning centralisation of power.
Gove’s control over schools is reinforced by his ability and willingness to manipulate accountability measures, for example through raising floor targets. Such targets require a stated percentage of the student cohort to reach a certain minimum grade in particular exams or tests. This in turn prompts schools to grade and level students relentlessly. Such an intense focus in schools on metric data generates a variety of malign outcomes, including teaching to the test, curtailment of students’ option choices, inequitable distribution of teaching time across student groups, and students coming to be regarded as grades or levels in the making, rather than as people. Over-concentration on data can also heighten the tension surrounding existing regimes of teacher observation and surveillance.
Gove also appears intent on breaking the link between education as an academic field and as lived practice in schools.
By looking to shift the work of initial teacher education from universities to schools via his School Direct programme, Gove hopes to purge schools of what he regards as “progressive” approaches supposedly fostered in the academy. His strategy essentially offers an apprenticeship model of learning to teach, with beginner teachers inducted only into the established models in place in the school where they are, or hope to be, employed. Such an approach is likely to hamper the development of a broadly-informed and systematically-reflective cadre of teachers. It is also likely to limit, if not to prevent, teachers engaging with pedagogic approaches from traditions informed by socialist thought on education.
Tristram Hunt, Labour’s shadow education spokesperson, recently met educational activists from a variety of organisations. It seems Labour, if it comes to power, will not involve itself in rolling back the free school and academy programme. Instead it will focus on teacher quality, on the provision of vocational education, and on improving free Early Years provision. These are important areas. But Labour needs to be harried also over how educational provision is best structured.
Gove’s fragmentation of English educational provision increases educational inequality and social segregation. The positive alternative, the case for democratic comprehensive provision, needs to be re-made.