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Life after Gove

Life after Gove. Is there such thing? The current education secretary’s ceaseless and frenetic activity sometimes makes this hard to believe. But one day he will be gone and the chances are that a Labour government will have to pick up the pieces.

The stand-out issues that must be faced are becoming clearer. How do we get excellent local schools, given the rapid fragmentation of the system in many areas? What sort of ‘middle tier’ should we have, what is the wider purpose of education and, perhaps most important of all given the coalition’s roller coaster reform of  key stage four (KS4), what sort of curriculum and qualifications do we need for the 21st century?

The dilemma for Labour is how to develop a bold and radical alternative to the Gove revolution, without forcing even more change on an increasingly weary and demoralised profession. Yet we must find a way to build on what we might inherit, rapidly convert it into something more equitable and coherent than the Gove legacy will inevitably be, without being ‘Gove-lite’ or grinding down schools with more central government interference.

Who and what stands between schools and central government seems crucial. At the moment we have a mish-mash of maintained schools still working within a local authority framework, free schools and academies, some within chains and others that stand alone, only answerable to the secretary of state via their funding agreements. Even Her Majesty’s chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has expressed concerns that this is not an adequate way to hold schools to account or prevent failure.

Local authorities must have a role, especially in planning places, managing fair, non-selective admissions and the care of excluded and vulnerable children.  But alongside that, we need fair funding and a consistent regulatory framework that makes the issue of school ‘type’ irrelevant. Schools rightly want a high degree of autonomy but that could and should be allied to more collaboration, school-to-school support, light touch local accountability and a relentless focus on teacher quality and morale.

The London Challenge, one of Labour’s most successful education interventions, provides a blueprint. A combination of central and local government intervention, focussed on teaching and leadership, sharing good practice, the strong supporting the weak, saw London schools outstrip the rest of the country, especially in outcomes for the most disadvantaged pupils.

The solid success of two different London authorities, Hackney and Camden, provide an interesting example of what can be done. Camden has very few academies or free schools; Hackney embraced the Labour academies movement.

Yet schools in both boroughs are popular and successful. What unites them is not the ‘type’ of providers but high aspirations and a strong, clear role for the local authority even where there is more diverse provision.

Perhaps more challenging for Labour is the issue of the curriculum and qualifications. The coalition’s latest announcement that GCSEs will not now be replaced with the proposed  and divisive English Baccalaureate Certificates was met with relief.  But scratch below the surface of the latest Gove plan –  reformed GCSEs without coursework or modules,  a more rigid,  traditional curriculum and new performance table measures – and you will see not much has really changed

It still looks very much like what the CBI recently described as a “conveyor belt” of exams, neither suitable as a reliable indicator of personal achievement or of school performance. In its “Next Steps” report the CBI suggested that social and personal skills should be ranked alongside traditional subjects, practical , creative and technical education.

And it is in this area that Labour requires guts, vision and a readiness to work with heads and teachers to create a robust alternative. An incoming Labour government must have the development and well being of all children at its heart, guaranteeing every pupil a curriculum AND qualifications that are rigorous and inclusive.

Exams at 16 are increasingly irrelevant as young people stay on into education and training.  We should be moving towards a final qualification at 18, which measures academic and vocational achievement and an accountability system that values the creative arts, practical and technical education, personal development and citizenship and allows education to become a more stimulating, liberating process than is currently the case.

The Tory press will be waiting of course, with accusations of dumbing down. But with the support of the professionals we can turn the tables on them. Gove claims that our qualifications system doesn’t match the best in the developed world but most of the developed world doesn’t use excessive high stakes testing to measure pupil achievement at 16, preferring graduation at 18 instead.

Respected international qualifications like the International Baccalaureate (IB)  provide powerful role models. No one accuses the IB of dumbing down yet it boasts of promoting the education of the whole person – “emphasizing intellectual, personal, emotional and social growth”.

And there are still lessons to be drawn from Sir Mike Tomlinson’s proposed single diploma of 2004. Casually tossed aside at the time, it could provide another blueprint for the future and would certainly outshine the ‘Tech Bacc’, announced in Ed Miliband’s conference speech last year, which many fear will simply entrench the vocational/ academic divide more deeply than ever.

Michael Gove likes to quote Tawney: “What a wise parent would wish for their children, so the state must wish for all its children.”

Luckily poll after poll tells us what it is that most parents want for their children; good local schools, with a balanced intake, excellent teaching, leadership and behaviour and the chance for their children to make the most of their talents and do their best in the subjects that interest and engage them.

Unfortunately the secretary of state’s reforms cannot deliver that. Only Labour can – if it has the courage to do so.

This article originally appeared in “Re-making the State”  . Published by the Fabian Society this week.



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Comments, replies and queries

  1. johnebolt says:

    This post is really opportune. Following the “Picking up the Pieces” conference last November, work has been ongoing to develop the outlines of a manifesto for educational renewal, building on the contributions there from Tim Brighouse, Peter Mortimore, Peter Downes, David Wolfe and Stephen Twigg .

    A draft document has been prepared and is initially being considered by the members of the Socialist Educational Association, the Campaign for State Education and Comprehensive Future.The ten key issues it identifies are:

    – the lack of any agreed aims for education
    – the democratic deficit in education
    – the politicisation of schooling
    – the persistence of selection, overt and covert
    – continuing under-achievement especially by pupils in disadvantaged groups
    – a wholly inadequate curriculum framework
    – exams that will test a narrow range of skills and knowledge
    – money wasted by the academy and free school programme
    – a growing segregation of pupils by social and economic background
    – no respect or support for the professionalism of teachers

    Based around these ten themes, it offers in outline an agenda for action, although there is still much to do to flesh out the detail of policy.

    We believe there is a very broad consensus that can be mobilised behind this kind of agenda not just amongst education professional but as Fiona says, amongst employers and parents.

    Although the document is still only in draft, it seems like a good time to make it more widely available in the hope that it will make a contribution to the ongoing debate and to Labour’s policy review. And indeed those of other parties as much of it would have been a comfortable fit with the 2010 Lib Dem manifesto!

    It can be accessed from the Labour Party policy review site at

    Any comments or suggestions can be sent to the SEA at or to CASE at

  2. The headline of your article inspired in me something I have not felt for many months – a feeling of hope and optimism! At every turn I am appalled, angered and frustrated by Gove’s behaviour. Each policy seems more ill-conceived, inadequately researched, lacking in meaningful consultation and poorly executed than the last.

    To begin to think of a time when he no longer has the authority to inflict any more damage on education (I won’t say ‘the education system’ because we are almost at a point where this is nothing systematic or rational left that can be called a system – it’s becoming simply a collection of fragments). The very thought makes me go weak!

    You are right of course, what we need is a Labour party that has a vision for drawing these threads together into something coherent. Like knitting a sweater with wool of different colours, sizes and textures – the hope is that it will be warm, serviceable and beautiful (if a little eccentric in appearance).

    I’d concur that it would be a mistake to try to unravel everything that has been put in place – that would be even more turmoil. But bringing back some local democratic coordination and oversight would be a really good start. Give local authorities the power to shape provision to the demographic needs of the population, to regulate the ‘market’ that has been created. Allow the commissioner to commission – and to decommission provision where it isn’t financially or educationally viable. Stop forcing school to convert to Academies – there’s not enough evidence that it’s the answer to anything to go against the wishes of local people in this way. Put schools of all types on absolutely the same footing – no additional funding pots, no different rights re curriculum or standards of qualifications needed for teachers or healthy eating or anything else. A state funded school should be treated the same as every other state funded school – end of story. End the free school policy – or at least migrate its objectives so that if a local authority (as commissioner) needs a new school to serve a population the groups that currently sponsor free schools can be judged on the same basis as other sponsors of schools. Have the same rules about top slicing of funding applied to Academy trusts as to Local Authorities.

    And then concentrate entirely on what goes on inside classrooms. The quality of new teachers, the resources spent on training and developing them, the support given to them, the efforts made to spread excellent practice. Allow teachers to be professionals in the same way as doctors and lawyers – stop telling them how to practice and instead facilitate it.

    Stop dreaming up educational reform without solid credible research evidence. Talk to the experts – and listen. If most of them think it’s a terrible idea or too rushed – it almost certainly is.

    I think Labour should be bold – remind the country that the education of England’s children is a social good, it benefits us all. It’s not a consumer product from which only the individual benefits (and therefore whose opinions should hold sway). Education is a bit like a vaccination programme – individually of small benefit but enormously beneficial if you capture everyone.

    These are the lessons I think Labour needs to learn and the components of the vision they need to articulate.

  3. Gove an arrogant & ignorant(ofeducation) individual who thinks his own education was brill – well if he is a product of it!! I am a well-retired teacher

  4. No need to do anything about Ofsted then?

  5. This is a great article and I agree with Sarah that this has given me some hope about the future of education in England.
    But I am not sure that we can wait until the next general election before something is done and this is banking on Labour winning the next election and that they will do a courageous job. Another 2 years of similar reforms? It would not be fair on the students and their future.
    But what else can we do besides lobby against Gove’s reforms and educate society on what these reforms really mean?

    • Join the Lib Dems and work with us.

      • Roger Titcombe says:

        It was Clegg that gave us Gove.

        • I know there are a lot of people out there who honestly believe that there was some fabulous much better option for government out there after the result of the last election and that the obvious economic melt down followed by a Tory outright victory wouldn’t have happened.

          But I though you were quite bright Roger?

          • “people out there who honestly believe that there was some fabulous much better option for government out there after the result of the last election”

            There was – a minority tory government required to win arguments on their merits rather than imposing disastrous policies with the support of LibDems bought with a few places in Government.

          • :-) nice pipe dream!

          • Roger Titcombe says:

            Rebecca – this is a distraction. You are entitled to your opinion and I respect your right to hold it.

  6. Roger Titcombe says:

    Fiona – The previous replies all indicate support for your arguments but with the reservation that they do not go anywhere near far enough. You write as a member and supporter of the Labour Party, so I will comment in like manner.

    The problems in education are mirrored by many parallel crises in our public and privatised services. I will stick to just three other current disaster areas – The NHS, energy supplies and the railways. I could add many more with the same roots: the assumption that the private sector is always more efficient in providing goods and services than a nationalised state bureacracy. It is, I believe, largely founded in the collapse of the Soviet empire in the early 1990s. The fall of the Berlin wall can be symbolised as the victory of Levi jeans. The Soviet empire deserved to collapse, but the assumption that capitalism must triumph in all areas of human life and organisation is gravely misplaced. There is good and bad capitalism and there were also good and bad state bureacracies. The NHS, British Rail, and the regional Gas and Electricity Boards working alongside state owned and controlled power generation were all examples of good state bureacracies, which is not to say that they could not be reformed and improved. Outright privatisation (energy supplies and British Rail) has been an obvious catastrophe resulting in disfunctional systems that increase both public expenditure and costs to users. Pseudo-privatisation, as is happening to the education system and the NHS, is if anything even worse.

    The reasons are all the same.

    1. Marketisation always introduces disastrously perverse incentives.
    2. Payment by results likewise.
    3. Managers get excited by all the corporate, executive paraphenalia and hype, which they exploit to grossly inflate their pay and benefits.
    4. This and the need to make profits (or at least avoid paper losses) puts downward pressure on pay and conditions of service for employees, resulting in degraded job status, recruitment of lower quality and less experienced staff and a drift downwards from professional to ‘operative’ status. The bosses aspire to be corporate high flyers while the workers drift down towards minimum wages and associated degraded job status and conditions of employment.

    This is obviously a gross simplification but the principle is correct. A new Labour government will need to address the principle, not paper over disfunctional systems whose roots and foundations are rotten and/or innappropriate.

    So what about education? All the things you propose are good ideas that will sit well with the necessary essential underlying changes.

    1. Repeal the 1988 Education Act
    2. Restore the management of schools to local government through democratically elected LEAs.
    3. Abolish competition between schools and league tables in favour of co-operation driven by evidence based understanding of how children learn and how individual abilities can best be developed.

    You may say this is too radical, will be too disruptive and unpopular. But it has been done in Scotland and Wales with no public protest whatsover. No-one is calling for the re-introduction of school league tables in these parts of the UK where although the 1988 Act has not been repealed, it has been so neutered as to be ineffective as the vehicle of privatisation, which was its purpose.

    Your recipe requires denial that marketisation has seriously damaged schools and the education system just because Gove uses the reality of the decline to justify more of the medicine that caused it in the first place.

    It is also uncritical of the illusion of school improvement in terms of the high stakes test results that drive league tables. we are rightly told that ‘miraculous’ levels of school improvement achieved by academies are ‘smoke and mirrors’ but when claimed uncritically by LA schools are justifications for keeping the whole rotten system.

    No effective school system can be built on the present swamp of misguided pseudo-corporatism. This is where Labour needs to start.

    I nearly forgot Rebbeca’s point. Something significant must be done anout OfSTED.

    • John Greenlaw says:


      British Rail was an expensive shambles. NHS provision is patchy, at best, as is state education.

      The state destroyed the British car industry, aerospace industry, steel industry, coal industry and so many others.

      Pretty much everything run by the government is rubbish.

      That includes their regulation of capitalism.

      • Things which are owned by the state for the benefit of society don’t have to be run by the government.

      • Roger Titcombe says:

        John – You and I are not going to agree, but the privatised railway costs I think six times more for overcrowded trains, no guaranteed connections and rip off fares. BR was running 125 mph trains in the 1970s. As for the destruction of British industry I thought it was Margaret Thatcher. The crisis in NHS care corresponded with NHS Foundation Trusts, abuse of residents of care homes with private ownership, and failures of out of hours care likewise. Your last point is right except that the regulators appear to be hand in glove with the those they are regulating. See the Francis report again. Real state regulators like the Food Standards Agency have been drastically cut back. Anyone for a horseburger? It was failure of regulation, ‘light touch’ that caused the financial crisis. Rebecca is right. The 1944 Education Act was specifically designed to keep the government out of education.

        • John Greenlaw says:

          I use the railways a great deal. They are vastly improved, with the clear exception of commuter/rush hour trains.

          Crowded commuter trains are caused by a lack of investment in transport infrastructure.

          Long term investment decisions were ducked during the decades of state provision.

          The bulk of today’s track provision was originally created under private ownership.

          Track provision today is still effectively under the ownership of the Department of Transport as is the East Coast rail service.

          Margaret Thatcher was indeed responsible for reducing state provision in many areas.

          However public sector spending rose in real terms in every year of her government.

          De-industrialisation in this country 1979-90 was no greater in scale in Britain than in Germany, France or the U.S.A. during the same period.

          The developed world was simply outcompeted by much lower wages in the developing world.

          There has always been a crisis of NHS care during my lifetime. Mixed private/public provision, as elsewhere within the EU, seems like a sensible solution (for a brave government).

          Horseburgers are a product of a predominantly EU regulatory regime.

          ‘Light touch’ regulation of the financial services sector was an invention of Gordon Brown and one or two individuals sitting on the opposition front benches today.

          It’s a pity that the above article is so party political but its thrust in some areas, I.B., references to London Challenge, and one graduation qualification at 18 seems spot on.

          • Roger Titcombe says:

            John – I must be much older than you. In the 1970s (In the ‘Age of the Train’) our family sold our car and we relied heavily and successfully on our local station, our bicycles and our Family Railcard (Adults half price – kids £1.00) for the bulk of our transport needs – this would be impossible now. We could take our bikes on trains without booking, seats were roomy and corresponded with windows instead of a blank wall, loads of luggage space, train timetables provided sensible connections and journey times were in many cases less than they are now, and no staff in silly uniforms calling me a customer instead of a passenger. The present rail companies slowed the schedules to meet punctuality targets. True there was massive underinvestment because Thatcher hated trains. We are now served by Virgin services to London. Virgin is supposed to be the top train company – god help the rest of the country. I find their ‘posh’ trains truly horrible – claustrophobic, cramped, uncomfortable and crowded at all times of the day. Network Rail is indeed state owned but tied into ludicrous contracts with the rail companies that requires them to make collosal payments to the fat cat train companies for delays caused by floods etc. Virgin have off-peak ‘single’ fares that you can only get if you buy a return ‘single’ at the same time. The fare system is complex and a lottery. If you go on 5 different internet sites you get 5 different cheapest fares all with different conditions. Huge savings can be made by buying split journey tickets, but only if you know how. How daft is all that? Catching the wrong train even if it appears at the ‘right’ time can result in hundreds of pounds of penalty charges. I could go on and on and on. I also travel frequently on European trains – what joy in comparison.

            The pseudo-privatised English NHS lurches daily from crisis to crisis while in Scotland, where all the Blair NHS reforms were reversed and a well run state bureacracy prevails, health care is efficient, scandal free and provided at a much lower cost.

            Similar parallels apply to Education in Scotland.

            As I said, we are not going to agree.

          • Roger Titcombe says:

            OK Thatcher wrecked the railways in the 1980s not the 1970s.

          • John Greenlaw says:

            Personal experiences can give a narrow perspective:

            ‘Since the last set of British Rail fares were published in June 1995, inflation measured by the Retail Prices Index (RPI) has been 66%, according to research by fares expert Barry Doe

            Doe’s figures show a huge variation in fares since privatisation…..

            But a season ticket for the same journey has risen by only 65% – just less than inflation.’

            I spent my entire 1960’s childhood sitting on a suitcase in a train corridor.

            Massive underinvestment began with rail nationalisation in 1947.

            Margaret Thatcher was in favour of roads.

            It was everyone else who hated the railways.

            That’s one of the reasons why they voted her into power in three elections.

            I travel on mainland European trains, mainly in France, Italy and Denmark. They have wider tracks and are massively subsidised but very good. Others, like Poland and Romania, are clearly not.

            Having just subjected a relative from overseas to the Scottish Health system, I cannot agree. It has gone from good to really quite poor in our town.

            Education in Scotland, similarly, has gone downhill in my lifetime:

            ‘The report published by Reform Scotland and the Centre for Scottish Public Policy said that educational standards in Scotland were good.

            But it said the country’s international position had slipped over the years…..

            The commission’s chairman, Keir Bloomer…….said the time when Scotland was a world leader in education had passed.

            “However, we should not delude ourselves about our position or allow ourselves to be complacent.

            “Scotland was without doubt a world leader but that time has passed, and in order for it to return we must improve.”

          • Excellent, but LSN won’t like this.

        • Industry was wrecked by union militancy.

      • Absolutely true!

  7. Tubby Isaacs says:

    Talking of Gove, he’s in a bit of hot water in Durham.

    What seems to have happened is that some of his officials went to East Durham looking for a free school site. One site considered is a school that’s due to close because it has a falling role (something like 300, I think). The free school that might replace it has about 70, but never mind.

    Anyway, that school probably did have a less than dynamic ambience. But it’s in the east of the City of Durham. Not in East Durham, as it sounds like Gove thinks.

    So, the champ of facts and Britain seems to have forgotten Durham is a county and a city.

    East Durham includes Peterlee, where you can buy a house for £30k. I’m sure all it needs is for Lord Harris to rock up and the kids will all go to Oxbridge.

  8. One thing I’ve been thinking is that Gove has brought the teaching profession together like never before, and because so few people have agreed with him, he’s inadvertently helped forge a new coalition of progressive educationalists who reject his ideas. Possibly one positive thing to come from Gove?

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