Forget what was in the Coalition Agreement - it is what was left out that matters

Fiona Millar's picture
Some weeks ago I was asked to write an article for the House Magazine (the in-house magazine for the Houses of Parliament) on the Coalition Agreement proposals for schools. Unfortunately the magazine is not available online so I am re-posting the article, which appeared last week, below.

The most striking feature of the Coalition Agreement on schools, two and a half years on, is not what has or hasn’t been achieved but what wasn’t included in the first place.

The document’s most high profile policy proposals  - the establishment of free schools and a pupil premium for disadvantaged pupils – have been relatively low impact.

Fewer than 80 new schools have opened and many prospective founders are reporting difficulties with both the process and finding sites. The existing free schools appear to serve less disadvantaged intakes than are typical of their local communities so are unlikely to contribute significantly to the Coalition’s overarching aim of narrowing the gaps in educational inequality.

For schools that do have high numbers of pupils eligible for free school meals, the pupil premium is an undoubted bonus. But according to Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, the money is not yet being spent strategically enough and is in some cases being used, as he put it, to tarmac the playground or fix the roof.

Meanwhile the policies that have made, and are likely to continue to make, a widespread and sustained impact on our education system were not mentioned in the Agreement at all.

Around half of England’s secondary schools are now independent academies contracted to central government. Many converted rapidly under powers given in an Academies Act that wasn’t included in the Coalition Agreement but was rushed through Parliament in its immediate aftermath.

The extra cash these schools were promised has cost the DFE £1bn more than expected according to the National Audit Office. Hundreds of primaries are now being forced down the academy path, raising the spectre of thousands of schools being answerable directly to the Secretary of State.

Data from the DFE and Ofsted suggests that the performance of academies is no better than that of similar schools in the maintained sector, but who will step in if those independent schools start to fail? Even the Labour Party, which introduced the idea of academies, is now consulting on what sort of ‘middle tier’ should replace now weakened and under resourced local authorities.

The current proposed reforms of the curriculum and secondary school qualifications, towards a narrow range of core academic subjects, were also absent from the Coalition Agreement and are proving controversial with heads from the private, maintained and academy sectors, as well as with the CBI and the creative industries.

The government’s own regulatory body, Ofqual, has suggested change is taking place too quickly, leading to the suspicion that reform is being dictated by the political timetable, and the date of the next election, rather than what is best for schools and pupils

The Liberal Democrat election manifesto promised independent state schools accountable to local not central government and the removal of political interference from the day to day running of schools .The Tories didn’t win an overall majority. The Coalition Agreement has proved to be an incomplete road map for this Parliament and it could easily be argued that the Coalition government lacks a democratic mandate for much of what is now taking place.


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Ben Taylor's picture
Wed, 19/12/2012 - 23:20

Isn't it the case that some of the coalition policies maintain those of the previous government?

I can't square the argument about free schools. One day it's going to be McSchools then the next we hear they are a cottage industry - which suggests to me they are being created at a sustainable rate.

I'd love to see less party politics in schools, let's face it if more LAs were effective national government wouldn't get involved. That's the big question for me and I don't see how Labour would fix that - they would have to reverse their in academy program.

Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 20/12/2012 - 08:38

The free schools are a cottage industry, the academy conversions(not flagged up in the Coalition Agreement) are not and it is the academy conversions that will provide the route in for the profit making companies. Hope that squares the argument for you.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 20/12/2012 - 10:15

Fiona - the Coalition agreement also didn't make clear that the "new providers" who would be allowed to "enter the state school system" could be for-profit education providers as is the case with IES Breckland free school. This seemed to have caught Clegg on the hop but he rallied and claimed he'd stopped for-profit schools but, as the thread below makes clear, he hasn't:


Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 20/12/2012 - 10:30

The Coalition Agreement said that the Government would give all schools "greater freedom over the curriculum." But this hasn't happened. Academy conversion is supposed to allow this "greater freedom" but only 1.8% of heads chose opting out of the National Curriculum (NC) as the main motive for conversion. Money was cited as the most popular reason in the Schools Network/Reform Study (first link). One academy head who responded to the survey said, “Freedom from the NC is somewhat illusory when Ofsted are likely to judge us on it.”

If the Coalition had acted on its promise to allow ALL schools freedom from the NC it would have:

1 Not restricted this freedom to those schools which become academies.
2 Not wasted time and money on changing the NC. The proposed primary NC is excessively prescriptive and threatens to ditch the “liberal, humane values of primary education” in favour of a “soulless bottom line of the politician” (see second link).

Ben Taylor's picture
Thu, 20/12/2012 - 23:00

Well no for profit schools yet. Maybe there should be as long as they are demand driven and not supply driven. I can't really see them doing well against an effective state sector. That is unless they paid teachers too little which is not something desirable.

One thing to bear in mind is that anything that someone does well is usually easily copiable but you can't copy loving children, in the sense that this has to be in the nature of a person. That's a piece of language which seems to be missing from all political discussion and policy. Where does this occur in any discourse? Church schools are the only place I could name anecdotally but I am sure there are others. An interesting idea as to what makes good teachers because I'm sure it isn't either of big business or big government.

Clapped out Barry's picture
Fri, 21/12/2012 - 14:07

Its a real shame that your expeience is limited only to Churc schools because love of children has been the driving force behind every school I attended and worked in or visited and I just about covered the whole gamut from Exclusive Private to council setae to academy tomiddle class cathcment area comprehensive.

You are right o say it has been driven out of political discourse but what is the answer. I believe that actually talking to practitioners and getting a handle on their motivations, purpose, philosophy and aims would be starting point.

Governments for the last 25 years have attempted to drive a wedge between teachers and the public, the media have played along with this very well.

The trouble is mechanistic catch phrases and permeated all levels of the job. I remember in a feedback for an unsuccessful job interview being told that I gave the wrong answer to the question: "What motivates you to be teacher". The correct answer I found was " I am passionate about raising standards".

Clapped out Barry's picture
Fri, 21/12/2012 - 14:09

BTW the sorry about the typos, pressed submit too early!

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 21/12/2012 - 16:17

Clapped out Barry - no need to apogolise, at the end of the Christmas Term it's a miracle any teacher (I presume you're a teacher from tone of post) can string a choherent sentence together.

Welcome to the site - agree with you totally about the propaganda re teachers. According to media we are left-wing trendy trots (try saying that after a couple of drinks) who sit pupils in circles and encourage them to "emote" instead of teaching them to read, rite and do rithmetic.

Have a good Christmas.

Clapped out Barry's picture
Fri, 21/12/2012 - 16:35

Thanks Janet. Though end of term is no excuse as I was clapped out a few years back and am no longer teaching which is both sad and (for my health) a good thing.

I enjoy this site very much and also indulge in the mildly masochistic pastime of punting views on DT pages in answer to the agenda set there.

Enjoy your christmas

Ben Taylor's picture
Fri, 21/12/2012 - 22:06

Barry I totally understand your experience to open ended questions with set answers for public sector jobs. I experienced this two ways. One the rejection with an answer not apparent to me at interview which seemed arbitrary, the other the wink at interview to speak the right answer.

I found an authentic way to live outside of this game. I think its more common to lie to oneself in the state sector but not clear cut.

Gove is to my mind creating a system which will break state power over teaching which is a part of the unhappy status quo. But it is not perfect and will require a new consensus which our teachers and society are not ready for.

Clapped out Barry's picture
Sat, 22/12/2012 - 09:59

Well Ben I can assure you that open ended questions with set answers is not the sole preserve of the public sector. My experience has taught me that any hierarchy within an organisation that wishes to appoint people who can toe a particular line, who look for conformity rather than creativity behaves in this way. Eventually it comes down to the quality of the managers making the appointment.

Similarly people working within a system where their fundamental values are challenged can, as you put it end, up lying to themselves, again such internal conflicts are not the sole preserve of the public sector.

"a new consensus which our teachers and society are not ready for."

I disagree with you Ben. It is all too easy, though tempting to give up on people's capacity for reflection and acceptance of different ideas.
I think teachers are more than ready for a new consensus andI find that when you take the time and trouble to explain to people the realities of the job, the impact of intake upon outcomes and that I really did not work a 30 hour week they will listen and probably are ready too. The same goes for "plummeting down international league tables" and "17 teachers sacked in 40 years". People given time and respect can listen and dig below misleading soundbites. There really no need to be pessimistic, just consistent, honest non-partisan and respectful.

State power or any institutional power over any profession lies in the language it uses and the quality of the debate it and its supporters hold with and about that profession. Dialogue that is constructive and inclusive empowers, dialogue that is aggressive and dishonest oppresses.

It is the quality of argument, the integrity of the use of data and the willingness to persuade rather than abuse those who see things differently that give the best indication as to whether policy makers have autonomy and respect for professionals at the heart of their initiatives.

In that respect I see little in Mr.Gove that distinguishes him from his predecessors.

Leonard James's picture
Thu, 27/12/2012 - 10:03

Well said Sir.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Thu, 27/12/2012 - 17:10

It's been quite clear from the start that the lib dems had no independent policies on education ;one can trace it back to when all but three of their MPs gleefully voted the first coalition act through ( the fast-tracked-just before summer recess-"Academy Act") .

It's also becomes depressingly clear if you are rash enough to join the the official Facebook group "LIberal Democrats". The group has several well-informed "young-gun" moderators delivering erudite explanations of economic and health policies and the threads can be enjoyable. However if you introduce an education issue all the lib dem champions fall back with the exception of a couple of narcissists intent whose only information on the nation's schools is what they have absorbed from the Daily mail. Unfortunately they don't allow the lack of knowledge deter them from defending lib dem policies ( or lack of them to the hilt)

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 28/12/2012 - 08:50

Rosie - unfortunately it seems that the willingness of some politicians and certain sections of the media to speak about education exceeds even the bounds of their ignorance. At the same time, their prejudice is infinite.

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