A thousand flowers will bloom, says Minister for School Reform, and it’s all because of ‘autonomy’

Janet Downs's picture
The Government has freed schools from local authority control, said Nick Gibb, now Minister for School Reform, and that will ‘let a thousand flowers bloom.’

But all is not light in Nick Gibbs’ flower-strewn meadow. The numbers taking EBacc subjects is up, he crowed. Now there’s a surprise. The Government introduces a performance-measure and, unsurprisingly, schools do what it takes to meet the measure.

However, GCSE provisional data paint a slightly less euphoric picture:

DOWN: entries for non-EBacc subjects – a reduction of 43%


DOWN: entries for biology (27,186 fewer entries)

DOWN: entries for chemistry (28,539 fewer entries)


DOWN: entries for physics (29,133 fewer entries)

It’s true that entries for core science and additional science rose. But in 2008, Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools, and Families, Michael Gove (now ex-education secretary), pleaded passionately for children to learn three separate sciences. The best universities want separate sciences, he said. The chances of getting the ‘best jobs around’ were curtailed if children didn’t take physics, chemistry and biology.

But under Gove's reforms, the number of pupils taking separate sciences has gone down.

The schools minister singled out the London Academy of Excellence in Newham for special praise. More LAE pupils were offered Oxbridge places than ‘has ever been achieved’ by Newham, in any previous year. But this feat appears to have been achieved by LAE culling pupils who achieve poorly in AS exams after their first year at LAE as revealed in an Academies Week exclusive.

University Technical Colleges, UTCs, which offer education with a vocational bias to pupils at 14-19, also received a plug. 30 UTCs have been established, said Gibb. But one of these, Hackney UTC, which opened in 2012, has already closed provoking criticism about the UTC project. Others struggle with recruitment.

The academies programme, Gibb said, ensured 1,200 ‘worst-performing’ schools had been taken over by sponsors. This would ensure the children received the education they ‘deserve and need’. Gibb obviously hadn’t read the latest Audit Office report which found informal intervention in struggling schools was more effective than formal intervention. And sponsored academies were less effective than other formal interventions such as setting up an Interim Executive Board.

Academies can vary their curriculum, Gibb claimed. But Department for Education information about the new performance descriptors at Key Stages One and Two makes it quite clear what all schools, academies included, will be judged on. And these performance indicators link to the National Curriculum. No escape seems possible.

Teach First received a mention – the Government’s favourite way of training teachers. I’m sure Gibb will welcome Durham University’s evaluation of the scheme when it's eventually published. It’s long overdue. Perhaps he can ask Teach First to release it. Instead, he cited the 38 social enterprise projects set up by former Teach Firsters as examples of what could be achieved ‘when real autonomy is delivered’. It’s unclear how autonomy in academies (which is much exaggerated in any case) has to do with the ability to set up a social enterprise. Government guidance about this doesn’t mention academies or autonomy, real or otherwise.

Gibb said he was delighted to see ‘the fruits of this autonomy in all their vivid abundance’. But the Minister for School Reform fails to acknowledge that autonomy already existed before the Government said schools needed to escape from local authority ‘control’. Schools haven’t been under LA control since Local Management of Schools was introduced more than a quarter-of-a-century ago. Schools in England already had a great deal of freedom (Academies Commission 2013). The extra autonomy attached to academy status doesn’t amount to much – non-academies can do most things that academies can do.
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Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 14/11/2014 - 18:20

When GCSE maths became a performance measure there followed an explosion in C grade success. But did this mean that maths was being taught better or just that gaming got more sophisticated?

Has progression to A level STEM subjects increased in step?

Apparently not according to the Secretary of State's latest pronouncements.

My fear is that although the take up EBacc subjects will increase, as will C grade success, the quality of teaching and student understanding may decline. As has happened with maths, more C grades could be at the expense of Ds and Bs.

Arthur Harada's picture
Fri, 14/11/2014 - 18:51

Nick Gibb appears to have forgotten what happened to Chinese peoples when a thousand flowers bloomed.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 15/11/2014 - 07:48

Arthur - Nick Gibb isn't alone in using such phrases which have links with the Mao period. Michael Gove said in 2010 'I am happy to confess I’d like us to implement a cultural revolution just like the one they’ve had in China.'

Fortunately for those of us who disagreed with Gove, those he described as 'enemies of promise', 'Marxists' etc haven't been 're-educated' or culled.

It's quite funny that Gibb praised those whose 'passionate iconoclasm...refuses to accept mistaken and damaging conventional wisdom'. The 'mistaken and damaging conventional wisdom' is actually anything Gibb disagrees with: he describes classroom discussion as mere chat; he seems unable to distinguish between 'systematic' teaching of phonics (any method) and 'synthetic' phonics (one particular method); and doesn't seem to have read the reports he claims support academy conversion (their conclusion was mixed, but he just cherrypicked the positive bits).

Brian's picture
Sat, 15/11/2014 - 10:30

The flaws in Gibbs assertions are clear, as usual. Now I'm waiting for Tristram Hunt to pick up on them. When do you think we'll hear that speech? Anyone?

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 15/11/2014 - 10:46

Brian - I fear that may be unlikely. Labour has pledged to increase the number of UTCs, according to FE Week. Deception about academies began when Labour first introduced the policy. Policy Exchange said Lord Adonis (among other Labour politicians) was secretly in favour of for-profit schools (and academies are 'independent' schools which can already outsource all their services to for-profit organisations).

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 17/11/2014 - 09:29

Oh, joy! Minister for School Reform, Nick Gibb has told the Mail on Sunday that schools should bring back 'whole class teaching' because it works in China, he says. Leave aside the fact the Shanghai (which is usually used to represent the whole of China) is trying to move towards education methods which encourage more creativity, the 'research' on which Gibb bases his opinion took place in just 19 classes in China and England (just 562 pupils).

This is far too small a sample on which to base any kind of conclusion.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 17/11/2014 - 09:35

The Minister for School Reform doesn't seem to be up to speed with evidence given to the Educational Select Committee. The Mail reported Gibb's assertion that PISA tests show Shanghai pupils are so many GCSE grades above English ones. But Andreas Schleicher, OECD's PISA guru, admitted to the Ed Committee that more than 25% of Shanghai pupils were missing from the 2012 PISA tests.

Any comparison, then, is unreliable.

Andy V's picture
Mon, 17/11/2014 - 09:47

The >25% of missing pupils also begs the question as to whether the Chinese government is gaming with the PISA tests to bolster their outcomes, and if they are who else is?

How sad that politicians - of all persuasions - life off the highly contentious and lazy sloppy journalistic predilection for headline stories that don't attempt to scratch the surface of the data.

To say that politicians are out of touch is a gross and profound understatement.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 17/11/2014 - 10:14

Andy - it's illuminating that China only files the results of certain non-typical Chinese cities: booming Shanghai, the Special Administrative Regions (SAR) of Hong Kong and Macau, the untypical status of Chinese Taipei (which I haven't been able to work out).

Shanghai, the most-educated region, is the only part of mainland China to file results. According to this Brookings article, it appears rural areas were tested but the results weren't released. The article's author asked the OECD to release this data. That was January 2014 - the results don't appear to have been published.

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