A year after the Coalition government limped into office, things don’t look too good for the government nor for Education Secretary, Michael Gove. Despite the fan-fares heralding his education reforms, his first year at the DfE has been distinguished by a series of damaging gaffes – the debacle over EMA, a court finding Gove had acted in a way that was "so unfair as to amount to an abuse of power" in cutting the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) scheme and another U-turn over England's schools sports system. Add to this a tendency to move too quickly into implementation; reviewing things afterwards and finding out that it’s unsustainable; an unwillingness to take on board the advice and concerns of teachers; a lack of transparency over i) how education budgets are allocated and ii) funding agreements for free schools and we have a pretty dismal end of year assessment.
A recent TES survey revealed that 77.8% of respondents said the Coalition’s performance on education has been “bad” or “very bad”, 74.5% “disagreed” or “strongly disagreed” with the Government’s programme of public spending cuts to reduce the budget deficit. And only 7.3% per cent of respondents “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that his plans to expand the academies programme would lead to an improvement in England’s schools, with just 7.7% thinking free schools would have a positive impact on the wider school system.
Gove would be unwise to dismiss the survey on the basis of it’s being drawn from a pool of TES readers as more and more people up and down the country are voicing their opposition to the reforms.
Even loyal Conservatives are critical of Gove. Les Lawrence, the local councillor responsible for schools in Birmingham, the country’s largest Local Education Authority, feels that the abolishing of BFS was a mistake, leaving Birmingham schools in the lurch, with many of them in desperate need of basic repair and maintenance. And he too feels that Gove took such a major decision without consultation, saying he “actually engaged in no consultation with our local authority at all. If he had during the period leading up to his announcement, I’m sure we could have shown just how it could have been realised in cost and much of the programme could have been retained.”
The announcement last week that only a handful – perhaps up to 10 – of free schools will be opening this Autumn suggests that such schools won’t be achieving the impact the government had hoped. This is undoubtedly due in large part to the fact that capital funding and running costs for free schools are expensive and few of them will be making enough of a dent in terms of size to create more school places. Then there is the problem of finding and leasing suitable buildings that are fit for purpose. Parents might question whether they want their children educated in old office blocks or converted factories and a significant number of them now show up to protest against the opening of new free schools in their area.
An article from the Northern Echo
reports that just one of the 40 free school proposals that have cleared the first hurdle is from the North-East or North Yorkshire. Furthermore applications came from the leafier parts of the North and not from “areas where there are poorly performing schools” (DfE) suggesting that free schools are being proposed by and for the already advantaged. There are fears that an educational north/south divide could split the country and add to the sense of unfairness if the extra money found for the programme will now be spent in the affluent South-East rather than deprived communities in this region.
If the government is shifting our focus towards Academies, then the evidence is showing that not all schools are capitulating to them, despite the financial incentives. Sarah Dodds highlighted on this site that Elmgreen School
is the latest to stay as they are and this set of tables from the Anti-Academies Alliance
shows that “the number of schools that are not becoming Academies remains the vast majority in most local authorities in the country.”
As Gove retreats further and his policies descend deeper into chaos, Andy Burnham impresses more and more with his ability to listen, understand and provide a coherent and workable way forward. The shadow education secretary said the survey supported his party’s view that the Government’s education policies consisted of “broken promises, incompetence and wrong-headed reforms. From school building to school sport, from the education maintenance allowance to school budgets, it’s the same pattern - snap decisions with no evidence or consultation. Successful policies turned into a complete shambles,” Mr Burnham said. “Michael Gove is seeking to foist a narrow, backward-looking vision of education on our schools and the public don’t want it.”