A year in and even loyal conservatives are critical of Gove's reforms

Allan Beavis's picture
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.”
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Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 19/05/2011 - 06:22

There is a great assessment on Michael Gove’s first year into the job in today’s Independent http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/schools/andy-burnham-why-mic... from Andy Burnham.

Some key quotes:-

“The great irony about Michael Gove's first year in office is that he has turned out to be more top-down and prescriptive than we ever were, having promised precisely the opposite. He wants to instruct teachers how to teach reading and children what books they must read. He wants to tell older students what subjects they should study. And he wants to tell communities what kind of schools they must have. He is in serious danger of collapsing under the weight of his own contradictions.”

“He has rushed headlong into poorly thought-through reforms to successful schemes. Decisions are taken with no consultation and no supporting evidence, subjecting schools and colleges to chaos when they need stability.”

“If you plan more freedom for providers, it must be accompanied by a corresponding empowerment of the public, and a greater ability for users of services to hold providers to account. Without this, you are presiding over provider-led reforms with an accountability deficit.”

“This Government…has fallen headlong into the trap of equating structural change in schools with higher standards. There is no automatic link between the two. So where Labour pursued structural change in Government, it was with a laser focus on improving standards.”

“Without crucial parent empowerment, the result is an elitist, two-tier system where some people get a better deal than others. The sheer speed of these changes is all the more worrying when you consider the latent elitism running through Michael's statements and policies”

It is “very worrying in a world where each school will be its own independent admissions authority – some 20,000 of them – with an incentive to admit children most likely to succeed in the English Baccalaureate subjects.”

“Many young people will struggle to see its relevance to helping them in the modern world. Latin and Ancient Hebrew – in; ICT, business studies and engineering – out. Creative and vocational subjects are nowhere to be seen, sending the troubling signal that any child whose talents lie in these areas is somehow second best.”

“This Government needs to do more to meet the needs and aspirations of young people who want to take a different path. And that is the fundamental problem with this Secretary of State: he has a plan for some schools and some children, not all schools and all children.”

Marcus Brody's picture
Thu, 19/05/2011 - 09:43

This would be the same Les Lawrence whose long-term partner is NASUWT boss Chris Keates, would it?

I mean, the reforms may be good or they may be bad. But Mr Keates turning against the government doesn't exactly suggest a Conservative party in revolt to me. Don't claim victories you haven't won.

Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 19/05/2011 - 10:23

I never said Les Lawrence was turning against the government, only that he was critical of Gove's decision to abolish BSF which has caused widespread chaos in schools and not just in his patch of Birmingham. The ConDem coalition may well descend into open revolt against each other. Now that Clegg is distancing himself from the Tories and their NHS reforms, it would be interesting to see what he has to say about education as well.

Marcus Brody's picture
Thu, 19/05/2011 - 12:54

Hmmm. Maybe. I suspect, though, that Gove's reforms are basically a red-line for the Tory bit of the government - they won't abandon them unless the government actually falls.

And there's no one on the LibDem side, at least at parliamentary level, arguing against them. Their education guy was David Laws, who a) is in disgrace, and b) is slightly to the right of Norman Tebbit. Despite local opposition, there's no LibDem education secretary over-the-water.

I have no sense whatsoever of them backing down. Where the reforms fail it's more likely to be a matter of incompetence than lack of commitment.


Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 19/05/2011 - 13:43


I think that Academy expansion is here to stay but the rate of conversion may well slow down dramatically as a result of local communities not wanting them and schools no longer being enticed with money. The government have already said the programme is unsustainable. As are free schools - only a handful will be opening, the government haven't solved the problem of how to house more than a fistful of schools and there just isn't enough money there to develop the programme in the dramatic ways the government had suggested when the policy was implemented.

So yes, the commitment (however misguided) may still be strong but the tragedy is if the reforms fail (and there is a good chance of) then we are left with a fractured two-tiered education system, with some schools under LA control, others directly under Gove; much more selection by ability; a chasm between the value of academic qualifications versus vocational ones; a breaking down of social cohesion; a landscape of dilapidated run down schools and communities around them and a legacy of decades of billions of pounds spent putting it right and young lives blighted even more.

I do hope the government can be honest enough to admit the folly of what they have embarked on and use the excuse that there isn't enough money to apologise and divert the funds back to maintaining and improving existing schools and devolving authority back to local authorities.

Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 19/05/2011 - 14:57

I think you are both probably right and we will end up with a patchwork of different types of schools, with varying ownership and governance arrangements. It is interesting though that the Tories and Nick Clegg have been arguing against making the GP commissioning consortia 'permissive' since this would lead ( apparently) to an unworkable patchwork of provision, which is exactly what they are creating in education.

Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 19/05/2011 - 13:51

I forgot to add that perhaps Clegg will keep his head down over education given the mauling he received over his U-turn over universities. He can no longer depend on the student vote or, I suspect, many votes from people connected with education!

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