The government has no Plan B for school improvement

Fiona Millar's picture
A chance exchange on Twitter last month with Michael Gove's political adviser turned civil servant Sam Freedman prompted me to take a closer look at whether the Coalition really does have a plan for school improvement.

The full version of my Guardian column on this subject is here and my conclusion more worrying than I had originally envisaged it might be. Schools policy increasing resembles the half baked plans for the economy and health service; ideologically driven, not based on evidence and with no plan B. There appears to be only one trick in the box when it comes to schools that are struggling - academy take-over. Yet the Schools Commissions Dr Liz Sidwell has already admitted that there are academies that are already causing her great concern, suggesting that structural change doesn't in fact lead automatically to school improvement.

With reduced LA resources and no local education services in some areas, where all schools are being encouraged to opt out, it is hard to see who intervenes in non sponsored schools that start to fail and also what levers will be available. Even some of the existing academy sponsors are clearly worried about this - when I interviewed ARK managing director Lucy Heller this summer about the role of academy chains, she was diplomatic but suggested : "There needs to be something, apart from Ofsted, standing between schools and outright failure."

No wonder the Secretary of State is starting to get a bit jittery as Janet Downs pointed out here. It is conceivable indeed quite likely that, in 3-4 years time, he or his successor will be presiding over more, not fewer failing schools and some form of local framework for intervention ( rather like extremely effective London Challenge) will have to be reintroduced.





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Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 08/11/2011 - 17:38

Quick summary of Gove's policies:
- failing schools should be 'allowed to fail'
- the abolition of local planning
- the abolition of QCA and the development of barely consulted curriculum based only on a knowledge curriculum.
- the abolition of the GTC and the extreme centralisation of power
- the eBacc

Fiona in your article you suggested that his policies ran counter to most evidence.
I'm surprised at your use of the word 'most'. Was there every any evidence for any of these policies?
I thought they were just driven by ignorance, hubris and the loud mouths of those where were disaffected for obvious reasons?
If anyone has any evidence which justifies any of these policies please could they share it?

JimC's picture
Tue, 08/11/2011 - 20:54

How about this - you are the first person I know of who has actually complained about the abolition of the GTC.

Keith Turvey's picture
Tue, 08/11/2011 - 20:59

Yes interesting Gove should be getting jittery. At the Albert Hall on Monday Night for the first night of the Schools Proms 2011. Gove was awarding the Classic FM music teacher awards and he received a hostile reception from the audience; general jeering and booing. The presenter had to interject "come on we're all friends here!" He is becoming increasingly isolated but he seemed genuinely surprised by his poor reception.

Samuel Morris's picture
Tue, 08/11/2011 - 21:12

LAs will get powers back regarding intervention in failing schools. They will also 'form' business relationships with Academy Trusts over school improvement in their areas.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 09/11/2011 - 09:15

Michael Gove’s schools policies are based on the American Charter Schools model – more specifically the New York Charters, which Gove and his advisers, including Sam Freedman on Twitter and Rachel Wolf of the New Schools Network in various media, have spun to present as having achieved almost miraculous results in closing the achievement gap between rich and poor.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Report after report has shown that there are very good charters as well as very bad charters. The Stanford CREDO analysis of Charter School achievement revealed only 17% did better than regular public schools. The 2009 report on New York Charters, on which the government have based their “unprecedented achievement” claims, has been successfully challenged as having been based on very unreliable methodology.

Worse, the drive for Charter Schools to be seen as more successful has led to schools around the US to encourage cheating in tests. Geoffrey Canada, CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, a New York charter chain, tried everything to get the scores up for the first class of students. Nothing worked, so he called in the entire class of students and told them he was closing down their grade and they should leave and go to another school. Class dismissed. Financially, HCZ has assets of around $200m, is a magnet for philanthropists who for years have poured their wealth into education to influence and set the political agenda for schools. A recent New York Times article revealed that under Joel Klein, the ex Chancellor for Schools for New York and a notorious enforcer of “standards”, tests were made easier so that results were inflated. Now that a more realistic set of exams has been put into place, the shock is that students in all types of schools – including Charters – are doing rather less well than misrepresentative data previously showed. Joel Klein is a friend of Michael Gove and is currently CEO of the Education Division at Murdoch’s News Corp.

Unlike the Finnish one, the American model is a very strong warning that Academization and Free Schools are more likely to fail than succeed if they are implemented as a challenge and a competition to existing maintained school provision. They do not succeed if they fail to significantly raise achievement for all children in all schools in all parts of the country. Cheating and misrepresenting statistics and results don’t count.

With a 60% cut to the education budget, it is difficult to see if there is even a Plan B to propping up Plan A, never mind one that would actually represent a properly radical departure. How does this expansion sustain itself without cutting off the limbs of maintained schools and skimming it off the budgets from social welfare? We don’t have a culture of bling level philanthropy in Britain, so where will the money come from? The only viable source, it seems to me, is from for-profit making companies. Gove has repeated he is not “ideologically opposed” to the free market entering schools. Perhaps this has been the end game all along?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 09/11/2011 - 10:59

=) now that's an interesting one isn't it Jim.

The general opinion I picked up was that it needed to go because the way it operated to as travesty considering what it was actually intended to do.

However that opinion was countered by deep concerns regarding Gove's motives for shutting it down which seemed to totally misunderstand what was actually going on there and the greater environment regarding what was needed.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 09/11/2011 - 11:07

I think 'based on' is a bit of a dubious phrase Allan.

'Spun as being based on' is probably more appropriate as it depicts a process where people had decided what they wanted to do and went searching for justifications for that, rather than a process where policy was grounding in something which was actually analysed and understood.

The reality is that Gove's wild goose chase which was clearly always going to fail has:
- diverted funds from projects which will really enhance education
- diverted attention away form the discussion of policy which will really improve education
- led to a big clearout of people with ability in favour of those who tell Gove what he wants to hear

The rate at which this will happen will continue to escalate as the the effects of his policies kick in.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 09/11/2011 - 11:12

Not according to civil servant/SPAD Sam Freedman! He tweeted today that it was as "inspirational as ever" although it is unclear whether he meant the concert, the RAH or indeed Michael Gove. He "didn't hear any booing" but he was sat in a box, where the acoustics can often filter out any discordant sounds

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 09/11/2011 - 11:19

Well Rebecca. I was trying to be polite and give him the benefit of the doubt!

I forgot to add that other consequences of charter schools is that the level of deregulation and lack of accountability has led to many school boards and entire states suing the charter school chains that effectively control and own them for a variety of complaints arising from putting profits or satisfying shareholders (including philanthropists) above maintaining - never mind improving - educational standards.

Given Fiona Millar's post here on Funding Agreements for Academies/Free Schools, the American example is truly a can of worms waiting to open up in British schools.

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 09/11/2011 - 16:56

I think he is isolated but then hardly surprising since he spends most of his time saying how useless most schools, heads and teachers are. I suspect the decision by the NAHT re industrial action also represents underlying disenchantment with the direction of travel in many areas beyond pay and pensions.

Keith Turvey's picture
Wed, 09/11/2011 - 18:08

Yes I agree re the NAHT decision Fiona. Rebecca the Guardian Blog suggests it was only the teachers booing Gove whereas I can confirm there were plenty of grandparents and parents joining in the general chorus of disapproval at Gove cadging in on the photo opportunity with the award winners.

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 09/11/2011 - 17:01

I think you are over optimistic. Many authorities will only have a skeleton school improvement service - they will need a guaranteed income stream from the independent state schools in their areas to re-build capacity. Moreover their power to intervene in academies and free schools may be limited depending on the outlook of the school and its governing body. A lot of children's life chances could be affected in the meantime.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 10/11/2011 - 12:28

Mike Baker's blog today indicates the huge rate of conversion now and also clearly states that the reforms are constructed in a way which make them non-reversible.

It's very, very worrying.

Davis Lewis's picture
Thu, 10/11/2011 - 13:25

I think that the Sercos and Crapitas will be brought to run school improvement and other LA functions if there is money to be made in this area.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 10/11/2011 - 13:30

For this to be done efficiently it needs to be done by people who already know and have a long term interest in/responsibility for the school.

What will happen when the underlying issue is a lack of coherent local planning?

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