Will the Tories give us the schools we deserve? The Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Michael Gove, and the former Chief Inspector of Schools, Chris Woodhead, discuss the Conservatives’ reform plans with Daniel Johnson, the Editor of Standpoint
Portraits by eliza beveridge
Daniel Johnson: I’d like to start by reminding you, Michael, that Chris wrote a piece in Standpoint last summer in which he put some rather trenchant points, for example that even under your proposed radical new schemes for allowing parents to set up new schools on the Swedish model, many things under a Conservative government would still be the same, as far as we know. Such schools would still not have the right to control admissions, or select on ability. What will be different under a Conservative government and how bad is it now? Michael Gove: Things are worse than many people acknowledge, but I think that across the English educational system there are some remarkable examples of success. The changes I want to bring involve learning from those examples of success. The most successful parts of the educational system in England are those schools that are independent, and I don’t just mean those that are fee-paying. If you look for example at the success of the best Academies or of City Technology Colleges, those schools are state schools that have been liberated from central and local bureaucracy. I’m talking actually about comprehensive schools, but the crucial thing about them is not their intake but their independence. They have the ability, for example, to depart from the National Curriculum and they can recruit people from a broader pool. Independent fee-paying schools make a point of selecting teachers not because they’ve been through a particular training course, but on the basis of deep subject knowledge and their capacity to become great teachers in due course, if properly mentored and supported.
Our changes would be dramatic in that we would significantly increase the number of schools that are independent from central and local bureaucracy. We would say to all schools rated outstanding that they would have the opportunity in effect to acquire all these freedoms. We would also, at the very bottom of the pile, take failing schools out of local authority control and hand them over to organisations with a track record of running schools successfully. This would ensure that these schools are run in accordance with principles that have been successful elsewhere. This would mean that they would be free to depart from the National Curriculum, free to hire people who have a deep subject knowledge because they come from industry, academia or the professions. Likewise, they could hire people from the services, who could provide the degree of pastoral care, discipline, leadership and support that you need to complement teaching. Schools would also be free to offer more rigorous exams. Chris has articulated superbly the concern that lots of people, parents and professionals, share about the devaluation of exams. There are some examinations— the International GCSE, International Baccalaureate, the Cambridge Pre-U—that are more rigorous, but state schools can’t offer some of these for a variety of reasons. We would allow all schools to offer them.
The other crucial thing is that all of these schools would have control of the funding that is currently used by local authorities and quangos. Chris has used the phrase “the Blob” to describe that group of people, whether they are local authority advisers or quangocrats, whom others have characterised as “the educational establishment”. They are a group of people who exercise a debilitating influence in two ways. First, they absorb money which is best spent in the classroom on hiring better teachers or giving people access to books or proper practical experience. Second, they continue to argue for, and insist on, an educational philosophy that runs counter to what almost of us would understand as “liberal learning”. By making sure that money is spent on schools rather than those individuals, you’ll no longer have apparatchiks demanding that teachers conform with a centrally-set list of political objectives. Instead, you’re more likely to have teachers capable of communicating their enthusiasm to the next generation and parents will be pleased to see their money is spent on that. If they’re not happy, then they’ll be free to move their children to new schools that share their educational priorities. DJ: Chris, are you impressed by this? Do you think that the Conservatives could take on the educational establishment and win? Chris Woodhead: Much of what Michael says I approve of completely. Will, though, the Conservative government take on the educational establishment and win? At the very least, the jury is still out on that question. I’m not sure that Michael or anyone else understands just how difficult “the Blob” is to fight. You talk about the independent or quasi-independent state schools having the freedom that explains their success, but there are 24,000 schools in the country, the majority of which have to follow the National Curriculum, determined by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. What, Michael, are you going to do about that e