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Andrew Haldenby and Laura Kounine: Michael Gove should fund but not manage the nation's schools

Reform Andrew Haldenby is Reform’s Director, and Laura Kounine is Reform’s Education Research Officer.

Last week's Conservative Green Paper has divided opinion.  We can discount the hostile criticism from most of the teaching unions; their opposition to the very principle of parental choice is steadily pushing them out of the mainstream of the education debate.  The real debate is between those commentators who concluded that the proposals would indeed deliver a revolution in schooling – and those who were concerned that the methods of reform might defeat its admirable intentions.  Who is right?

The first part of the paper set out the principles of new Conservative thinking on the curriculum and school management.  It proposed some adjustments to the compulsory requirements on schools, for example a phonics based reading test at six instead of a general literacy test at seven and compulsory setting in academic subjects.   Otherwise it claimed a shift away from central regulation.  Central government would only publish best practice, in very considerable detail, including the use of credits and debits for discipline and the optimal length of lunch breaks.

Anne McElvoy was surprised at this:

"Politicians who claim one day to 'set schools free' and 'trust the professionals', only to slide into the minutiae of how good heads do their jobs or whether children stand or sit to say good morning are inviting puzzlement."

We should share her concern.  The history of the last twenty years of education reform - begun by a Conservative government in 1988, and based on ever stronger intervention into the curriculum and teaching methods – is that governments are not the best judge of what works in schools.  In good schools, headteachers spend hours per week protecting their staff from advice on so-called good practice.  The Green Paper proposes an even greater intrusion than the most absurd of the Government's current directives – that on hospital cleaning, which reminds hospital staff to do “wall-washing” and “floor scrubbing”.  This is not the end to top down centralisation for which David Cameron rightly argues in the paper's introduction.

The strongest praise amongst commentators came in regard for parental choice.  A Telegraph leader said that it offered a “serious structural alternative to local authority domination of state education”.  For Iain Martin they would deliver “a supply side revolution, stripping away the monopoly power of local education authorities, the state monoliths that strangle diversity of provision and competition".  The Green Paper does indeed see local authorities as the key problem – and sees central government as the solution.  New schools would sign contracts directly with the Department for Children, Schools and Families on the academies model.  The Secretary of State could step in if local authorities were obstructive.  A central building fund would provide capital if new providers needed them.

For this reason, Anne McElvoy said, “The Gove/Cameron charter is frankly extraordinary in its apparent desire to have even more decisions taken by the Secretary of State than the most ardent centralisers of New Labour.”   We agree; after all, the Department for Education (in its various guises) has proved the greatest opponent of reform for the last twenty five years, certainly more dangerous than local authorities.  The most successful school reforms have been decentralised as much as possible.  As Per Unckel, the Swedish Minister who led their school reforms, explained at a Reform conference in 2004, his first step was to make education entirely a matter for local government.  Grant maintained schools were barely administered at all; their funding came from an arms-length agency and encouragement for them from a separate charity.  Reform's “Commission on the reform of public services” proposed that capital funding should simply be distributed as part of per pupil funding to give maximum freedom.

At heart, this debate is about what matters in education.  Is it government instruction, however well intentioned?  Or is it the commitment of headteachers, teachers and pupils, and all of the other groups involved in schools and children's lives?  The evidence of twenty years of intervention has reinforced the common sense view that it is the latter rather than the former.  Good schools have a sense of mission that means that government suggestions are neither here nor there.  As Bernice McCabe, the headmistress of North London Collegiate School, said this week:

“The key qualities of a good school are universal and easy to recognise: …. Staff with a passion for their subject who are able to convey their knowledge and enthusiasm to pupils, irrespective of background and ability; an unremitting focus on learning; a genuine conviction that each child has the potential to enjoy success and can strive for excellence in his studies; a ‘can-do’ ethos that pervades the school and inspires children and staff: a rich extra-curricular provision, giving opportunities for every child to find his niche and experience success and develop self-confidence; a pastoral care programme that ensures every child is well known and that his social as well as his academic progress is supported; a strong emphasis on self-discipline and respect for other people.”

None of this should obscure the tremendously positive elements in this week's announcement.  Michael Gove made the case that diversity raises standards better than any politician since Tony Blair.  He rightly rejected the Government's inputs-led approach, which would judge education on the numbers of pounds spent and the numbers of years taught, not on outcomes.  Real reform can be achieved if Michael Gove stays true to his convictions, does his utmost to relinquish control over schools and endeavours to fund but not to manage education.

Related link:
Video of David Cameron discussing his education proposals


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