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Michael Gove's School Report

Seaton Nick Seaton of the Campaign for Real Education gives the Education Secretary five out of 10.

With MPs on their summer break, how should voters with an interest in education measure the coalition's performance so far? Perhaps one of the most welcome changes has been the end of Labour's Building Schools for the Future Programme. BSF was not just bureaucratic and wasteful – it damaged some excellent schools and upset thousands of parents.

Also welcome are the first flickers of the 'bonfire of the quangos', starting with the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, and Becta, the unnecessary body promoting information technology in schools. Welcome, too, is the demise of the diploma.

The Academies Act is more questionable. It should bring some extra freedoms, less bureaucracy and larger shares of the cash available for schools. Even so, it's riddled with contradictions.

In 2008, in the 62 longest established academies, the average percentage of pupils achieving 5 or more grade A*-C GCSEs including English and maths was only 28.7%. There are a few good academies, but taken as a whole, they are failing schools. Despite an FOI request, their average results for 2009 seem to be secret and people wonder why.

Research by Anastasia de Waal of Civitas shows that in academies, fewer than half the GCSE 'passes' are in academic subjects. Answers to PQs show that only 1 in 5 academy pupils has been entered for GCSE history and even fewer for geography. Only 1 in 4 was entered for a foreign language. At one academy, not a single pupil was entered for GCSE geography out of a cohort of 147. As Miss de Waal told the TES:

'This really does make a mockery of the academies being the flagship for improvement.'

She is, of course, quite right. Mr Blair's academies, unlike grant-maintained schools (which Labour abolished) and grammar schools, are a flawed brand. If all the academies were in a single local
authority, it would be in special measures.

Even Sir Robert Balchin, who led the successful GM school reforms under an earlier Conservative government, has questioned the choice of the academy name. Yes, the Academies Act should make their results open to scrutiny. On the other hand, it contains some disturbing, centralising developments.  Is it free market or stealthy nationalisation?

How free is an academy whose ethos and existence depend on the whims of a Secretary of State (who may change at any time), some 'other party' approved by him or her,  and funding agreements dictated by Whitehall?

Parent power?  Forget  it. The Act refers to the Secretary of State 49 times. Parents, not once.  How free is an academy – or a 'free' school – whose admissions are controlled by the Department for Education's (DfE's) nightmarish Admissions Code? Or a faith school that must keep 50% of its places for those of other faiths or none?

How free is an excellent school that becomes an academy, but must also take responsibility for an underperforming school? Grammar schools that become academies have, we hope, been given some protection. But for how long?

In the meantime, more urgently needed reforms seem to be losing ground. What about the overhaul of the DfE's £74bn budget to produce honest accountability right down to school level? What about honest points for exams to reflect their difficulty? How can anything improve without effective teacher training?

So marks out of ten for the first term?  How about five in anticipation of better preparation and more clarity next term?


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