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Are there three holes in the Tory flagship?

Whenever the Tory leadership wants to defend itself against the charge that it is excessively cautious it points to Michael Gove's schools policy. It is expected to be the flagship policy of a Conservative government's first Queen's Speech.

The plan for a so-called Swedish schools system is indeed impressive. Britain should see the state schools monopoly broken open as Michael Gove invites new schools to establish. A big expansion of faith schools is particularly likely. Mr Gove has also promised to give schools the freedom to set teachers' pay and change the exam system they use. There are other encouraging dimensions of Tory education policy. There's a strong emphasis on headteacher-led discipline... There's the promise to restore rigour to exam standards... To overhaul teacher training... There'll be a pupil premium for poorer children... A commitment to transform the management of the country's worst performing schools within 100 days of a Tory government coming to power. There's an emphasis on science and proper teaching of British history... And a determination to protect good private schools from the Charity Commission.

But three significant imperfections of David Cameron's flagship policy were probed by Chris Woodhead in a dialogue with Michael Gove that appears in the latest edition of the brilliant Standpoint magazine. The former Chief Inspector of Schools tackles the Shadow Secretary of State for Schools, Children and Families on whether new schools (1) should be able to make profits; (2) be able to free themselves from the national curriculum; and (3) be able to select.  Extracts from the dialogue are posted below.    

ProfitMaking Chris Woodhead: "I approve of the Swedish free schools. But the expansion of free schools in Sweden has depended on the involvement of the private sector... Why don't you involve companies that have the market experience of running and building schools that don't cost much more than the state sector?"

Michael Gove: "One of the striking things about Sweden, America and Canada is that some of their most successful free schools and charter schools have been non-profit. Some of them have been set up by philanthropists, others with the help of private-sector institutions, which are not seeking to make a profit that then goes back to shareholders. My challenge to any profit-making company would be: the people you really need to convince are both parents and taxpayers — parents that you can provide something better, taxpayers that their money should be deployed to support you. Therefore the challenge to any private-sector organisation is, take advantage of any existing legislation, set up a school on a non-profit basis, show that you can do a better job than anywhere else. If profit-making institutions can do such a good job, then why wouldn't they wish to set up a not-for-profit school and then say come and have a look and admire what it is that we are doing?"

Curriculum Chris Woodhead: "I'm still anxious about what I take to be the current paradox in the Conservative position. There's a choice: either we believe that schools can be managed, intelligently or unintelligently, tightly or loosely, but the management would nevertheless be centralised because you're sticking with a National Curriculum that purports to deliver a system of education that you think is right. Either you have that centralised, top-down approach, or you believe in freedom: the freedom of schools to function within a market to meet the needs of parents, their consumers. At the moment you're trying to have it both ways. That worries me because I think it's illogical. I also think that the attempt to manage things from the centre has failed. Even if you could develop a National Curriculum that made sense to you and me, (a) it wouldn't necessarily be a desirable curriculum for every parent and (b) what happens when the Conservatives lose power, which they eventually will?"

Michael Gove: "I admire the rigour with which Chris characterises the situation. But my difference of opinion springs from a couple of things. The first is that I don't believe that you can move from the current situation to a situation where every school is independent overnight. If you did do so you would actually in the end empower the educational establishment because some of those schools that you would transform into wholly independent state schools tomorrow would fail or falter. That would give ammunition to your critics. It's also the case that some of the people who have come from or been shaped by the "thought world" that Chris describes would depart even further from what the overwhelming majority of parents would like to see. Eventually, over time, if there were no politics in it, parental commonsense would eventually ensure that all of those schools improved. My view is that we're introducing the maximum level of parental influence, control and voice at the fastest possible rate consistent with ensuring that this system is still coherent and intelligible to parents, and that in areas where the system is palpably failing we can use the cash and expertise from people who really know what they're doing. Chris has described the Platonic ideal. I'm trying to find the Aristotelian practical golden mean."

Select Chris Woodhead: "You mentioned selection and the broad issue implicit in that of admissions procedures and you talked about the best schools in the country being the independent schools. Now, one crucial characteristic of being an independent school is its ability to set its own admissions criteria and often, though not always, to select children in terms of ability. My view is that if we want schools to be free and independent you have got to give them that right... Why not free up schools to determine the curriculum, the ethos and the admissions procedures that follow from that? Then we get a system that has diversity and which caters for the different needs of individual pupils."

Michael Gove: "The last challenge is a particularly powerful one. But I will start with the broader argument on selection. Chris mentioned my allusion to independent fee-paying schools but those I am most impressed with are the independent state schools, such as the original City Technology Colleges. They are comprehensive schools! And those academies that, you and I would agree, do an outstanding job, like the Mossbourne Community Academy [in Hackney, east London]."

Chris Woodhead: "I would say that successful schools, like Mossbourne, are not succeeding because of their academy status. I see nothing in their status that explains their success. They succeed because they are led by an outstanding headteacher."

Michael Gove: "That may or not may be so."

Chris Woodhead: "It is."

Michael Gove: "One thing that is true about Mossbourne, as well as being an academy, is that it is a comprehensive. It has a socially comprehensive intake in a very challenging part of London. It has 85 per cent of its children getting five "A"s in GSCEs, including English and Maths. And a school like Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham College, in Lewisham, [south-east London], which did equally well and has done for many years, is also socially comprehensive. We could run through a full list of City Technology Colleges and they are all comprehensives. So there are schools which can succeed for all the children there, both the very academic and the less able."

Chris Woodhead: There are, but the key question is how many of them are there? I would argue that even within the academy movement there are very, very few that are succeeding anywhere like Mossbourne... I don't deny that there are great comprehensives and some — although very, very few — great comprehensives in areas of great social disadvantage. The problem for me is the bright young boy or girl from an extremely disadvantaged area whose parents haven't got the money to send them to a school like ours in Buckinghamshire. They are likely to go to an inner-city comprehensive where there are few bright children with whom they can compete. I do not think that it is another country in this particular case. It is exactly the same in 2010 as it was 1957, when I went to a grammar school. We need schools that are established in order to cater for the needs of the brightest and most disadvantaged, who are at the moment slipping through the net. That's why the number of children from disadvantaged areas going to Oxbridge and elsewhere is declining."

Standpoint_logo Read the full Woodhead-Gove conversation at Standpoint magazine's website.

Tim Montgomerie


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