David Laws, the former Lib Dem schools’ minister (and now head of the Education Policy Institute thinktank) confirmed what most education professionals already know when he admitted in a recent Guardian interview that the quality of education policymaking is poor. “A lot of decision-making” he confessed, “is not based on evidence but on hunch. I had little coming to me from civil servants that presented the latest academic evidence. Too often, they just serve up practical advice about how the minister can do what he or she wants. But politicians are prone to make decisions based on ideology and personal experience.”
And asked if he was talking, in particular, about Michael Gove, possibly the most contentious and divisive education secretary ever, Laws reflected: “All politicians have that weakness, but Michael particularly so.”
The consequences of Gove’s ideological, insufficiently evidenced and inadequately rigorous approach to education reform are now coming home to roost, they are felt throughout the education system and are visible wherever one looks.
Gove’s indecent rush to academise schools has not resulted in higher educational standards. All the evidence suggests that academy chains vary widely in the quality of the service and support they provide to schools. Laws' very own Education Policy Institute, revealed that, at secondary level, nine of the worst school groups in England are multi-academy trusts – which makes up a disproportionate number of the lowest performing. (School performance in multi-academy trusts and local authorities, EPI, July 2016).
Gove’s dash to create a school market place, where competition replaced collaboration between schools, has led to a very unfortunate outcome – Mats being more concerned with the quality of their brand than with their responsibilities to the schools, pupils and parents which they should be serving.
The reality of "orphan" schools, unable to attract a sponsoring academy and left to twist in the wind when they most need support, demonstrates all too clearly the failures of the market in the provision of public services. There are numerous examples – too many to mention them all.
Orphan schools, let me remind you, educate children. Children are not cans of beans. They must not be left on the educational shelf by a state education system whose school structures increasingly compound, rather than reduce, the inequalities of educational attainment suffered by disadvantaged pupils as the EPI report Closing the Gap – Trends in Educational Attainment and Disadvantage shows the most disadvantaged pupils in England have fallen further behind their peers and are now on average over two full years of learning behind non-disadvantaged pupils by the end of secondary schooling.
It was not only school structures that Gove was driven to reform. He instigated a mad, headlong rush to reform GCSEs, AS and A levels in order to create, in England, a world class qualification system. The experience and expertise of education professionals were almost entirely cast aside in this process and the results are now evident. There is wide-spread confusion about the non-equivalence of the existing A* to G alphabetical and the new 9 - 1 GCSE grades.In a recent ATL snap-shot poll, 88 per cent of respondents declared that parents and carers did not understand the new GCSE grading system, which is not surprising as the teachers who responded to the poll complained that information provided by exam boards about the standards expected for a grade 4 or 5 (a lower or a strong pass in the revised GCSEs) has been entirely inadequate. One respondent commented: “There is a complete lack of knowledge about where student levels sit in terms of the new grading system. If teachers do not have the information, how can we predict or support student progress? We are then held to account to these grades, which we have no idea how to advise on…this is an unfair and completely unjust system which is ill-thought through and completely unprepared for secure delivery.”
But it is not just teachers who are affected by the chaos which has characterised Gove’s reform of the qualification system – pupils are too. 74 per cent of the teachers responding to the ATL poll stated that the subject content of the revised GCSE courses had "hugely" increased the level of demand – to such an extent that there is simply not enough time in the school week to cover the syllabus. One respondent commented: “Five hours of English a week, plus one evening after school, plus workshops during every half term holiday and we STILL can’t get through the course.”
A potentially alarming decline in the number of 16-year-olds willing to continue studying maths after taking this year’s tough GCSE has been revealed by the Mathematical Association who, in a recent survey of maths departments, showed that more than half reported a decrease of at least 10 per cent in applications to start A-level maths in September, compared with September 2016.
And worries about a drop in A-level entries also affects English where some sixth forms are reporting a 35 per cent drop in entries for September 2017 compared with a year ago.
If these predictions prove to be correct, rather than raising standards, the results of Gove’s reforms will be to precipitate a disastrous decline in the numbers of students studying the core subjects of English and maths.
The maxim "Act in haste, repent at leisure" should, if there were any justice, apply to Michael Gove. But it is teachers who are repenting as they are left to pick up the pieces of his reckless rush to reform the education system. The man himself has moved on (first to the ministry of Justice, then to a disastrous Tory leadership bid and now to the post of environment secretary) where he is now faced with the dilemma, as a leading Brexiteer, of explaining to farmers just how the subsidies they receive under the common agricultural policy are going to be replaced when the UK exits the EU.
Good luck with that one Michael.
Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the ATL teaching union. She tweets as @MaryBoustedATL
For more columns by Mary, visit her back catalogue.