A very bad start: your verdict on the Coalition's first year

13th May 2011 at 01:00
Twelve months after the Government entered office, a TES survey shows that more than 75% of respondents think its performance - and that of its education secretary in particular - has fallen well short of the mark. Richard Vaughan reports

A year ago this week, the first coalition Government since the Second World War was formed, bringing an end to 13 years of Labour administration.

It took the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats nearly six days of behind-the-scenes horsetrading to thrash out a deal that would eventually see David Cameron move into Number 10.

During those tense negotiations, Michael Gove was one of the last members of the Cabinet to be assigned a role in the blue and yellow Government. But since taking up his position as education secretary he has embarked on a programme of reform of the education system not seen in a generation.

One year on, The TES has run an online poll of its readers to get a sense of how the education world feels the Coalition has performed in its first 12 months.

For Mr Gove, the results will not make pleasant reading.

According to figures from the survey (see right), 77.8 per cent of respondents said the Coalition's performance on education has been "bad" or "very bad".

A similar proportion (74.5 per cent) "disagreed" or "strongly disagreed" with the Government's programme of public spending cuts to reduce the budget deficit.

But it was Mr Gove's schools policies that got the worst grades.

Asked whether the Coalition's plans to expand the academies programme would lead to an improvement in England's schools, just 7.3 per cent of respondents "agreed" or "strongly agreed".

Similarly, when asked whether free schools would have a positive impact on the wider school system, only 7.7 per cent of respondents answered "agree" or "strongly agree". About half of respondents "strongly disagreed" with both these statements.

Even when it came to the pupil premium, the Lib Dems' flagship policy of providing additional funding for pupils on free school meals, 45.2 per cent did not think it would have much of an impact on schools.

Perhaps most worrying for Mr Gove, however, was how his own performance was graded.

The education secretary has been forced to defend his position on numerous occasions and been pressed into a number of U-turns during his 12 months at the Department for Education as he has tried to push ahead with his reform agenda.

As a result, 78.7 per cent of respondents said Mr Gove's performance in his first year was either "bad" or "very bad".

David Carter, executive principal of the Cabot Learning Federation in Bristol, disagreed with the results, particularly on academies and the education secretary's performance.

"Personally, I strongly agree with the expansion of the (academies) programme," he said. "Being an academy gives a serious solution to improve the school's core work. It gives you the opportunity to focus on the needs of your school and your kids."

He added: "I think Michael Gove has improved as the year has gone on. There is more clarity now."

But the findings were pounced on by the NUT, which said they provided further evidence of the public's "growing discontent".

The union's general secretary Christine Blower said: "I am sorry to say the results are not a surprise. Since the election, the coalition Government has pursued an ideologically driven agenda which has little to do with what is right for education, the country, or indeed for which anyone voted.

"This straw poll is yet another clear indication that Michael Gove's policies on academies and free schools are simply not wanted by the general public. To have any hope of continuing in office, the Government needs to listen to the growing discontent around them and change their policies to ones which do not leave whole swathes of the country alienated."

When survey respondents were asked about policies intended to raise standards in schools, such as the English Baccalaureate or lifting the entry level into teaching, the picture was far more mixed.

According to Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, uncertainty in the responses reflected a lack of communication from the Government, particularly early on.

"We all understand Michael Gove wants to make an impact, but (the Government has) moved too quickly into implementation and reviewed things afterwards - it has been the wrong way round," Mr Lightman said.

"He is undoubtedly passionate about improving the education system - you cannot question that. And he has tried hard to engage with school leaders and listen to our point of view. But I think in the initial months he didn't do that quickly enough."

Only on the question of whether it was right to launch a review of the curriculum did the Coalition garner any real support, with 54.9 per cent of respondents answering "agree" or "strongly agree".

James Groves, head of education at right-of-centre think-tank Policy Exchange, said the Government needed to do more to spell out its intentions, but that the education secretary had performed well in a "challenging year".

"Like every area of government, there have been some really big challenges. Overall, (Mr Gove) has been one of the most dynamic, forward- looking and forward-thinking ministers in Government.

"He has gone some way to putting education right to the top of the Government agenda, and he is changing the whole language and vocabulary of education policy. Those are big things to have achieved in just one year."

But Mr Gove's Labour counterpart Andy Burnham was buoyed by the survey, which showed that 71.2 per cent of respondents would vote for his party if a general election were held tomorrow.

The shadow education secretary said the survey supported his party's view that the Government's education policies consisted of "broken promises, incompetence and wrong-headed reforms".

"From school building to school sport, from the education maintenance allowance to school budgets, it's the same pattern - snap decisions with no evidence or consultation. Successful policies turned into a complete shambles," Mr Burnham said.

"Michael Gove is seeking to foist a narrow, backward-looking vision of education on our schools and the public don't want it."

Such words may be treated by Mr Gove as everyday political to-ing and fro- ing, and he is unlikely to lose too much sleep over this survey. But to ignore this snapshot of the public's sentiment would be unwise. A good politician must be able to signal his intentions clearly - an area in which Mr Gove wins top marks - but a good statesman must also know when to listen.

Commentary from Michael Gove, education secretary

The Coalition trusts teachers. You're the experts on the frontline. But for too long you've been stifled by bureaucracy and not had the tools you need to deliver. Over the past year we've tried to reverse that.

We have stopped the weekly bombardment of schools with unnecessary directives and guidance from central Government. We've scrapped the pointless form-filling that was the self-evaluation form and the financial management standard in schools. We've set up a curriculum review that will reduce prescription and ensure you have the freedom to teach the subjects you are passionate about in the way you think best. We're restoring adult authority to the classroom by giving you the powers you need to keep discipline. And we're ensuring that the law is on your side against malicious pupils.

We've given all schools the opportunity to break free from local and central bureaucracy with more money for the poorest pupils. Schools want the freedom to decide what is best for pupils. They want to be free to innovate in the classroom, inspiring pupils to learn. There are now hundreds more academies and many more will follow. This is a decisive shift in the education landscape. A shift of power from bureaucrats to professionals. It is a shift for the better.

Related article: Coalition gets thumbs down from teachers


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