Air up north is chilled by Gove's wind of change

13th January 2012 at 00:00
Conference wrestles with a 'tornado of ideology' as academies revolution rolls on

During much of its 109-year history, the North of England Education Conference (NEEC) has been the place to take the temperature of the schools system.

Secretaries of state, barely over their festive hangovers, would venture north to set out the agenda for the next 12 months. They knew that their audience of councillors and officers from local education authorities were crucial links in getting their policies put into practice. And this year's event in Leeds was just as effective in demonstrating which way the wind was blowing in education - but for very different reasons.

As the conference opened, Michael Gove was speaking - but not in Leeds. He was 200 miles away at an academy, one of the thousands of state-funded schools that now exist independent of the local authorities his predecessors used to try to get onside.

Mr Gove was not only turning down the chance to address the local authority representatives who make up the majority of the NEEC, he was attacking them, saying some local authorities were "obstructive" about the academy conversion. These "enemies of promise" who were "happy with failure" were "more concerned with protecting old ways of working than helping the most disadvantaged children succeed", he said. It showed just how much farther and faster he wants his revolution to go.

Back in Leeds, delegates seemed bewildered, struggling to comprehend the destruction of certainties now crumbling around them. Conference chairman Mick Waters told TES that he noted "an anxiety in the system, a nervousness about where education is going and a lack of clarity about policy direction".

A schools minister did attend, but Nick Gibb's speech did not contain a single policy announcement. Asked whether the Department for Education could really manage thousands of academies from the centre, he conceded that "there is an issue about oversight" and added that more would be said in "the near future".

There now seems to be a consensus about the need for a new local tier of school management, different from local authorities. Stephen Twigg, shadow education secretary, told the NEEC: "Labour will also consider the benefit of local school commissioners to address the democratic deficit that all new schools are accountable to central government alone."

Local authority personnel seemed accepting of the new agenda, according to a poll of those in Leeds. While only 6 per cent were "excited" by the "new landscape" and 14 per cent wanted to "sabotage" it, most were finding new opportunities within it.

Arguments against the new structure were left largely to those outside local government. Dylan Wiliam, from the Institute of Education, University of London, said that although academies improved faster than other schools, they were starting from a lower baseline. David Kirk, a head who works as a National Leader of Education with Mount Pellon Primary, in Halifax, one of 200 low-performing primaries the government wants to turn into academies, attacked ministers for refusing to take into account its latest improved results.

But the strongest criticism came from Professor Waters, who used his presidential address to accuse the government of moving from the "managed autonomy" he said existed for schools under Labour to "centralised control". Those who had been in education for years were grappling with how to make the changes work for children as "a tornado of ideology sweeps through the environment they have worked so hard to create", he said.

Mr Gibb said the government was refuting decades-old ideology in favour of policy based on international evidence.

But Professor Waters made a point no one working in education would dispute. Their world, he said, is "shifting on its axis".


Policies announced by education secretaries at previous North of England Education Conferences:

1966: Anthony Crosland put forward the case for comprehensive schooling.

1987: enneth Baker announced plans for a national curriculum.

1991: enneth Clarke explained that local education authorities should become "enablers" rather than "providers".

1998: David Blunkett unveiled Education Action Zones.

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