Gove tight-lipped, but relishes prospect of next landmark reform

19th November 2010 at 00:00
Days before the publication of his white paper, the education secretary spells out his ambitions for English schools to measure up to their global counterparts - and that means bringing about improvements in teacher quality

Outside Michael Gove's office in the Department for Education there are photos of classroom scenes from more than 100 years ago. Row upon row of docile children dutifully learn to read as a towering teacher stands, all-seeing, above them.

Critics of the education secretary claim this is the type of school he would like to recreate: a bygone era where children learned the kings and queens of England and recited John Dryden poetry by heart.

But in his schools white paper, due to be released next week, Mr Gove aims to further his reform project. Coupled with the Academies Act passed in the summer, he hopes to bring more far-reaching change to the schools system than any other secretary of state for a generation.

At the heart of the white paper will be improving the quality of teachers already in the system, as well as a focus on improving teacher training, he tells The TES.

"The white paper has been informed by two things," Mr Gove says. "One, the determination to ensure we measure ourselves not against the past, but against the highest-performing countries. And secondly, since a 2007 McKinsey report by Sir Michael Barber on How The World's Best-Performing School Systems Come Out On Top, it is clear that teacher quality is at the heart of a good education system.

"The white paper makes the argument that we should build that critical duo of insights into the heart of the education system overall."

The education secretary has just returned from a whirlwind tour of the Far East, as part of a prime ministerial trade delegation visiting China and South Korea.

The trip, and the frenetic workload involved in running the Department as a white paper looms, seems to be taking its toll. He appears a little less comfortable than normal - he is, after all, renowned for his relaxed and charming disposition.

As if to prove the point, during education questions in the Commons on Monday, the usually collected Mr Gove lost his cool with his opposite number, Andy Burnham, shouting a demand for an apology from Labour for the state of the country's finances.

But whatever the stresses of office, the Conservative MP is as polite and welcoming as ever and keen to share the lessons of his travels in the Far East. "It was striking, in particular in Hong King and Singapore, but also in Beijing... all of the people I talked to stressed that one of the things that had been responsible for high performance and getting better was the principle of the classroom as an open space," he says.

"That you would have members of the leadership team observing, passing on advice and themselves observing great work. And in Singapore, they are developing technology to allow great lessons to be filmed and go online and become part of the process of professional development."

"Our aim - and the white paper is my step towards that - is to embed more of that culture in our own," he adds.

While the education secretary says changes will need to be made to initial teacher training to achieve this, he stresses it is clear to him that inroads must be made to the existing workforce if improvement is to be achieved in the short and medium term.

Reforms to the BEd and the PGCE are forthcoming, but details will not be made available until the university white paper expected in response to Lord Browne's review of higher education funding, published last month.

Mr Gove is prepared to outline his eagerness to "diversify" routes into teacher training, but he refuses to be drawn on precisely what that means.

However, there can be little doubt that he regards teacher training as an expensive process - hence his push for more teachers to learn what he describes as the "craft" of teaching in the classroom.

Back in July, when he hinted at moving teacher training from universities to schools, Mr Gove found himself in hot water for describing the profession as something "best learnt as an apprentice". Now he has a slightly different take, likening teaching to the "craft" of surgery. "If you look at a surgeon, the craft of surgery is allied to real intellectual knowledge of how the body works.

"And so with teaching, it should be up there with surgery as a profession where you combine the intellectual skills with practical ability to deliver amazing results."

To this end, Mr Gove intends to make more bursaries available to teachers who want to study a masters degree or postgraduate qualification in their chosen field, to "deepen their subject knowledge".

And to ensure these best teachers stay in teaching, Mr Gove's white paper will focus on behaviour and discipline in schools. The whole exclusion process will be overhauled, he says, although he refuses to go into detail.

Throughout the interview, the education secretary is intent on keeping tight-lipped on the white paper, perhaps following an ill-informed leak to the Financial Times, which revealed plans to restructure schools funding, bypassing the local authorities.

"We'll be trying to move towards greater transparency over funding, trying to abolish anomalies within the system, but it's not cutting local authorities out of the picture," he explains. "People will know in a local authority what the per-pupil funding will be for each child at primary or secondary level.

"For those schools that are still in the local authority family, the money will go to the local authority, and it will be for the local authority to decide what the school receives and what it keeps back."

Mr Gove is clearly proud of his department's financial settlement in the spending review but he has been forced on to the defensive by Labour, which claims schools will lose out due to Coalition cuts. Unsurprisingly, he dismisses the claim. His opposite number is "flogging a dead horse" in calling the pupil premium "a con", he says. "All you need to do is look at the money."

Mr Gove will be forced to fend off similar attacks from his Labour counterparts when he publishes his white paper next week. And those same critics who claim he is taking schools back to Edwardian times will be out in droves. No doubt Mr Gove will be waiting to greet them with pleasantries and compliments.


Now any school can apply

David Cameron and Michael Gove this week announced plans to open the academy programme to all schools in a bid to drive their reform agenda forward.

Under the proposals unveiled by the prime minister and education secretary, any school can apply to become an academy as long as they team up with a good or outstanding school as part of a trust or federation.

Mr Gove has also opened up the policy to enable any school that is ranked good with outstanding features to be automatically be eligible for academy status.


And that tenner went on...?

Richard Vaughan

Parents will be able to hold schools to account for how they spend their money from January, under Government plans announced this week.

The move, part of the Coalition's drive for more transparency, will allow the public to see how every penny allocated to a school is spent.

In a letter to every headteacher in the country, Department for Education officials demanded that heads submit their "consistent financial reporting" (CFR) data by 10 December, ready for the website to go live in the new year.

The DfE said: "CFR data is being published as part of the coalition Government's data-transparency agenda, making data more accessible to the general public."

But Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, believes it would lead to more bureaucracy for heads.

"I have no problem with public money being transparent and how it is spent," he said.

"But the idea parents can then start second-guessing how a headteacher chooses their staffing structures or certain equipment makes a mockery of the fact that heads have a professional qualification. They don't need replacement bureaucracy."

Gove in the groove

Got the looks

Michael Gove's points of reference are seemingly boundless, as he demonstrated this week in education questions.

When shadow schools minister Kevin Brennan asked about plans to allow schools to be set up in pet shops, he claimed Mr Gove and schools minister Nick Gibb bore a resemblance to the Pet Shop Boys.

Mr Gove sprang out of his seat and said: "I know (Mr Brennan) is a brilliant musician, but, in the words of the Pet Shop Boys, he's got the brains and I've got the looks, and together I suspect we could make lots of money."

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