New term offers Gove fresh start as reform programme gathers pace

10th September 2010 at 01:00
With more legislation and the all-important comprehensive spending review only weeks away, the Education Secretary has an opportunity to restore his battered reputation

Just as schools opened their gates for a new term, Michael Gove was back behind his desk this week after a much-needed break from Westminster. By the end of last term, the Education Secretary had endured several torrid weeks before the Commons broke up for the summer holidays.

Mr Gove had come under sustained fire after calling a halt to the vast secondary school rebuilding programme while taking more flak for the way in which he rammed through his first piece of legislation, the Academies Act.

Even over the quiet month of August, in a Sky News survey the Surrey Heath MP was being labelled the worst Cabinet performer during the Coalition's first 100 days in power.

The new term gives the Education Secretary a fresh start. But anyone expecting Mr Gove to ease up on his pace for educational reform this autumn would be greatly mistaken. Despite the criticism he attracted for his rate of change, the Secretary of State defiantly maintains that his reforms are needed - and needed quickly.

And on Monday, Mr Gove announced that a white paper will be expected the end of October, which will set out the Government's comprehensive vision for schools.

Among the proposals is an English Baccalaureate that will be handed to pupils if they secure five good GCSEs, including English, maths, a science, a modern or ancient language and a humanity such as history or geography. This will be quickly followed in early November by the Education and Children's Bill, which will cover a wide range of changes in schools, from behaviour to reform of Ofsted.

The decision to press on has attracted criticism by the spade full, not least from teachers' leaders.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said that the Education Secretary will be under even greater scrutiny after just 32 academies opened for the new term, and the Building Schools for the Future "fiasco".

"As Terry Pratchett once said, if you want to effect change, then do it quickly so no one notices. But people are noticing, and in particular they are noticing how much change is taking place," she said.

"Michael Gove will continue on his ideological crusade, but you have to question whether they have stopped for thought. The only lever he is prepared to use as part of his free school experiment is market forces, who will pay for unfilled school places?

Dr Bousted added: "The curriculum review is expected to return to knowledge-based, have they given any thought to vocational qualifications? He is overturning the 1944 Education Act, creating state-funded schools with no state relationship. We will have no say in our schools."

However, one policy included in the bill that is likely to attract little criticism is the pupil premium. It has been trumpeted by the Lib Dems as one of the key concessions the party won in the coalition deal, but in truth it was a policy that was expected to be adopted by the Conservatives in any case.

While details remain hazy, this will see a financial arrangement whereby funding will be increased for the most deprived pupils.

The only differences between the two parties were the approach to administering it and, perhaps most importantly, the amount of money they were willing to apportion to it.

The latter will now become clear on October 20, when the results of the comprehensive spending review (CSR) will be announced. The date is likely to be marked with giant red rings on every calendar in Whitehall as it will determine the direction of every public service in the country.

The CSR will set out just how much the Department for Education will be expected to cut to meet the Treasury's plan to reduce the Budget deficit.

But the DfE will also have to reveal the amount it will spend on the pupil premium, a task that is unlikely to create many winners, according to Professor Tony Travers an expert on local government funding at the London School of Economics. "Trying to introduce a new funding allocation, such as the pupil premium, while also announcing what is most likely going to be shrinking budgets, is going to be very difficult," he said. "It is always easier to introduce additional funding allocations when times are good, because when times are bad, schools will always feel as if they are losing out."

Professor Travers believes that October's CSR will be bleak reading for all schools across the country, with cuts to spending not seen since the Second World War (see box).

In addition to introducing the pupil premium, the Education and Children's Bill is expected to also introduce new laws on school discipline and behaviour. It is thought the legislation will remove policies such as 24-hour notices for detentions, which the Conservatives pledged to do while in opposition.

But the removal of exclusion appeal panels, a policy repeatedly put forward by the Tories before coming to power, has now been called into doubt.

One source close to the Conservatives said: "There has not been much talk of getting rid of pupil exclusion panels, something that was very much at the fore when in opposition. It could be that they are saving it for a big announcement in the party conferences, or it could be that it has been quietly dropped in response to the Lib Dems."

John Dunford, former general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said removing exclusion panels is one policy he wants to see forgotten.

"I am hoping they're not going to go ahead with it as it will lead to many more parents taking cases to court, presenting schools with much more difficulties," he said.

One policy that is still expected is anonymity for teachers who are facing allegations from pupils.

Similarly, the department will press on with reform of Ofsted. It is understood that the DfE needs to make "one or two legislative tweaks" to the body in order to alter its remit, reducing the number of criteria it inspects from 18 to four in schools.

These lighter-touch reforms will include what Mr Gove refers to as the traffic-light system, where a variety of factors, such as a headteacher leaving a school or a dip in exam results, can trigger warning signs that will alert Ofsted.

The bill is also expected to include raising the entry requirements for prospective teachers, which will demand primary school teachers gain at least a B grade in English and Maths, while graduates must secure a 2:2 degree or higher to qualify for state-funded training.

The DfE will announce its review on the curriculum in the late autumn, but not in time to be included in the Education and Children's Bill.

It has always been Mr Gove's intention to push ahead with two pieces of legislation as soon as he came into office.

Former Conservative education adviser Sir Bob Balchin claims that the rate of change Mr Gove is embarking on is simply an urgency to improve the system he has inherited. "I believe Michael Gove is a radical thinker and he sees the many problems that are out there in the education system," Sir Bob said.

"He is determined during his time as Secretary of State to cure as many ills in the system as possible. I think it is just a case of watch this space."


- First and future new academies open their gates

- Capital review team to report on future of school rebuilding cash

- Comprehensive spending review announced

- Pupil premium level to be set

- White paper launched

- Education and Children's Bill published


Schools should brace themselves for the worst spending squeeze since the Second World War, a leading local government funding expert has said.

Professor Tony Travers, of the London School of Economics, said town hall chiefs are preparing for at least 10 per cent cuts to their budgets and, due to the Government's decision to ringfence spending on the NHS, schools will be forced to deal with dramatic spending cuts.

"The cuts will be the heaviest since the late 1970s, but as these spending squeezes will likely last for the next five years or more, they will be unlike anything experienced since the war," he said. "Schools really will feel as though the sky has fallen in.

"It is the only way the numbers will add up as the Government has decided to protect NHS spending. Schools had been used to getting cash increases of 4 or 5 per cent, they will now be getting less than 1 per cent."

The Treasury has asked Whitehall departments to make at least 25 per cent cuts over the next four years to help reduce the Budget deficit. Although the Department for Education has been looked on more favourably, it is still expected to make between 10 and 15 per cent cuts to its budget.

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