Plenty of change, but hardly a revolution

19th April 2013 at 01:00
Gove has altered the educational landscape for ever. To what end? asks David Bell, formerly the DfE's most senior civil servant

Occasionally, I have brief moments of nostalgia, especially when a big story hits the headlines. Ten years in central government, including time as the most senior civil servant in the Department for Education, gave me the inside track and, usually, a preview of what was coming next. Now I am merely an interested observer, trying to make sense of emerging policy.

If you pardon the pun, my interest is not merely academic (I am now a university vice-chancellor). Much of what happens in schools affects higher education and vice versa, while I also have a more local interest as a governor of a sponsored academy. So, a year after leaving Whitehall, what is my perspective?

Inevitably, the expansion in the number of academies remains a talking point. With almost 3,000 schools already converted, we are ahead of where I thought we might be at this stage. Back in 2010, the coalition was careful not to set a target, as doing so had become deeply unfashionable after the Labour years and would leave ministers hostages to fortune.

Make no mistake, the existence of so many academies has changed the landscape for ever. Should there be an incoming Labour government, it seems unlikely that it would repeat the mistakes of 1997, when grant-maintained schools were abolished.

But questions remain. What happens when these schools find themselves in difficulty in the future? Who is responsible for sorting out the problems? Will central government do it directly? Will academy chains become more powerful and, if so, who guards these guardians? And is there any place for local authorities as their funding is reduced?

To be clear, there is no crisis of governance at present. But it is evident that a "new settlement" has not yet emerged, and the time is right to clarify roles and responsibilities across the education system as it becomes more diverse.

What of free schools? As with other coalition changes, the Labour Party should be kicking itself for ceding a potentially progressive policy to its opponents. Those young people who perform less well in the current education system, and who seem to be a source of embarrassment for both coalition parties, could have been the focus of this policy.

This brings me to an uncomfortable truth for those who, like me, are committed in word and deed to the state education system. The fact is, in many parts of the country there is a well of dissatisfaction about publicly funded education. Free schools have tapped into that mood.

Free schools may not be a "game changer" countrywide, but they could be a force for good if they galvanise improvement elsewhere. Too many education professionals have a blind spot about the schools that other people's children attend. Being concerned about better schools - even if that means unsettling the status quo - should be a cause as appealing to the centre Left as it is to the centre Right.

Some of the liveliest debates of the past year have been about curriculum and qualifications. As far as the new curriculum is concerned, it is always possible to quibble about the detail so, for example, I fear that ministers have not learned a key lesson of history: that the history curriculum is always contentious.

But a slimmed-down curriculum has the potential to be liberating. Teachers have a real opportunity to regain the high ground of curriculum design, something that has been lost for too many years. Such freedom may sit uncomfortably with those MPs who simply want to tell schools what, and how, to teach.

Education secretary Michael Gove can safely ignore, as he has done with typical gusto, the apocalyptic vision of those experts who argue that this new curriculum will rob children of the ability to think. However, I would urge caution in assuming that those much-feted education systems with "core knowledge" curriculums are as good as some would claim. I was in Singapore recently and there is considerable debate about the rigidity of the curriculum and an absence of imagination and creativity. Likewise in South Korea and China. Rigorous content, yes, but it is not a panacea for all our ills.

'Examination factory'

Of most immediate interest to universities, perhaps, has been talk of examination reform. Frustratingly for ministers, universities have been cautious about some proposed reforms, such as their involvement in "approving", rather than advising on, A-level content and the decoupling of AS from A2.

In part, this reflects unease where the evidence in favour of reform is mixed. Now, though, the onus should be on universities to make these changes work, even if vice-chancellors do not share the government's fundamental lack of confidence in what is happening in the upper years of our secondary schools.

But concerns remain. Too many freshers see university as "school writ large" because they have not developed sufficient independent skills in the sixth form. Is this, or any, government prepared to tackle the "examination factory" mentality that schools feel compelled to accept?

Two final reflections. First, right-wing commentators love to talk about "Gove's schools revolution". But despite the rhetoric being deployed on both sides of the argument, are we really living through revolutionary times? Greater independence for schools is hardly novel. Neither is reforming the national curriculum, which was due a major overhaul anyway. As for concerns about Ofsted, that really is old news. Arguably, the most substantial changes were to come in qualifications. Even there, an uncertain trumpet sounds, not least at GCSE.

Finally, how are we going to measure success? Targetry may have fallen into disrepute but how will we know whether the education system in England has improved, revolution or not? One of the education secretary's achievements has been to move debates about standards away from comparisons with the past and towards comparisons with other education systems across the world. But that does not add up to a set of measures of success.

All this may amount to a plan, but is there yet a destination?

David Bell is vice-chancellor of the University of Reading. He was previously Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools and, latterly, permanent secretary at the Department for Education.

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