Puzzle over missing pieces of Gove reforms

16th October 2009 at 01:00
The shadow schools secretary was hailed as a star last week in Manchester. But it was what he didn't say that attracted attention outside the conference hall, as Richard Vaughan reports

According to Michael Gove, he has a "fantastic job", and last week in Manchester the shadow schools secretary at last revealed the fruits of his labours over the past two years.

But it was what Mr Gove didn't announce that was of particular interest. It was a fine speech - the Scot is famed for his eloquent oratory skills - but it was what he left out that had most people nattering.

The headline policy was the expansion of the academies scheme. The Tories have made no secret of their love of semi-independent state schools and Tory leader David Cameron said earlier this year that he planned to put "rocket boosters" under the programme.

Mr Gove hailed the work of Sir Michael Wilshaw, headteacher at Hackney's Mossbourne Academy in north London, as the model to follow. The MP for Surrey Heath namechecked Sir Michael no fewer than six times, even going as far as to call him as a "hero".

But few would have expected the Tories to go as far as they did. Under a Conservative government, every school will have the opportunity to bid to become an academy, and those already rated "outstanding" by Ofsted will have a free passage to become one even without an outside sponsor.

Those at the "bottom of the pile" - the schools in special measures - will be automatically transformed into academies if there is no improvement after a year.

Unsurprisingly, the announcement was greeted with dismay by teachers' unions, with the NASUWT describing it as the party's "blueprint for dismantling state education".

Labour claimed that, despite the Conservatives' talk of cracking down on low attainment, the measures do not meet its own ambitions.

Schools Minister Vernon Coaker said: "This new Tory policy would be focused on just 56 secondary schools in Ofsted special measures, while our National Challenge is uncompromising about raising standards through new investment and new leadership in the 270 schools still below our basic benchmark."

The Association for School and College Leaders believes that a year is not enough time in which to turn around a failing school and that the task is tougher in the wake of the changes to Ofsted's framework.

ASCL general secretary John Dunford said: "There is no magic bullet that will turn around schools overnight. Having a strong, focused leadership team is important, but the process takes time. Heads who have been successful in improving schools will confirm that the deadline of a year is not long enough, even with an excellent team.

"The current Ofsted framework makes it more difficult for challenging schools to be graded well, even when the pupils are making good progress."

The union added that although many heads and their senior leadership teams would welcome the added autonomy of academy status, without a national framework in place this would "polarise" the state system.

One Tory source revealed that the Conservatives expect vast numbers of schools to become academies. As reported in last week's TES, the creation of so many academies would see the end of national deals on pay and working conditions. Teachers' unions have already raised the spectre of national industrial action.

But despite the howls of disapproval from the educational establishment, many schools are keen to become academies. Some see it as the return of grant-maintained status in another guise. Others stressed that academy success depends on the calibre of the sponsor.

Alan Smithies, headteacher of Parklands High School in Liverpool, says he is "very happy" that Parklands became a National Challenge Trust school - mainly because of the sponsor.

"The most important thing for a sponsor is to engage with the community," Mr Smithies said. "There have been cases where academies become isolated exam factories."

Jim Conway, executive head of Notre Dame High School in Sheffield, said there are huge "political and economic" advantages to expanding the academies programme.

"At a stroke, the Government would safeguard 90 per cent of front-line services and remove much of the clutter that has accumulated around increasingly bureaucratic attempts to micro-manage learning and teaching, saving a lot of money while proclaiming to `save our schools'," he said.

But what Mr Gove did not say was how his party would pay for this vast and wide-reaching reform to the school system.

In 2007, the Tories outlined their plans to expand the academies programme and create more than 200,000 additional school places by siphoning pound;4.5 billion from the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) pot.

But this was based on an assumption that funding levels would remain the same for BSF, which is now looking increasingly unlikely due to the recession.

Mr Gove's championing of academies is accompanied by an assumption that disgruntled parents will set up their own schools once the option is open to them, regardless of time constraints and lack of relevant experience.

And noises are now coming from the Tory camp that schools could be run for profit at parents' behest, but the official line remains that this would be off-limits.

Graham Stuart, a prominent Conservative MP who sits on the Commons schools select committee, told a fringe meeting in Manchester last week that the demand for profit will "come from the most unlikely of places".

Empowering parents was at the heart of Mr Gove's speech and is the centre of his plans for school reform. In Manchester, he asked parents to picture a perfect school. "Just imagine it," he said.

"Within walking distance of your front door, a small school where the headteacher knows every child's name, with smaller class sizes, and personal support for your child."

To make this happen, Mr Gove reiterated his proposal to give parents control of the money that is spent on their child's education in the state sector.

And although although it was not made explicit, John Bangs, head of education at the NUT, believes the implication is that the Tories will introduce a voucher system.

"I think they will have another pop at vouchers," Mr Bangs said.

"The idea is that middle-class parents would pick up the initiative and working-class parents would follow suit. But this will not happen. We will see those with the time, the money and the knowledge take control and there will be a widening of the social gap."

The Tories plan to counteract this with a pupil premium, a sum of money attached to children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Mr Gove alluded to it in his pledge that "no parents need our help more than the poorest", but there was no specific mention. Instead we were given Troops to Teachers, a policy first announced last year, which will train former soldiers for the classroom.

The pledge to expand the academies programme captured a lot of headlines last week. But unless Mr Gove begins to back his pledges with full funding plans, he might soon find that his job is not quite so fantastic after all.

Mind the gaps, Michael

Mr Gove promised to:

Build 12 new technical colleges

- Turn schools in special measures into academies

- Give all schools the opportunity to become academies

- Allow "outstanding" schools to be pre-approved to become academies

- Reduce Ofsted's school inspection from 18 categories to four

- Exempt "outstanding" schools from Ofsted inspection

- Train former soldiers to become teachers with the Troops to Teachers initiative

- Demand that trainee primary teachers sit rigorous numeracy and literacy tests

But he didn't say:

How he will fund the expansion of the academies programme, including technical colleges

- How he will finance the pupil premium

- Where he will find the cash to create more than 200,000 additional school places.

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