Time for blue educational thinking, Mr Gove

15th January 2010 at 00:00
Labour hasn't provided a world-class schools system, but can the Conservatives bring a bolder, freer future?

The vision since 1997 has been one of perfection. Tony Blair promised a "world-class education system". The current Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, has pledged to make England the "best place in the world to grow up". Our children will be successful learners, confident individuals and responsible citizens. They will be creative and resourceful problem-solvers with enquiring minds.

They will have a sense of self-worth and personal identity and will relate well to everyone they meet. They will appreciate the benefits of diversity and will challenge injustice of all kinds. They will sustain and improve the environment. They will be literate and numerate and, because they make healthy lifestyle choices, they will be thin.

Yes, all of them. The national curriculum says so. Every school in the land will be successful and the rights of the many will have triumphed, of course, over the privileges of the few.

If Labour were, against the odds, to win the next election, we would all be in for more of the same. Another five years, possibly more, of centralised diktat, senseless bureaucracy and targets imposed by smart-suited civil servants who haven't the faintest idea what it's like to teach in a tough inner-city school.

The interesting question is, what would happen if the Conservatives were to win. Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove has promised more professional autonomy to schools and a genuine choice for parents. There could, for better or worse, be significant change.

Will there, though? I like and admire Gove. I cannot think of a politician more likely to solve the plethora of problems Labour has created. He cares deeply about the plight of disadvantaged children who continue, despite (or because of) the rhetoric of the last 12 years, to receive a substandard education. He understands how the national curriculum militates against the transmission of knowledge that should be at the heart of our education system. He is determined to sort out a discredited examination system and to restore public and professional confidence to an Ofsted that has lost its way. These are admirable ambitions, and I applaud them.

I worry, however, about what is a fundamental contradiction in Conservative education policy as it stands. Gove wants, on the one hand, to free schools from central government control and to empower parents to set up schools that reflect the aspirations they have for their children. Fine, the lesson of the last 12 years is that top-down control does not work. It wastes billions of pounds on advisers and consultants and quangocrats whose function in life is to dream up a ceaseless stream of initiatives to distract teachers from their duty to teach.

Why, then, does Gove remain committed to the national curriculum? Why does he say he will ensure that every primary school child is taught synthetic phonics? That every secondary will set its pupils? Why has he not announced a cull of the agencies Labour has used to enforce its dirigiste message?

There is no middle way. Gove either believes in professional freedom for teachers and real choices for parents or he does not. In my view, his reformed national curriculum will be far better than the corrupt travesty that exists now. But a national curriculum is a national curriculum: a mechanism that enforces a particular view of the educational good preventing any diversity of provision and denying, therefore, real parental choice. Logically, the Conservatives should announce that they will abolish the national curriculum and every other instrument of state control.

The argument against doing this is that not all teachers can be trusted to teach properly. This, of course, raises the question why a Schools Secretary committed to diversity should want to impose his view of what constitutes "proper teaching". But the problem isn't simply one of logic. Would a reformed national curriculum ensure higher standards, however defined, in failing schools? Have previous versions of the national curriculum ensured higher standards? Have any of the umpteen policies and initiatives imposed on schools since the Education Reform Act of 1988 made any real difference? If they had, we might have the world-class system of education Mr Blair promised.

Having typed this sentence, I had a sudden vision of Ted Wragg smiling down at me. "So you've finally seen the light, Chris," he said. "It's taken a long while but, thank God, the penny has dropped." Actually, no, Ted. If the Conservatives were to burn the regulations and cull the bureaucrats and hated inspectors we would not be turning the clock back to that golden land where teachers knew best and nobody knew what they were doing.

For at the heart of the Conservative plans for state education lie supply side reforms which, if implemented properly, would ensure that state schools, like independent schools, would need to respond to the aspirations of their parents. They would, in other words, be subject to market forces, and a genuine market in education would provide a better check on professional arrogance and complacency than Ofsted, say, ever has.

By "implemented properly", I mean that Gove has to recognise that his current proposals, which rely on interested parents and charities setting up schools, are unlikely to deliver the number of "free schools" we need if there is to be real competition among schools. The evidence in Sweden is that expansion of the alternative free schools has depended on the involvement of for-profit companies that have the financial motive and the expertise to develop a significant number of schools.

Moreover, his free schools must be genuinely free. They will be funded by, but otherwise independent of, the state, free to define their own individual ethos, competing one with another in the market place.

If the Conservatives were to win the next election and were to deliver such a policy, we would have clear blue educational water and real reform. The next decade could be the most exciting we have ever seen in state education.

Chris Woodhead, Chairman of private school company Cognita and former chief schools inspector.

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