Will Gove get it all his own way?

14th May 2010 at 01:00
With coalition government a reality, the man who shadowed Ed Balls now has a chance to shine

As the country gets used to its first peacetime coalition government in 80 years, the Conservatives are claiming success in pushing through their key education policies during the days of intense negotiation which led up to the formation of the new partnership.

It is understood that Michael Gove was one of the last Cabinet members to be named because furious horse-trading over which of the Conservatives' schools policies would be retained went on until the last minute.

But as Mr Gove finally sat at his desk in Sanctuary Buildings in Westminster on Wednesday, the new Education Secretary would have smiled to see his slate of proposed policies relatively untouched by the bartering that had taken place.

Although the exact details of the deal agreed between the two parties remain unknown, early information released by the new Government suggests that structures will be established to allow parents to set up their own schools - the so-called Swedish model. Parents, teachers, charities and other groups will be encouraged to set up state-funded independent schools and then compete with one another for pupils.

The details of the Lib Dem-Conservative deal does, however, include one curiously-worded concession, that the system should include "greater accountability".

A key adviser to the Conservatives' education team told The TES that "most" of the Tory agenda was likely to be kept.

"The reason for all the horse-trading and bartering was to ensure that most of the Conservatives' radical policies were allowed through. Michael Gove was adamant that even if he went (to a different department) most of his policies should stay in, and (David) Cameron agreed with him. Both were adamant."

But John Howson, head of Education Data Surveys, a TES sister company, and education adviser to the Lib Dems, said the free schools policy will be difficult to afford.

"The movement may not take shape immediately, especially when they realise that we may not need new secondary schools when the rolls are falling, plus there will be questions of whether we can afford it," Mr Howson said.

"We have an over-supply of secondary school provision, so we don't need seriously large numbers of new secondary schools. No chancellor will say `yes' to spending money on creating new secondary schools when we don't need them."

Another obstacle to the Conservatives' plans for free schools is that despite a poor performance in the general election, the Liberal Democrats have strength at local authority level and many of their councillors would be unhappy with their party going into partnership with the Conservatives.

According to John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, the new administration will face some major obstacles.

"There are some similarities between the two, but there are some major differences," Dr Dunford said. "What we don't know is what has already been agreed as part of the coalition on education policy. I expect the coalition to be a constraining influence on those items of Conservative policy that did not have Lib Dem support."

An obvious meeting point between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems is the pupil premium, a piece of deprivation funding that is attached to an individual pupil. But the two parties differ greatly on how the policy should be implemented.

The Lib Dems had promised an extra pound;2.5 billion on top of existing funding to pay for the pupil premium, whereas the Conservatives had wanted to restructure the entire school funding mechanism from the DCSF. They were content for the pupil premium to be rolled out in mid-2011 at the earliest.

John Bangs, head of education at the NUT, said there were areas where the two would enjoy an "easy relationship", such as greater autonomy for the teaching profession, as well as an independent body to oversee examinations and the curriculum, such as an education standards authority.

"When it comes to the curriculum, the Conservatives are much `tougher' on the detail of what it must provide, but it will be the organisation and structure of schools where they will have greater differences," Mr Bangs said. "The Tories have a more ideological approach to free schools and the market."

But it is special educational needs where the parties are likely to find most agreement.

Both regard the current statementing system as "creaky" and "overly- bureaucratic", which helps neither parents nor schools. In policy, the area also affords the parties an area of consensus in what is likely to be a potentially fractious working environment.

Sir Bob Balchin, Conservative education adviser, said: "An area where there is unity is special educational needs, where the Lib Dems have called for various improvements. I do believe SEN is an area on which the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats will find it easy to get on."

Original paper headline: Charming and determined, but will Gove get it all his own way?

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