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Michelle Rhee: America's poster-woman for education reform (credit: Getty)


Are we entering an Autumn of Discontent in our schools?  Britain is once again facing the dismal possibility of classroom disruption and industrial unrest. The culprits are the militant leaders of the two main teaching unions, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), who last month voted to coordinate industrial action. While the disruption and (almost inevitable) strikes will be a huge inconvenience to parents and pupils, the real scandal is that they are only the latest in a series of threats that the teaching unions have made over the last few months — the fall-out of the ongoing battle for the soul of English education.  

Until recently the teaching unions had a reputation for responsibility and focusing on their members' interests: the NUT has not held a national strike for more than two decades. Yet, since the Coalition came to power in 2010, senior figures within the two unions have ditched their moderate clothing. Today the teaching unions distinguish themselves by their efforts to frustrate the government's agenda, fighting relentlessly against Education Secretary Michael Gove's plans to free English schools from local authority control by granting them academy status. Overtures, such as his invitation before the 2010 election for the unions to run their own schools, are continually dismissed.

In the months following the election, headteachers across the country received letters from union activists, threatening those who expressed an interest in converting to academy status with strike action. These were not empty words: at Downhills Primary School in Haringey, North London, staff went on strike twice to try to prevent the school's conversion. At a national level, both the NUT and NASUWT have voted to strike over government plans to reform pensions and are encouraging their members to back further strike action.

This opposition flies in the face of the evidence that school reform is starting to work. Take academies and free schools, which the government promotes as the future of English education. In the midst of the sombre headlines that accompanied this year's poor GCSE results, academies were rare bastions of good news. The Harris Federation of academies achieved an average increase of 3 per cent in the number of students getting five good GCSEs including English and maths while among the academies of the United Learning Trust, the number of students getting five good GCSEs including English and maths increased by 5 per cent on average. Last year 55 per cent of the pupils on free school meals at Harris Federation academies achieved five good GCSEs, compared to 33.9 per cent nationally, disproving the claim that nothing can overcome the effects of poverty on a child's educational attainment. 

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October 13th, 2012
3:10 PM
Any Guardian article that mentions Michael Gove is bound to be followed by an avalanche of comment--nearly all of it hysterical abuse. I got a taste of it myself when I wrote a Centre for Policy Studies report which recommended that School Sports Partnerships be disbanded: the hate-filled e-mails I got were barely literate. Even though Cameron asked Gove to reconsider his decision to follow our recommendation, Gove stood firm. With this in mind, I trust that my reservations about the Academy programme can be understood. Oliver Lewis is not alone in assuming that this measure is a game-changer that will rid our schools from the disfiguring ideology of the left and the unions. Alas, all that is happening is that power is being transferred from county hall to the DfE. This is a seriously retrograde step. As educational publishers, we work with local authorities all the time, and many of their employees do outstanding work. I would go so far as to say that we wouldn't have a business but for the fact that many LA advisers have taken the trouble to look seriously at what we offer, and get schools to see how well our programme works. By contrast, the DfE has gone out of their way to promote our competition. They have done so despite the fact that I have met with Gove and Gibb on numerous occasions, and Gove has publicly applauded our work. Therein lies the problem: it is no secret that Gove and his department do not get along. Our application to start a free school in Oldham was in tune with Gove's educational philosophy, but his mandarins rejected it. The case against academies is not entirely fanciful. The teachers I know who have worked in one are not impressed. Many of them are management- and target-driven: virtual exam-factories. They have bloated senior management teams consisting mainly of young teachers with Masters and PhDs in education--people who have been fast-tracked up the greasy pole after a very minimal apprenticeship at the chalk face. Of course, there are community schools that are much the same, and some academies (such as the above-cited Harris academies) which do have a firm understanding of what education should be about. The DfE is obsessed with management structures, and fairly agnostic when it comes to educational philosophy. They tend to go along cheerfully with the latest fashions; now, huge empires are being built on the backs of our hapless pupils with 'special educational needs'. About one in five children are so designated. It would seem that no one at the DfE has ever stopped to ask what is wrong with a system which fails 20% of our children.

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