Here’s How Schools are Set Free, Mr Gove

The new Education Secretary's anti-statist revolution must live up to his rhetoric by allowing schools to set their own admissions policies

At times, I think Michael Gove deserves our congratulations. In championing the idea of the “free” school, funded by, but independent of, the state, the Education Secretary has done, I tell myself, all that could reasonably be expected of him. The concessions and compromises he has been forced to make were inevitable. Something genuinely radical might grow from these flawed beginnings. I cross my fingers and hope. More often, I despair.

Free Schools; Empower Parents; Slash the Bureaucracies: the populist headlines have wooed a naively enthusiastic right-wing commentariat. The truth is that the reality will not live up to the rhetoric. State schools will not, given the education policies Gove is pursuing, be free in any significant sense of the word. Parents will not be properly empowered. The bureaucrats will, I suspect, continue to exert their anti-educational influence. 

When I started teaching in September 1969, schools were, in respect of the curriculum and pedagogy, “free”. Headteachers had to go cap in hand to their local authority to fix a broken window, but no politician dreamt of telling teachers what or how to teach. The curriculum, in a phrase that became popular at the time, was “a secret garden”. That suited me, a revolutionary young English teacher. 

Did these educational freedoms mean, however, that standards were higher in the 1960s and 1970s than they are now following 13 years of Labour’s bureaucratic prescription? Sadly, no. Freedom without accountability, and the transparency accountability brings, means that teachers can ignore the aspirations of parents and the legitimate concerns of an elected parliament. They can do exactly what, in their unprofessional arrogance, they want. “We teach children not subjects,” I was told when I started to visit schools in the late 1970s. God knows what the teachers I met thought they were teaching their children, but the only thing that mattered to them was what they termed “the spontaneity of creative learning”. The mastery of discrete academic knowledge was dismissed as a devilish right-wing plot and a Gradgrindian anachronism. In some schools, children benefited from the rigorous teaching of a broad and balanced curriculum. In many others, they were left to stew in the nonsense of their own tedious self-expression.

It took years for the political penny to drop, but gradually it did. The then Prime Minister Jim Callaghan gave his famous 1977 Ruskin College speech criticising educational standards. The so-called Great Education Debate began. Eleven years later, Kenneth Baker’s Education Reform Act became law. A national curriculum was introduced to stamp out the eccentricity of local provision and the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) was created to report, systematically and robustly, on the performance of individual schools. Twenty years ago, the overwhelming consensus was that the teaching profession had betrayed our trust and could no longer be allowed the freedoms it had abused.

Now the wheel has turned full circle. Everybody agrees that the years of Labour micro-management and target-setting saw billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money wasted and good teachers demoralised. “Freedom and Trust” is the only show in town. The teaching unions must be celebrating far into the night.

If Gove reads this, I can see him shaking his head in characteristically polite disbelief. “We made it quite clear in our Programme for Government,” he’ll say. “We are going to ensure that all schools are held properly to account.” To whom, though, Michael, are schools going to be accountable? And how is this to be achieved?

At the time of writing, we have no answers to these questions. We know that the Liberal Democrats believe that schools should be accountable to local authorities while the Conservatives want them to be free of all local authority control. The Lib Dems have thus far caved in. For how long? We know that Gove intends to “reform” Ofsted, but no details of what this reform will mean have been made public. We know that he wants, in response to union demands, to alter league tables so that schools are compared to schools serving similar communities, and parents are mystified. We know that he wants to keep some sort of test for 11-year-olds, but, again, no details of his plans have been made clear. We have, as yet, no idea how Gove is to deliver his promise that schools will be accountable.

It is an irritating thing to say, I know, but nonetheless I’m going to say it. Unlike Gove and his advisers, I have been there. I ran Ofsted for six years and I know how difficult it is to deliver a system of inspection that aims to tell parents what they want and need to know if they are to exercise a properly informed choice between different schools. Most of my inspectors did not have the slightest interest in parents. They saw themselves as professionals working with other professionals, consultants who “supported” teachers in “school improvement”. I tried to change the mindset, but I failed. I have, as somebody once remarked, the scars on my back.

Suppose, though, Gove were to fulfil his promise to “ensure” accountability. Would this mean that a turbulent profession would be brought to political heel? Would the danger that teachers will teach in their own sweet way regardless of parental or political wish be averted? In theory, at least, it could be. Gove could strike lucky and find a Chief Inspector who succeeded where I failed. The more successful that Chief Inspector, however, the more obvious the fundamental inconsistency in the Tory education policy becomes.

Thus far, Gove has managed to have it both ways. He has surfed the wave of anti-statist feeling that has engulfed the country with considerable aplomb. He has, simultaneously, marched up and down the beach banging the statist drum, declaring, for example, that children must be taught to read using synthetic phonics, that school uniform is a good thing and that a Conservative government would expect secondary schools to stream their pupils.

In principle and in practice, this is an unsustainable position. A Secretary of State who believes that schools should be free cannot use inspection to enforce compliance with his version of the educational good. If he so wishes, he can try to ensure that Ofsted reports open the gates to the secret garden, but he has to let a thousand flowers bloom in that garden. He has to rediscover the courage of his Conservative convictions.

David Cameron has said that he wants to “give people more responsibilities”. He believes that “if you trust people, they will tend to do the right thing” and that “they will make better decisions than those the state would make on their behalf”. I agree. Education is a contested concept. Different parents have different aspirations for their children. If people are to be given “more power and control over their lives”, then Gove will need to find ways to encourage a real diversity of provision within the system. He must let the flowers bloom and he must trust parents to pick those they find attractive.

The truth is this. Freeing schools from local authority control means nothing, because local authorities now have little or no control over schools. The control comes from central government, through the national curriculum, inspection and quangos such as the Training and Development Agency and the National College for School Leadership, which tell teachers how they should teach and what education should involve. Academies and free schools will not have to follow the national curriculum, but in every other significant way they are creatures of the state. The freedoms the government likes to trumpet (their ability to set pay and conditions for staff and to change the length of the school day and terms) are trivial. The one real freedom that would allow a genuine diversity of provision has been explicitly forbidden. They are not able to determine their own admissions procedures.

Imagine you are a parent with a bright ten-year-old daughter. There are no grammar schools within travelling distance of where you live. You do not think that a nearby Academy offers the intellectually challenging teaching your daughter needs. You would like, therefore, to set up an academically selective free school. Can you? No, of course you can’t. You can have any school you want provided it is a bog-standard comprehensive. Cameron’s trust only goes so far. When it comes to selective education, he knows best.

You have voted Conservative all your life. You assume that a Conservative Prime Minister would want to support people who work hard in order to ensure that their children have the best possible start in life, who decide, for instance, that they are going to stick with the clapped-out Cortina so that they have the money to send their daughter to an independent school. Your daughter passes the examination to a fiercely academic private school. If you had decided to establish a free school, you know that you would have been given a sum of money equivalent to that which the state spends on a pupil in a nearby authority school. Can you cash this sum of money in as part payment of the fees charged by the independent school? No, you can’t. Since last year, if you were dying of cancer, you would be allowed to pay for drugs that are not available on the National Health Service, but when it comes to education this permission to top up with your own hard-earned cash is denied.

If I were this hypothetical parent I am not sure that when, as it surely will, the alliance collapses, I would be voting Conservative. Those who argue against the idea of an education voucher, which can be used in any way the parent wishes, dislike the idea of subsidies being given to the rich and feel that education is too important to our economic prosperity and social cohesion to allow any parent to buy an advantage for their child. The counter-argument, rooted in a sense of how hopelessly the State has failed to deliver the education the individual and the country needs and a recognition that there are many middle- and low-income families which would send their children to private schools if they could afford the fees, is that education is too important for the State not to help any parent who wishes to send their child to a private school.

Current Conservative policy sits uneasily between these two positions. If Cameron and Gove cannot stomach the idea that parents should be allowed to use vouchers to help pay independent school fees, they should stop talking about empowering parents. If they want to develop an alternative to Labour’s commitment to state control, then they need to understand that public policy should not be framed negatively. 

It is wrong to deny a benefit to one group within society because another group may not be able or willing to use that benefit, though, as a point of fact, the evidence from America is that the disadvantaged have seized the opportunity vouchers offer to rescue their children from the misery of sink inner-city schools with great enthusiasm.

The voucher is the key to the schools revolution Gove wants to initiate. It would increase demand for private education and attract more suppliers into the market. The state monopoly would be broken. There would be real competition between schools, as there is in the independent sector. And competition means that schools would have to respond to the aspirations of their parents and potential parents. If their teachers chose to pursue the ideological enthusiasms of their predecessors in the Sixties, then they would be likely to find themselves out of work. A handful of Guardian readers might hanker after child-centred progressive schooling, but the vast majority of parents would, I predict, want the traditional approaches to education that for so long have been derided and ignored.

School inspection and state regulation have failed. Parent power could succeed. This is the prize. Do Cameron and Gove have the political courage to seize it, or will we have free schools that are not free, parents who are not empowered? A policy that is, at best, a fudge, at worst a smoke and mirrors deception.

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