As an ex-journalist, Tory education minister Michael Gove knows how to use the press to further his own agenda.
A timely leak from his department to the Daily Mail (20 June) flagged up Gove’s intention to replace GCSE exams taken by most students at 16 (and brought in by the Tories thirty years ago) with a system based on the previous model: O-Levels and CSEs.
There was much excitement among Tories who rushed to equate O-Levels with “academic rigour” because the exam was designed to fail four out of five members of the school population.
Some commentators lamented the damage caused by the return to a “two-tier system”, noting that CSEs, which many teachers struggled for years to establish, were never regarded as on a par with O-Levels.
Yet the current version of GCSE, departing from its original conception, is already a two-tier system under a single designation. Students are divided into those deemed capable of sitting Higher Tier papers and so given the chance of securing top grades, and those who can secure at best a grade C via the Foundation Tier route.
It has become common for graded students awarded less than a C to be told they have “failed”their GCSE.
Additionally, alternative qualifications such as the iGCSE or the IB have been touted as better-able to differentiate among the highest-attaining pupils. A system which had only two tiers might well be seen as an advance on what pupils currently endure.
Gove’s plans rehearse yet again a ruling-class obsession with narrowly-defined “academic standards” and its enduring neglect of the needs of a sizeable minority constructed by the system as “non-academic” or “less able”.
Gove’s plans drew fire from some within Tory ranks. Kenneth (now Lord) Baker, who as Thatcher’s Education Secretary oversaw the introduction of GCSEs, warned his successor against “resurrecting a failure”. But the Tory right are, as the ambitious Gove must have calculated, ecstatic.
They deny that all children are educable and the state should ensure high-quality education for all.
Their ideal is a privately-funded model catering for a privileged caste (the public school system) with a highly selective and hierarchised state system, differentially-funded, as a fall-back. Hence their fondness for grammar schools and silence about secondary moderns, and their delight in Gove’s accelerated demolition of what remains of a national system of education, locally administered.
The 1944 Education Act established three types of maintained secondary schools. When New Labour came to office there were a dozen or more, each with its own legal status and unique admissions procedures, including private schools, city technology colleges, grammar schools, foundation schools, varieties of special and of specialist school, and learning support centres.
New Labour added city academies to the mix, enabling Gove to claim his academy and ”free school” programme is merely an extension of pre-existing policy.
Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg has drifted with the current. He is not opposed to the “free school” idea. In response to Gove’s back-to-the-future exam-plans he has only spoken about a “modernised” system, which for him means the Blairite agenda of education for employability and entrepreneurship. For Twigg as for Gove, a comprehensive education system in which children of all backgrounds are educated together from 3 to 19, without segregation by so-called “ability”, in schools democratically accountable at local and national level, free and fully-funded, does not register, even as an ideal.
Norms of bourgeois democratic accountability, the flip side of a commitment to public service, are another target for Gove’s wrecking ball.
Once a school becomes an academy and is removed from local authority oversight and some vestige of local democratic accountability, parents have no meaningful say in what the school does, and no secure way to assert any rights.
Hence the great majority of academies get away, for example, with selling food to pupils which fails to meet the nutritional standards legally required of maintained schools.
The extent to which academies can continue to do what they like over admissions will soon be tested in court when parents of a child with cerebral palsy (and an A* in Maths at GCSE) confront those who run Mossbourne Academy, which has refused the child a place. Other similar legal challenges are in the pipeline.
Legislation rushed through Parliament by Gove means academies are not routinely subject to educational statute except as laid down in their funding-agreement with the Education Secretary.
Instead, tellingly, they are governed by corporate and charity law.
At a time when the Coalition has been slashing public spending, Gove has been able to lavish vast sums on academies and the small number of “free schools”.
The DfE estimates that between 2011 and 2013 it will spend an extra £1 billion on these schools on top of their normal funding. Gove has already spent £337 million funding such schools — a big chunk of it waste.
The DfE gave £26 million in 2010/11 to academies and “free schools” to pay for 4700 sixth form students who never enrolled. An academy in Stockwell spent almost £200,000 to pay for a PR firm. An academy CEO in Lincolnshire is under police investigation following misuse of the school’s credit-card for apparent personal gain to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds.
Gove’s department has earmarked half its school building budget (some £1.6 billion) for academy and “free school” projects at a time when there is an acute shortage of classrooms for primary pupils in maintained schools, notably in London.
Government cuts forced three thousand school breakfast clubs to shut in 2011 and in October next year welfare reforms will ensure 350,000 children lose their entitlement to free school meals. This at a time when many children from low income families are going hungry.
Such changes do not worry “free schools”. These take on average half the number of pupils entitled to such provision compared with the average in local maintained schools.
By introducing city academies in place of “bog-standard comps”, New Labour set in train the demolition of England’s system of maintained schools. Gove has dramatically quickened the tempo and broadened the scope of the destruction.
Evangelical Christians, other faith groups, and private schools, have been quick to take advantage.
Faith groups have set up more academies than any other kind of provider. Public money goes to subsidise pupils in formerly fee-paying schools to attend the very same institutions now re-branded “free schools”. Free indeed.
Gove’s vandalism has made a breach for even more disturbing interlopers. In keeping with the Tory view of who is, and is not, educable, the DfE recently put up £1 million in research-funding to investigate “how a military ethos could be used to support pupils who are either disengaged with education or at risk of becoming disengaged.”
This insidious proposal takes forward ideas worked on by Phillip Blond of the think-tank, ResPublica, who bought us “the Big Society” nostrum. Blond calls on the government to address what he terms “poor discipline and educational failure” in some schools through the inculcation of a “military ethos”.
Branches of the military could sponsor academies, whose graduates could then join the armed forces to work.
Gove’s is a purposeful destruction. He aims to rapidly to clear the decks and establish conditions in which schools can be run for profit. He is determinedly in earnest. It is all an under reported and under-challenged scandal. Those who oppose the project, and principally the unions, must fight him with no less resolve.