The Silent Revolution: While Everyone Has Been Distracted by the Shake-Up of the NHS, Michael Gove Has Been Pushing Ahead with School Reforms That Are Just as Far-Reaching - and Just as Risky

By Wilby, Peter | New Statesman (1996), May 30, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Silent Revolution: While Everyone Has Been Distracted by the Shake-Up of the NHS, Michael Gove Has Been Pushing Ahead with School Reforms That Are Just as Far-Reaching - and Just as Risky


Wilby, Peter, New Statesman (1996)


Throughout the coalition government's first year, its plans for the NHS have attracted more controversy and opposition than any other policy. But Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, is not the only minister aiming to turn an entire public service upside down. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has his own grand scheme, which has attracted only spasmodic attention.

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Private providers licking their lips at the prospect of taking over services? Check. Proposals to intensify competition between providers? Check. Fears that a unified service will suffer fragmentation? Check. Suspicion that services will be run for profit, not for their users? Check. Warnings that we are heading for a two-tier system in which the poor get a bog-standard service while privileged families are offered a streamlined alternative? Check.

If opposition to Gove's plans has been relatively muted, it is largely because Labour has failed to highlight how far-reaching they are. Many former New Labour ministers and advisers, notably Lord (Andrew) Adonis, who was a schools minister from 2005-2008, have welcomed them enthusiastically. As Gove would acknowledge, his vision for our schools has a degree of continuity with the policies of previous administrations, both Conservative and Labour. At their heart lies a project that central government has quietly pursued for nearly 25 years: the removal of English education from the control of local councils.

Under Gove, this project will take a giant step forward. Most attention has focused on his "free schools" policy, which allows parents, teachers and voluntary groups to set up new schools with public money. But only 40 such schools are in the pipeline, most will recruit just a few hundred pupils, and it is likely no more than four will open this September. They are an engaging sideshow, enlivened by the plans of the journalist Toby Young - a self-confessed "professional failure" - to redeem his life by setting up a free school in west London, and given added political interest by the attempt of Peter Hyman, a former Blair speechwriter, to set up a school in east London.

Gove's expansion of academies is of far greater significance. Like free schools, academies are independent of local authorities and allowed to waive the National Curriculum. They can set their own admissions policies, albeit within a national code that prohibits outright selection. Most crucially, they receive money that would otherwise be held by the local authority for support services, such as special needs and English language tuition, and they are free to spend it as they wish.

Under Labour, academies were concentrated in urban areas and intended, with the help of private sponsorship, to replace "failed" schools operating with disadvantaged pupils in difficult circumstances. Gove has turned that policy on its head. He has invited "successful" schools to apply for academy status, arguing that they can be trusted to use the academies' freedoms wisely and to flourish even more if released from council bureaucracy. Several hundred secondary schools and a small proportion of primary schools have already switched. In 27 out of 152 English local authority areas, academies now account for the majority of secondary schools; within a year, they will constitute nearly a third of the total nationwide.

The new academies are overwhelmingly in suburban and rural districts. For most schools in these areas, where disadvantaged children are less numerous than in the inner cities, academy status is a no-brainer. It signals a school's success, making it more attractive to parents, and brings a funding increase of up to IO per cent while public spending is being squeezed.

That money previously went to the council's central services, and if the school continues using these, it will have to pay. But "successful" schools have less need of such services than other schools, which usually teach more children whose mother tongue is not English, or who have behavioural or learning problems.

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