Magazine article Public Finance

Put to the Test

Magazine article Public Finance

Put to the Test

Article excerpt

Michael Gove is likely to be remembered as the most ambitious education secretary since Kenneth Baker in the late 1980s. Understandably, most attention has focused on his changes to the curriculum and to examinations that directly affect children and parents. The media have also taken a keen interest in the free school programme, which allows groups of teachers, parents or volunteers to receive state funding for their own schools. But free schools established or approved so far will educate only 130,000 out of the 7.5 million children at state-funded schools in England. The most dramatic and revolutionary parts of Gove's programme concern who controls and runs the schools that the overwhelming majority of children attend.

The system he inherited dated, in its essentials, back to 1944 - and, in some respects, to the 19th century. It involved a balance of powers whereby, as former director of the London University Institute of Education Sir Peter Newsam puts it, 'Neither local nor central government could exercise absolute control over any publicly funded school in England.'

Over the past 25 years, successive education secretaries have disturbed that balance. Gove proposes to demolish it completely.

In so doing, Newsam and others argue, he is opening the way to a 'totalitarian education system', with local government marginalised and all power concentrated in the Whitehall office of the Secretary of State for Education. 'What is being created,' writes Oxford University's former professor of education, Richard Pring, in his new book, The life and death of secondary education for all, 'is the most personally centralised education system in Western Europe since Germany in the 1930s'.

When Gove took office in 2010, several hundred academies, both outside local authority control and funded directly from Whitehall, already existed. Although some were originally city technology colleges set up by Baker in the late 1980s, most were replacements for schools categorised by Labour as 'failing'. They were put under the control of private sponsors, although the requirement to invest up to £2m was eventually relaxed. With freedom to vary the national curriculum and teachers' pay and conditions, the academies were expected to raise standards. Since Labour's policy was designed to improve lowperforming schools, nearly all served deprived areas.

While continuing to create such academies, Gove also invited high-performing schools to become academies in their own right. Academy status has become not just an answer to failure, but also a reward for success, spreading the supposed benefits of freedom more widely. Academies can spend at their discretion the money previously top-sliced from their budgets for local authority central services, such as careers advice and special needs. Many secondary and some primary schools leapt at this offer. These 'converter' academies mostly serve relatively favoured areas - they have significantly lower proportions of pupils on free school meals than other maintained schools.

By June 2013, 2,263 schools had converted, with another 781 in the pipeline. Most are secondaries and, together with sponsored academies, they account for well over half of England's secondary schools. Gove's ambition is for all secondaries to eventually take the same route, along with growing numbers of primary schools. What had previously been supplementary to mainstream education will itself become the mainstream. Local authorities, long since stripped of control over higher and further education, are on the point of losing secondary education.

Gove's rhetoric about the benefits of liberating schools from local authority control obscures the central point: academies (including free schools) are solely dependent on him for their very existence. Under the 1944 settlement, neither Whitehall nor county hall could, on its own, open, close or change the character of a school (from, say, selective to comprehensive). …

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