The American revolution in English schools

The belief in school autonomy appears to be a myth.

When Andrew Pollard, one of the expert advisors to the Government's National Curriculum review, spoke out on  the “fatal flaws” in the new framework for Primary schools, he opened a window onto the strange politics of the Education ministers. Professor Pollard notes that when he first went into the office of Nick Gibb, Schools Minister, he found that Gibb had been doing his homework. On his desk lay a copy of a book by E D Hirsch, the American educationalist, “heavily stickered with Post it notes”.

In 1987 Hirsch produced the influential “Cultural Literacy: what every American needs to know”, which he followed up with a “Core Knowledge Sequence of year on year prescriptions for each subject pre-school to Grade 8 (age 13-14)”.  Pollard is not a fan of the Hirsch approach nor its apparent influence. He objects to the “extremely detailed year-on-year specifications in mathematics, science and most of English ... complemented by punitive inspection arrangements and tough new tests at 11”. He is particularly concerned that this will harm less able children. He is correct – while Michael Gove has spoken of returning to the world of Matthew Arnold, Nick Gibbs's vision owes more to that of Mr Gradgrind.

This prescription fits into a bigger picture. The americanisation of English schooling is becoming the dominant narrative, and Michael Gove's appearance before the Leveson inquiry filled in some of the blanks. Press attention focused, rightly, on this ex-Times journalist's links with Rupert Murdoch. Gove admitted that a trip to East London on 30 November 2010 to consider a News Corporation-sponsored Academy school included James Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks, James Harding and Boris Johnson. This captured the headlines but in fact the project fell through in early 2011, an early casualty of the phone hacking scandal.

There were other links to Murdoch, however. Professor Gaber has noted that Michael Gove met him more times than any other Government minister in the period May 2010 to July 2012 – six out of thirteen meetings by four government ministers to Murdoch were by Gove. Cameron met Murdoch twice, as did Osborne, and the embattled Jeremy Hunt only three times.

To see where News Corp's interest might lie, we can look to a conference organised by Gove's department in January 2011. Gove had invited Gerald Klein, who was then chancellor of the New York City Board of Education, to speak to people “interested in setting up free schools”. (So called “free schools” are a version of academies which both front benches favour.) Four days after Gove extended the invitation, Klein was appointed to the Board of News International. By the time Klein attended the conference he was a News Corp employee, although Gove says he did not know about the appointment.

Also attending the conference, and present at a dinner hosted by the Department for Education, were Mike Feinberg, co-Founder of KIPP Houston, Paul Castro, Head of High Schools KIPP Houston, Aaron Brenner, Head of Primary schools KIPP Houston, Jo Baker, Director of Washington Public Charter School Board, and Monique Miller, Performance Manager of Washington DC Public Charter School Board.

Free Schools thus seem intended to follow the Charter School model, and in particular the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power) curriculum which can be described as the “Boot Camp” approach to education. This regimented provision was originally seen as a cure for ghetto indiscipline, but has spreading into wider society.

Whoever Michael Gove is talking to – and he mentioned the Pearson Group and Microsoft in his Leveson evidence – the Tory leadership looks increasingly toward authoritarian, top-down solutions with commercial interests heavily involved. Which contradicts the core policy of school autonomy, driving the Academy and Free School programme. Nick Gibb told the House of Commons on 17 October 2011: “all the evidence from around the world is that three factors give rise to higher performance – autonomy, high quality teaching and external accountabilities – and it is autonomy that head teachers seek when they apply for academy status”.

How is it possible to reconcile the belief in school autonomy with the rigid top down primary schema that Gibb has now announced?

The belief in school autonomy appears to be a myth. By becoming an academy or free school, heads have opted into Government control. The purse strings lie in Whitehall, and as they are tugged by the ministers, heads will find they have no choice but to obey orders. It is KIPP, H D Hirsch and control by managers of business chains –  and not the rhetoric of freedom which will come to dominate state education. Those who pay the piper call the tune. The smart money will be betting it is “The Star Spangled Banner”.

Back to American school. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.