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
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.