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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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

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