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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Are the Conservatives getting ready to learn to love the EEA?

You can see the shape of the deal that the right would accept. 

In an early morning address aimed half reassuring the markets and half at salvaging his own legacy, George Osborne set out the government’s stall.

The difficulty was that the two halves were hard to reconcile. Talk of “fixing the roof” and getting Britain’s finances in control, an established part of Treasury setpieces under Osborne, are usually merely wrong. With the prospect of further downgrades in Britain’s credit rating and thus its ability to borrow cheaply, the £1.6 trillion that Britain still owes and the country’s deficit in day-to-day spending, they acquired a fresh layer of black humour. It made for uneasy listening.

But more importantly, it offered further signs of what post-Brexit deal the Conservatives will attempt to strike. Boris Johnson, the frontrunner for the Conservative leadership, set out the deal he wants in his Telegraph column: British access to the single market, free movement of British workers within the European Union but border control for workers from the EU within Britain.

There is no chance of that deal – in fact, reading Johnson’s Telegraph column called to mind the exasperated response that Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal and a supporter of a Remain vote, gave upon hearing that one of his players wanted to move to Real Madrid: “It's like you wanting to marry Miss World and she doesn't want you, what can I do about it? I can try to help you, but if she does not want to marry you what can I do?”

But Osborne, who has yet to rule out a bid for the top job and confirmed his intention to serve in the post-Cameron government, hinted at the deal that seems most likely – or, at least, the most optimistic: one that keeps Britain in the single market and therefore protects Britain’s financial services and manufacturing sectors.

For the Conservatives, you can see how such a deal might not prove electorally disastrous – it would allow them to maintain the idea with its own voters that they had voted for greater “sovereignty” while maintaining their easy continental holidays, au pairs and access to the Erasmus scheme.  They might be able to secure a few votes from relieved supporters of Remain who backed the Liberal Democrats or Labour at the last election – but, in any case, you can see how a deal of that kind would be sellable to their coalition of the vote. For Johnson, further disillusionment and anger among the voters of Sunderland, Hull and so on are a price that a Tory government can happily pay – and indeed, has, during both of the Conservatives’ recent long stays in government from 1951 to 1964 and from 1979 to 1997.

It feels unlikely that it will be a price that those Labour voters who backed a Leave vote – or the ethnic and social minorities that may take the blame – can happily pay.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.