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 will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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