Will Michael Gove’s school reforms push up standards?

The evidence from Sweden ain’t great.

My column in this week's magazine addresses -- and criticises -- the Education Secretary Michael Gove's plan to expand the previous government's academies programme.

I didn't have time or space to scrutinise the other key (and controversial) plank of his proposed reforms to the education sector: the introduction of Swedish-style "free schools". But the Institute of Education's Rebecca Allen has, in an article in the latest issue of Research in Public Policy (published by the Centre for Market and Public Organisation), and the overall results don't make great reading for Gove and his allies.

From the press release:

Research on Sweden's "free school" reforms suggests that the entry of new schools had a positive effect on pupils' academic achievements. But according to a survey of the evidence by Rebecca Allen, the benefits are small, they are predominantly focused on children from highly educated families and they do not persist: scores are no higher in the end-of-school exams.

Allen concludes that the experience of Sweden is helpful, but necessarily limited, in the extent to which it can help predict the impact of school reforms in England. One reason for this is that the schools also underwent a radical decentralisation of the education system, which would seem to be critical for promoting diversity and productivity gains through experimentation in free schools.

Sweden also has fewer reasons to be concerned that a free school system will produce greater school stratification since the country's lower levels of income and skill inequalities mean there is far less need for parents to choose schools based on social composition. It is also possible that Sweden's stronger tradition of non-standard schooling -- such as Steiner and Montessori schools -- is leading to a greater diversity of provision than parents in England would ever demand.

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Why Prince Charles and Princess Anne are both wrong on GM foods

The latest tiff between toffs gives plenty of food for thought.

I don’t have siblings, so I was weirdly curious as a kid about friends who did, especially when they argued (which was often). One thing I noticed was the importance of superlatives: of being the best child, the most right, and the first to have been wronged. And it turns out things are no different for the Royals.

You might think selective breeding would be a subject on which Prince Charles and Princess Anne would share common ground, but when it comes to genetically modified crops they have very different opinions.

According to Princess Anne, the UK should ditch its concerns about GM and give the technology the green light. In an interview to be broadcast on Radio 4’s Farming Today, she said would be keen to raise both modified crops and livestock on her own land.

“Most of us would argue we have been genetically modifying food since man started to be agrarian,” she said (rallying the old first-is-best argument to her cause). She also argued that the practice can help reduce the price of our food and improve the lives of animals - and “suspects” that there are not many downsides.

Unfortunately for Princess Anne, her Royal “us” does not include her brother Charles, who thinks that GM is The Worst.

In 2008, he warned that genetically engineered food “will be guaranteed to cause the biggest disaster environmentally of all time.”  Supporting such a path would risk handing control of our food-chain to giant corporations, he warned -  leading to “absolute disaster” and “unmentionable awfulness” and “the absolute destruction of everything”.

Normally such a spat could be written off as a toff-tiff. But with Brexit looming, a change to our present ban on growing GM crops commercially looks ever more likely.

In this light, the need to swap rhetoric for reason is urgent. And the most useful anti-GM argument might instead be that offered by the United Nations’ cold, hard data on crop yields.

Analysis by the New York Times shows that, in comparison to Europe, the United States and Canada have “gained no discernible advantages” from their use of GM (in terms of food per acre). Not only this, but herbicide use in the US has increased rather than fallen.

In sum: let's swap superlatives and speculation for sense.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.