Is Michael Gove abdicating responsibility for education?

The stage is set for the wholesale sell-off of state education.

I get the sense that Michael Gove sees state education as a millstone around his neck. If you are the secretary of state, you are responsible for what happens in our schools. What if you could sell off this millstone? Responsibility will shift dramatically. Business is much easier to blame when things go wrong. You can take the moral high ground. Whatever happens in the schools to the children, it's not your responsibility. You can, in effect, blame everybody else for any educational failure. You remain safe from criticism.

Gove's recent behaviour, washing his hands of any political involvement in the marking down of English grades, or his blaming of "officials" when he reports erroneous figures on playing field sales or the major embarrassment of the Building Schools for the Future cancellation debacle speaks volumes.

But how do you persuade business to take on the thankless task of running what should be a state education system? What are the incentives - philanthropy? No. There has to be something more. First of all business won't like the idea of equal pay for teachers, high pension contributions or having to pay for true professionals. Gove needed to de-professionalise education. This he did in word and deed. It became a "craft" (Gove's word) that anybody can do just by copying others. He scrapped its ruling professional body (The General Teaching Council), immediately downgrading teaching to "just a job", setting it apart from law and medicine who retain their professional bodies. He's on course to demolish national pay agreements anand advocate locally negotiated pay with academy business sponsors and free schools.

Universities have been wrongly and derogatively condemned as hotbeds of "leftist" indoctrination, teaching "useless theories". When challenged, Gove declines to provide any evidence to support this, leaving the accusation hanging. Tory governments have long wanted to excise universities from teacher education. Those countries Gove says he "admires", Sweden, Finland etc seem to disagree. University involvement is key there and crucial in maintaining their highly educated and trained teaching workforce (remember, he scrapped the last government’s intention to make teaching a Masters profession). In a masterstroke, he also removed the requirement for academies and free schools to hire qualified teachers (but made sure the news was buried during the Olympic opening ceremony celebrations). I find it bizarre that he believes that removing university level education can result in a better trained, higher status workforce. The effect is to reduce a once noble profession to "just a job" that anyone can do with a bit of subject knowledge. The greatest expense in any school is the pay awarded to its teachers. Cutting the requirement for those people to hold any professional qualification, especially a higher degree, allows costs to be reduced.

Academies were not this government's idea, but what an idea to appropriate. To encourage Academy sponsorship, grants to sponsors to take on schools are now paid - remember those heady days when sponsors actually had to pay £2million to be allowed the privilege to take on a school? Where schools, parents and local governors disagree with converting to an academy, just sack the governors, put in a new leadership team and press on regardless of parents want - so much for parental choice.

Paradoxically, if parents choose to buy into Gove's ideology, they can set up their own school, a Free School. Millions are diverted into this pet project. It has the desired effect; businesses sit up and look at this new, attractive way of getting a slice of the education pie. Again, if things don't go well and local authorities deny planning permission for buildings, Gove can overrule them - business likes that - decisive no-nonsense planning that can always be in their favour. Where free schools are not wanted or needed by the local community no matter. Even if they only have a handful of pupils, like the Beccles Free School, they will still be supported - a loss leader perhaps in business terms. When it comes to teachers transferring from existing schools to ideologically driven Free Schools, legal protection of employees through TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings - Protection of Employment), is undermined with claims that, as new entities, Free Schools do not have to accept TUPE. This leaves teachers potentially with no employment, no redundancy and problems with claiming employment benefits.

The stage is set for the wholesale sell-off of state education. Declining exam results, with increased targets for schools to meet, will now place hundreds more schools in the situation of being classed as failing; ripe for forced conversion to academy status. For those academies whose results have fallen and who may not meet the target set there is no effective punishment, other than more inspection or some sackings of the workforce (teachers rather than leaders I suspect). Academes may fail, but Gove's answer - academy conversion - is an empty threat when you already are an academy.

Any hint of dissent, any hint of criticism of these policies is simply met with being labelled as a 'Trotskyite, lover of failure'.

But where next? Business exists to profit. Academies cannot make profits - or can they? As Gove shrewdly stated some time ago, academy sponsors are not allowed to make profits from their schools, yet. So profiteering from the children and staff in our schools was never ruled out completely - there may well be plenty of avenues and business opportunities for making good profits for shareholders, if not now, in the (near?) future.

Gove sees privatisation as the saviour of education, but as Jeremy Hunt, Culture Secretary and Philip Hammond, Defence Secretary, have openly stated, the G4S Olympic debacle tells a different story. Private business may not be the saviour of what should be a state provision for all. But press ahead Gove surely will.

What next for the privatisation of our state education system? I predict that profiteering from schools that are part of academy chains will be allowed. Big business will be lined up to take over the new examination system (I see Pearson, for example, schmoozing and posturing in the wings ready to bid whatever it takes to be the sole exam board, if Gove decides to go down that road). In the USA the state of California has awarded a teacher certification contract to a private business (Pearson) for the next 5 years. While I don't want to put ideas into Gove's head, I can see this as an attractive notion for business. Accomplish this and Gove truly will have destroyed any vestige of state responsibility for education in England.

*The writer works in teacher education in England and has chosen to remain anonymous to avoid his institution being labelled as a hotbed of leftist Trotskyites indoctrinating its students with "useless theory".

Michael Gove. Photograph: Getty Images

David Harris is a pseudonym. The writer works in teacher education in England and has chosen to remain anonymous to avoid his institution being labelled as a hotbed of leftist Trotskyites indoctrinating its students with "useless theory".

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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