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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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.