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".

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.