Gove reforms are far from radical

Gove's White Paper promised real reform, but consists of reheated policy and headline grabbing gimmi

The long wait is over. Michael Gove's White Paper on reforming Britain's education has arrived, with its flagship policies dominating much of today's coverage.

Sadly, Gove's White Paper contains nothing new and nothing radical. It's a mixture of reheated policy announcements and headline grabbing gimmicks.

The more substantial (if not original) policies included the reclassification of schools as failing when 35 per cent of pupils fail to achieve five A*-C. "I don't think it's right that you can have a school where two-thirds of children aren't getting five basic GCSEs," said Gove, and he is right. When a school fails to get more than half of its pupils to a basic educational standard, it has failed.

There is a certain disjuncture, however, between Gove's rhetoric of freeing teachers from cloying targets and bureaucracy -- but then introducing even more stringent targets than before. Zoe Williams pointed out the self-defeating nature of this policy.

So a government appoints people who aren't teachers to set targets; those same people then attack schools for being too target-driven; and a new regime sets new targets to break the spell of the old targets.

All schools, including special schools, will be able to become academies. The jury is still very much out on whether academies are a success. This policy is bold, but offers no guarantees that schools will immediately improve if released from the control of local authorities.

Aside from these two major policies, most of the White Paper is simply tabloid-friendly tinkering.

For little discernible educational reason, former troops will be encouraged to take their PGCEs. While this gave the Daily Mail a hard on ("battle-hardened former troops will be recruited to... drive out 'trendy' learning methods encouraged under Labour"), turning troops from Taliban-trashers to teachers does not strike me as thorough, well thought-out policy; it strikes me as a gimmick.

The same applies to the English baccalaureate -- a new award to be given to pupils who get good GCSEs in English, maths, science, a modern or ancient foreign language, and a humanity. It is at best a fudge, designed to compensate for Britain's failing exam system.

In an editorial this morning, the Times chastised Gove for failing to deal with one of the major issues for education in England today: incompetent teachers and how to get rid of them.

Bad teachers should not be allowed to cling on to their jobs, dragging down attainment. They are two sides of the same coin: removing bad teachers, by raising the prestige of teaching, will help to attract new, better ones...The exclusion rate for teachers is alarmingly low. The General Teaching Council for England (GTC), the body responsible for improving the quality of teaching, has failed to champion penalising failure. Three-quarters of complaints are dismissed with no further investigation, and only eight teachers were barred by the GTC between 2001 and 2008.

Gove promised much before coming to power. He was a forthright and effective critic of Ed Balls and Labour's education failures. In power, however, Gove has consistently failed to come up with the real, radical reform that is required in English schools. The White Paper won't make schools worse, but it won't make them much better.

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If the left leaves it to David Cameron, we'll have Brexit for sure

Only an upbeat, leftwing case can keep Britain in the European Union.

After months flapping and hesitation, and with much of the reporting and detail so dull that it has barely penetrated the consciousness of even those who speak the language of ‘directives’ and treaty provisions, the EU referendum is upon us. With David Cameron signalling concrete outcomes for negotiations, we seem to be set for June, whatever the protests from opposition parties about the date being too close to local and national elections.  

Cameron’s deal, whose most substantive element consists of denying in-work benefits to European citizens, exemplifies the kind of debate that Conservative strategists want to create: a tedious, labyrinthine parochialism, blending the EU’s procedural dullness with an unquestioned mythology of the little Englander. Try actually reading the various letters, let alone the draft decisions, that Cameron extracted from Donald Tusk, and the agreement turns to putty in your head. But in summary, what Cameron is negotiating is designed to keep the EU debate as an in-house affair within the right, to continue and formalise the framing of the debate as between two strains of anti-migrant sentiment, both of them backed by big business.

The deal may be reactionary, but it is also mediocre in its scope and impact. The worries that many of us had in the leftwing pro-In camp, that Cameron’s deal would push back freedom of movement and working and environmental protections so far that we would be unable to mobilise for continued membership of the EU, can now be put to bed. Quite the opposite of allowing Cameron's narrative to demoralise us, the left must now seize an opportunity to put imagination and ideas back at the heart of the referendum debate.

The British political landscape in which that debate will play out is a deceptively volatile environment. Party allegiance is at a nearly all time low. Inequality is growing, and so is the gap between attitudes. The backbone of the UKIP vote – and much of the Out vote – will come from a demographic that, sometimes impoverished by the legacy of Thatcherite economic policy, sees itself as left behind by migration and change. On top of the class war, there is a kind of culture war underway in today’s Britain: on one side those who see LGBT rights, open borders and internationalism as the future; on the other side, those who are scared of the future. About the only thing these groups have in common with one another is their anti-establishment instincts, their total disdain and mistrust of politics as usual.

The only political movement to have broken through the fog of cynicism and disillusionment in British politics has come from the left. Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour has unleashed something new - and while large parts of the press, and some Labour backbenchers, have portrayed this rise as a crusade of the “croissant eating” metropolitan elite, the reality is very different. The rise of the new Labour left has given voice to a renewed socialist and working class politics; its explicitly radical, outsider approach has given it traction across the social divides – among the young looking for a future, and among Labour’s old base. 

A politics of hope – however vague that term might sound – is the only real answer to the populist Euroscepticism that the Out campaign will seek to embody. Radical politics, that proposes an alternative narrative to the scapegoating of migrants, has to find voice in the course of this referendum campaign: put simply, we need to persuade a minimum wage worker that they have more in common with a fellow Polish migrant worker than they do with their employer; we need to persuade someone on a social housing waiting list should blame the privatisation of the housing market, not other homeless families. Fundamentally, the real debate to be had is about who the public blames for social injustice: that is a question which only the left can satisfactorily answer.

The outsider-led volatility of British politics gives the EU referendum a special kind of unpredictability. For voters who have lost faith in the political establishment – and who often have little materially to lose from Brexit – the opportunity to deliver a blow to David Cameron this summer will be tempting. The almost consciously boring, business-dominated Britain Stronger In Europe campaign makes a perfect target for disenfranchised public sentiment, its campaigning style less informed by a metropolitan elite than by the landed gentry. Its main weapons – fear, danger and uncertainty – will work on some parts of the electorate, but will backfire on others, much as the Better Together campaign did in the Scottish referendum.

Last night, Another Europe is Possible held a launch meeting of about a hundred people in central London - with the backing of dozens of MPs, campaigners and academics across the country. It will aim to provide a radical, left wing voice to keep Britain in the EU.

If Britain votes to leave the EU in June, it will give the Right a mandate for a renewed set of attacks on workers’ rights, environmental protections, migrants and freedom of movement. But without an injection of idealism and radicalism,  an In vote will be a mandate for the status quo - at home and in Brussels. In order to seize the real potential of the referendum, the left has to approach the campaign with big ideas and demands. And we have to mobilise.