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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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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.

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