Health reform u-turn prompts schools rethink

Setting a minimum target, rather than relying on competition, shows a welcome shift in the coalition

Following the debacle on health reform, the government is desperate to get its public service reform programme back on track. So this morning we hear that Michael Gove is to up the ante on school standards with a more intensive focus on the lower end of the attainment league tables.

This is a welcome shift: we at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) argued in our response to the schools White Paper, the government has been insufficiently ambitious in tackling educational under-performance. In the White Paper, Gove did commit himself to a slightly higher minimum threshold than Labour by saying that every school must have over 35 per cent of their pupils getting 5 A*-C GCSEs including English and Maths. But no timetable was attached to this aspiration, and given that Labour managed to reduce the numbers of schools falling below its 30 per cent target by around 800 in its last five years in office, the goal looked insufficiently stretching.

The Education Secretary has now announced that he wants all secondary schools to get at least 50 per cent of their intake achieving that minimum by the end of the parliament. If schools do not get over the bar, they will face intervention from the department, including takeover by a neighbouring school or conversion to academy status. This is a welcome return to the previous government's approach of robustly challenging educational disadvantage. So far, Gove's most eye catching reforms have been focused on schools that are already doing well: whereas Labour's academy programme focused exclusively on schools in disadvantaged areas, Gove's new breed of academies are schools that are already good or outstanding. Just two of the new free schools are in the 10 per cent most deprived parts of the country.

While this re-calibration in the government's approach is welcome, there are still big questions. First, how can performance improve this quickly without additional resource? Labour's National Challenge programme involved intensive resource commitment from the department, including sending in specialist teachers to deliver one-to-one tuition and reading recovery programmes. Resources on this scale do not appear to be forthcoming.

Second, if we are to seriously narrow the attainment gap between children from different backgrounds, tackling so-called 'failing schools' is only part of the picture. 80 per cent of the difference between the educational success of children from different social backgrounds lies within schools rather than between them. Even for schools that just reach the government's target, what about the 50 per cent of their children who are still not getting good GCSEs?

This requires wider reform, including graduated increase in the pupil premium as the government has promised, but also the introduction of a Pupil Premium Entitlement which ensures that new money is spent on the children who need it most. While we support the government's minimum threshold, in the next phase of reform we need to move away from assessing school performance purely on the basis of raw attainment. This encourages schools to focus on those kids on the C/D borderline. We should look again at the New York School Report Card system, which awards each school a composite score based on progress measures and a school's success in narrowing the attainment gap between children from different social backgrounds.

Third, we now have a confusingly bifurcated system of school accountability. At the top end, schools are chasing high performance in the new academically focused English Baccalaureate, and in the lower part of the league table, heads are being told to focus on a wider measure of 5 A*-C GCSEs including English and Maths. What does this mean for schools that find themselves in the middle of the attainment league tables? Where should they focus their efforts?

Finally, it is worth noting that the government is seeking to re-launch its public service reforms by returning to some classic New Labour statecraft. To tackle educational disadvantage, Michael Gove has decided to pull the big government lever of a central minimum target, rather than relying on markets and competition. Following the collapse of the health reforms, this is a major shift in the coalition's approach to public service reform, recognising that to improve services you need a small set of national minimum standards in your armoury.

Rick Muir is Associate Director at IPPR

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.