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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