Gove has abandoned Labour's focus on school standards

By obsessing over structures, the Education Secretary has lost the drive for school improvement that existed under Labour’s academies programme.

Academy schools have been much in the news this week. The government has today announced additional numbers of new academies. But more significant have been two pretty damning reports on the ability of ministers to manage the academies programme. The Financial Times reported yesterday that £174m has been overspent in just one year by Michael Gove’s education department on the programme – a scale of waste equivalent to four times the West Coast Mainline fiasco and a shocking example of government incompetence.

And the final report of the Academies Commission, a joint initiative from the Royal Society of Arts and Pearson, has found that the government has lost the focus and drive for school improvement that existed under Labour’s academies programme.

While Labour’s programme focused on driving up underperfomance in some of the most challenging circumstances, since 2010 the programme  has mainly focused on changing the structure of already outstanding schools. Three quarters of academies are now what are known as "converter academies".

Michael Gove enjoys giving the media regular updates on the numbers of schools becoming academies but playing a simple numbers game is not the way to secure educational excellence. It’s no wonder that the head of the Academies Commission, Christine Gilbert, warned  "there's a real danger in equating an increase in the number of academies with an increase in the quality of our schools. Academisation alone is not going to deliver the improvements we need." In another part of the report, the experts also warn that the process for selecting academies sponsors is "no longer rigorous". This is especially worrying given how critical the input of sponsors is to school improvement.

Ministers have failed to ensure schools that have converted to become academies since 2010 work with other schools to raise standards across the system. This is critical for One Nation Education  - we need collaboration to tackle underperforming schools to ensure that no school is left behind.

I talked in a recent speech about how we must tackle an arc of underachievement in some schools. For me, the key is to ensure that strong schools work with weaker schools, so no school is left behind. That was the key lesson from the London Challenge I was involved with setting up in 2003, which has seen schools in the capital go from being some of the worst in England to some of the best.

I was pleased to see that the commission also supports Labour's call for a Royal College of Teachers to further strengthen the training and professional development of teachers. Improving practice in the classroom is critical to the life chances of the next generation, but the government seems uninterested.

While changing a school’s structure can help to galvanise change, the most important factor in a school’s success is the quality of teaching and leadership. There are serious problems with Michael Gove’s management of this programme. Under Labour, academies were about raising standards and this government is putting that legacy at risk. Reports like that of the Academies Commission illustrate the importance of developing schools policies based on evidence and not dogma.

Education Secretary Michael Gove speaks at last year's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

Stephen Twigg is shadow minister for constitutional reform and MP for Liverpool West Derby

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide