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 Taliban's succession crisis will not diminish its resilience

Haibatullah Akhunzada's appointment as leader of the Taliban may put stress on the movement, but is unlikely to dampen its insurgency. 

After 19 years under the guidance of the Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar, the group has now faced two succession crises in under a year. But although Haibatullah Akhunzada’s appointment as leader of the Taliban will likely put stress on the movement, it shows few signals of diminishing its renewed insurgency.

The news pretty much ends speculation about former leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s death in a US airstrike in Pakistan’s south-western Baluchistan province, which was criticised by Islamabad as a violation of its sovereignty.

The Taliban would have prepared extensively for this eventuality. The fast appointment, following days of intense council, appears to be a conspicuous act of decisiveness. It stands in contrast to the two-year delay the movement faced in announcing the death of the Mullah Omar. It will be not be lost on the Taliban that it was subterfuge around the death of Mullah Omar that caused the fracture within the movement which in turn led to the establishment of an ISIS presence in the country.

The appointment is a victory for the Taliban old guard. As former head of the Taliban's judiciary and Mullah Mansour’s deputy, in many ways, Haibatullah is a natural successor. Haibatullah, described by Afghanistan expert Sami Yousafzai as a “stone age Mullah,” demonstrates the Taliban’s inherent tendency to resort to tradition rather than innovation during times of internal crisis.

The decision taken by the Taliban to have an elder statesman of the group at the helm highlights the increasing marginalisation of the Haqqani network, a powerful subset within the Taliban that has been waging an offensive against the government and coalition forces in northwest Pakistan.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network who already has a bounty of 5 million dollars on his head, was touted in some Taliban circles as a potential successor, however the decision to overlook him is a conservative move from the Taliban. 

The Taliban’s leadership of the jihad against the Afghan government is hinged on their claims to religious legitimacy, something the group will hope to affirm through the Haibatullah’s jurisprudential credentials. This assertion of authority has particular significance given the rise of ISIS elements in the country. The last two Taliban chiefs have both declared themselves to be amir ul-momineen or ‘leader of the faithful,’ providing a challenge to the parallel claims of ISIS’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Any suggestions that Mansour’s death will lead to the unravelling of the Taliban are premature. The military targeting of prominent jihadi leaders within group structures has been seen in operations against the leadership of ISIS, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and other groups.

In recent research for the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, we found that it is often less prominent jihadis that play an integral role in keeping the movement alive. Targeted killings do create a void, but this often comes at the expense of addressing the wider support base and ideological draw of militant outfits. This is particularly relevant with a relatively decentralised movement like the Taliban.

Such operations can spur activity. If the example of the Taliban’s previous leadership succession is to be heeded, we might expect renewed attacks across Afghanistan, beyond the group’s strongholds near the eastern border with Pakistan. The brief capture of Kunduz, Afghanistan's fifth-largest city, at the end of September 2015, was a show of strength to answer the numerous internal critics of Mullah Mansour’s new leadership of the movement.

In a news cycle dominated by reports of ISIS, and to a diminishing extent al-Qaeda, atrocities, it is important to comprehend the renewed brutality of the Afghan insurgency.  Data from the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics Global Extremism Monitor found a seventeen per cent rise in fatalities from March to April, marking the start of the Taliban’s spring fighting season. A suicide attack in central Kabul on the headquarters of an elite military unit that killed 64 people was the single most deadly act of terror around the world in the month of April, and the group’s bloodiest attack in the Afghan capital for years. Reports this morning of a suicide attack on a bus killing 10 staff from an appeal court west of Kabul, suggests that the violence shows no sign of diminishing under the new leadership.

All these developments come during a period of renewed impetus behind international peace talks. Last week representatives from Pakistan were joined by delegates from Afghanistan, the United States, and China in an attempt to restart the stalled negotiation process with the Taliban.

Haibatullah Akhunzada’s early leadership moves will be watched closely by these countries, as well as dissonant voices within the movement, to ascertain what the Taliban does next, in a period of unprecedented challenge for the infamously resilient movement. 

Milo Comerford is a South and Central Asia Analyst for the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics