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

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.