It's Michael Gove who is undermining school standards

Instead of playing to the gallery, the Education Secretary needs to learn from what works.

Talking the talk is not the same as walking the walk. The Education Secretary is full of bluff and bluster when it comes to rigour and school standards. He likes to pick a fight with anyone and everyone. This weekend it was the turn of head teachers to draw his criticism for daring to disagree.

But along with undermining the voice of the teaching profession, Michael Gove’s record is one of undermining high standards. The best countries in the world for education like Finland, Hong Kong and South Korea understand that the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.

This is why the last Labour government set up Teach First to bring in additional, high quality professionals. We also strengthened training and professional development. But professional standards have been damaged. Michael Gove has allowed unqualified teachers into our classrooms – by changing the regulations governing academies and free schools. This is a big concern for parents. No one would want to be operated on by an unqualified brain surgeon. Why should your child be taught by an unqualified teacher? Instead of undermining teaching standards, Labour would strengthen them, with a new Royal College for Teachers.

Michael Gove has expanded the academies programme, at the expense of school improvement. The independent Academies Commission found that Labour’s “early academies …showed just how much could be achieved with high aspirations.” But today the process for selecting academy sponsors is "no longer rigorous", and academies that have converted since 2010 are not “fulfilling their commitment to supporting other schools to improve.” Instead, Labour would develop effective school collaboration - ensuring weaker schools work with stronger schools to raise performance across the board.

That means keeping a watchful eye on schools where performance slips. A good or outstanding school can quickly slip back to become coasting without effective oversight. But Michael Gove has removed local accountability and reduced the frequency of Ofsted inspections. That cannot be right.

This government has no vision for high quality skills. Since 2010, they have undermined vocational courses, such as the engineering diploma and cut back work experience opportunities and careers advice. Under Labour’s plans for a Tech Bacc, we would get businesses to accredit high quality vocational and technical courses, and ensure all young people study English and Maths to 18 alongside a high quality work experience placement. This kind of agenda is critical to bridge the divide between the world of education and the world of work.

Instead of meeting the challenges of a 21st Century economy head on, the Education Secretary is trying to recreate an outdated curriculum and set of exams. He has brought in an unnecessary phonics check for six year olds, which tests them on how to pronounce alien words. He stumbled from shambles to farce in his attempts to bring back O Levels and CSEs, while overseeing a fiasco in English GCSE grading. And now he wants to undermine a decade of progress towards fairer access to our top universities, by removing AS Levels as a progressive qualification toward a full A Level, despite dire warnings from Cambridge University.

This misguided approach stems from a failure to listen to the experts. I know what it takes to drive up school standards. As a minister, I was responsible for the London Challenge, set up in 2002, which saw schools in the capital go from being some of the worst in the country to some of the best. The success of London Challenge came from empowering the best head teachers to innovate and drive up standards. They then worked collaboratively with other heads in weaker schools to ensure a rising tide lifted all boats. Instead of attacking head teachers, ministers sought to work with them, knowing that professionals, not politicians, are the real experts.

You can’t raise standards without having the confidence of professionals. And since 2010, we have seen 6,000 qualified teachers leave the profession. Instead of playing to the gallery, Michael Gove needs to learn from what works. 

Education Secretary Michael Gove leaves 10 Downing Street in central London on November 21, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.