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

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

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