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
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.