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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The trouble with a second Brexit referendum

A new vote risks coming too soon for Remainers. But there is an alternative. 

In any given week, a senior political figure will call for a second Brexit referendum (the most recent being David Miliband). It's not hard to see why. EU withdrawal risks proving an act of political and economic self-harm and Leave's victory was narrow (52-48). Had Remain won by a similar margin, the Brexiteers would have immediately demanded a re-run. 

But the obstacles to another vote are significant. Though only 52 per cent backed Brexit, a far larger number (c. 65 per cent) believe the result should be respected. No major party currently supports a second referendum and time is short.

Even if Remainers succeed in securing a vote, it risks being lost. As Theresa May learned to her cost, electorates have a habit of punishing those who force them to polls. "It would simply be too risky," a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Were a second referendum lost, any hope of blocking Brexit, or even softening it, would be ended. 

The vote, as some Remainers note, would also come at the wrong moment. By 2018/19, the UK will, at best, have finalised its divorce terms. A new trade agreement with the EU will take far longer to conclude. Thus, the Brexiteers would be free to paint a false picture of the UK's future relationship. "It would be another half-baked, ill-informed campaign," a Labour MP told me. 

For this reason, as I write in my column this week, an increasing number of Remainers are attracted to an alternative strategy. After a lengthy transition, they argue, voters should be offered a choice between a new EU trade deal and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be a distant memory. The proviso, they add, is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms (rather than ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). 

Rather than publicly proposing this plan, MPs are wisely keeping their counsel. As they know, those who hope to overturn the Brexit result must first be seen to respect it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.