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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.