Gove's academies programme epitomises his incompetence and failure

The Education Secretary's flagship policy has failed to improve standards or reduce educational inequality.

Monday marks the three year anniversary of the 2010 Academies Act. The act, which allowed every school to convert into an academy, has seen the number of academies increase by over 1502% since its introduction. 

It is not only this expansion that has made the academies programme significant. The failure and incompetence that have characterised its implementation epitomise all that is wrong with Michael Gove's regime.

A YouGov poll from March this year, which questioned over 2,000 parents, demonstrates the programme’s first flaw. Despite their rapidly increasing number, only 14% of parents believe that academies improve educational standards. Fifty five per cent take the opposite view, making Gove’s authoritarianism, his disregard for the opinions of others, abundantly clear.  Forced academies have made this even more evident. Downhill Primary in Haringey, for instance, was forced to convert, despite the opposition of 94% of parents.

This approach is typical of Gove’s other crack-pot policies. For example, despite slight adjustments to his plans for the history curriculum, his blueprint for the content of school learning is still opposed by the majority of teachers. NUT deputy general secretary Kevin Courtney summed up the concerns of the profession, remarking that "[t]his is a curriculum written by government advisors and officials, not teachers". Moreover, as Gove has demonstrated with the academy programme, he does not only quash the concerns of teachers; parent’s wishes have also been bypassed. The same March YouGov poll demonstrated that 61% of parents disagreed with his decision to remove coursework from secondary education. What Gove says, goes, regardless of the wishes of teachers or parents.

The second notable characteristic of Gove’s academy programme is its failure to improve standards and reduce educational inequality. In 2012, educationalist Henry Stuart showed that in 2011, in the 40 academies where 40% of pupils received school meals, only 38% of students achieved 5 A*-C GCSE grades compared to 44% of state sector schools with the same intake. Then in January of this year, the Academies Commission, headed by former Oftsed Chief Inspector Christine Gilbert issued a report which questioned government claims that academies markedly improved educational attainment. Admittedly, there was the rare "stunning success", but Academies "have not, as a group, performed markedly better than similar schools. Academisation alone does not guarantee improvement". In addition, it also had clear concerns regarding selection of students, suggesting that academies are playing the system by holding pre-admission meetings with parents, enabling them to select more privileged students. 

Once again, this characteristic of the academy programme symbolises a whole host of Gove policies. Failure and increased inequality are the norm. Take Free Schools. Again, despite the money poured into them, they are no guarantee of success. Since the first free schools opened, Ofsted have inspected 11 out of 24 of the first set of free schools. Three were rated as "requiring improvement", seven as "good", none as "outstanding", and one, Discovery Free School in Crawley, was last month deemed "inadequate" and placed under special measures. In addition, the intake of these first 24 free schools has raised serious questions about inequality. Figures released by the Department of Education in April 2012 revealed that 18 of the 24 took a lower proportion of students on free school meals than schools in the surrounding area. The most notable example was St Luke’s free school in Camden, which took no students on free school meals, despite an average of 38.8% of children on free school meals across the borough. 

The problems, however, do not end with authoritarianism and failure. Incompetence is also rampant within the academy programme. In particular, examples of financial ineptitude are rife. In April, the public accounts committee, chaired by Margaret Hodge, reported that over the past two years, the academies programme had overspent by £1bn, £95m of which was supposed to be spent upon underperforming schools. This is unsurprising considering reports cited by Derek Gillard in a 2012 article entitled "Half Way to Hell: what Gove is doing to English schools". He slams the academy programme’s financial incompetence, outlined by examples such as the £118,000, that on average, 128 academies had to pay back due to funding allocation blunders in the department.  

Again, this is indicative of the comical incompetence of Gove’s education department as a whole. At the very start of his tenure, administrational misdemeanours led to the botching of the Building Schools For Futures list. We were then treated to the revelation of policy, based on polls from the educational experts that are UKTV Gold. A more damaging example is the frightening inability to recognise the need for more school places in our biggest cities, and the impending crises that will face the education department in the next few years as a result.

After three years, there is no doubt that Gove's academy programme has transformed the structure of the majority of our secondary schools. But that is not the only reason why it is significant. It also possesses huge symbolic importance. It is the epitome of authoritarianism, of failure, of incompetence, and as a result, the epitome of Gove’s entire regime.

Michael Gove leaves 10 Downing Street in central London on November 21, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.