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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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.