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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.