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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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue