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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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA