Show Hide image

Gove’s stealthy school reforms could become as toxic as the NHS bill

The Education Secretary's free-market reforms to our school system are a political time bomb waiting to explode.

Another week, another attack on the government's health "reforms" - and on the hapless Andrew Lansley. One of Lansley's Tory cabinet colleagues told the ConservativeHome website that he should be fired from his post; the Lib Dem deputy leader, Simon Hughes, took to the airwaves to agree. The brazen attempt by Lansley to open up our health service to "any willing provider" - and, by extension, to EU competition law - has galvanised opposition to what Kingsley Manning, head of health at the outsourcing firm Tribal, once gleefully described as the coalition's "denationalisation" of the NHS.

All eyes have been on the health service but what about the denationalisation of the education system? Michael Gove is quietly presiding over the biggest shake-up of England's schools since the Second World War - there are now 1,529 academy schools, outside local government control, compared to 200 when the coalition came to power. They've been joined by 24 so-called free schools, set up by parents, charities and other unelected groups. Competition, choice and autonomy are the watchwords of the Gove education agenda.

Meanwhile, calls to give the private sector a bigger role in running such schools abound - and not just from Tory backbenchers or right-wing think tanks. David Bell, who was permanent secretary at the Department for Education until the end of 2011, said this month that he, like the Education Secretary, saw "no principled objection" to profit-making companies taking over state schools and predicted that they would "probably" do so eventually.

No rebellion

In fact, they already are. Last month, the for-profit Swedish company IES UK was awarded a £21m, ten-year contract by Gove to manage a free school in Suffolk - to be known as IES Breckland. Yet, according to a recent YouGov poll, fewer than one in four voters think free schools will improve education standards and less than a third of voters are in favour of allowing private companies to manage such schools.

Determined to roll back the frontiers of the state and to dismantle the central-government-funded, local-authority-maintained system, Gove and his boss, David Cameron, aren't listening. There is no "pause" planned on education reform; there is no Lib Dem rebellion brewing in the Lords. Unopposed, Gove continues to churn out measures that will accelerate the de facto privatisation by stealth of England's state education sector.

“There is an analogy here with the NHS reforms," Rebecca Allen of the University of London's Institute of Education tells me. For-profit companies aren't - yet - allowed to build or own state schools but, she says, "effectively, under the government's reforms, for-profit companies will soon be running many of our schools".

Allen's colleague at the IoE Stephen Ball sees Gove's reforms "as a softening-up of the system for further privatisations". He cites the scrapping of the General Teaching Council, the Training and Development Agency for Schools and the Support Staff Negotiating Body as evidence that England's school workforce is being made "more manageable and cheaper. Salary costs are the major issue for for-profit providers."

This isn't about freedom for local communities; it's about freedom for big corporations. The education services sector in the UK is worth close to £2bn - a figure that will soar once the coalition's changes to school structures have kicked in fully.

And don't believe the fraudulent rhetoric about "choice": the only person with any freedom of choice is Gove. Take Downhills Primary School in Tottenham, north London, which the Department for Education is forcing to become an academy despite vociferous and public protests by hundreds of local parents and teachers. The response from the Education Secretary? He dismissed his opponents in north London as "Trots" and claimed that they were "happy with failure".

Like Lansley, Gove is content either to ignore or deride grass-roots opposition to his ideological, small-state, outsourcing agenda. But Gove, unlike Lansley, is one of the original Cameroons, a founding member of the Prime Minister's Notting Hill set. His seat at the cabinet table is much safer than the Health Secretary's. The former Times columnist is also ferociously intelligent and, unlike Lansley, a master communicator: charming, eloquent, media-savvy. "Michael, in fact, sees himself as a future prime minister," a long-standing friend of the Education Secretary tells me.

Mind the language

Nonetheless, Gove's brilliance can be exaggerated and the potential for a public backlash on school reform underappreciated. Already, in less than two years as Education Secretary, he has had to execute humiliating U-turns on the funding of school sport and free books; apologise repeatedly in the Commons after giving MPs incorrect information about which school-rebuilding projects were to be axed; and been accused of an "abuse of power" by a high court judge over his decision to scrap those projects without proper consultation.

Inside the Department for Education, civil servants "are nervous about the prospects for judicial review", says a well-informed source. "They are also nervous about his language. He's not just calling teachers or trade unionists 'Trots' - he's calling ordinary parents 'Trots', too."

Such belligerence by Gove could backfire on him in the long run. Confidential documents on the coalition's outsourcing reforms, drawn up by senior civil servants and released under a Freedom of Information request last July, reveal how private providers of public services such as education "will compete on price but quality may suffer" and notes how greater choice and competition require "provider exit as well as entry . . . but exit of providers (eg, school closure) may be controversial and unpopular".

The Education Secretary can't say he wasn't warned. And those Conservative cabinet ministers who, in private, have voiced their object­ions to Lansley's NHS reforms should perhaps now keep a close eye on Gove. Education could become as toxic for the Tories as health.

Reckless, dogmatic and without the backing of any discernible electoral mandate, Gove's free-market reforms to our school system are a political time bomb waiting to explode.

Rafael Behr is away

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, How do we stop Iran getting the bomb?

Michael Cooper/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

The players make their mistakes on the pitch – I make mine on the page

I find that if I watch three live games in a weekend, which often happens, I have totally forgotten the first two by the time the third comes up.

I was a bit humiliated and ashamed and mortified last week because of letters in this magazine about one of my recent columns. Wait till I see the Correspondence editor: there must be loads of nice letters, yet he or she goes and prints not just one, but two picking me up on my mistakes. By the left.

But mainly, my reaction was to laugh. Typical, huh, I’ve gone through life spelling things wrong, with dates dodgy, facts fictional – will I ever learn?

John Lennon did not use a watch. He maintained that he had people on the staff who would tell the time. I don’t wear a watch, either, but for different reasons. I want to get my wrists brown and I hate carrying anything.

By the same milk token, I don’t worry about my spelling. Like Lennon, I expect others to clear up after me. Surely the subs should have spotted it was a typo, that it is 64 years since 1951, not 54 as I wrote? What do they do all day? The other mistake was about replays in the League Cup: too boring to repeat, you would only yawn.

I usually try to get the spelling right the first time I use a word, then bash on, letting it come out any old way, intending to correct it later. Is it Middlesbrough or Middlesborough? Who cares? I’ll check later. Then I forget.

I was so pleased when Patrick Vieira left Arsenal. I found those ten seasons a nightmare, whenever I realised his surname was lumbering into vieiw (I mean “view”). Why couldn’t I memorise it? Mental laziness. The same reason that I don’t know the phone numbers of any of my children, or the correct spelling of my grandchildren’s names, Amarisse and Siena. I have to ask my wife how many Ss and how many Ns. She knows everything. The birthday of every member of the royal family? Go on, ask her.

I might be lazy on piddling stuff such as spelling but I like to think my old brain is still agile. I have three books on the go which are hellishly complicated. I have the frameworks straight in my head but I don’t want to cram anything else in.

It can be a bit embarrassing when writing about football, though. Since sport was invented, fans have been making lists, trotting out facts, showing off their information. As a boy, I was a whizz on the grounds of all 92 League clubs, knew the nicknames of all the clubs. It’s what you did. Comics like Adventure produced pretty colour charts full of such facts. I don’t remember sitting down and learning it all. It just went in, because I wanted it to go in.

Today, the world of football is even madder on stats than it ever was. I blame computers and clever graduates who get taken on by the back pages with nothing else to do but create stats. And TV, with its obsession with possession, as if it meant anything.

I find that if I watch three live games in a weekend, which often happens, I have totally forgotten the first two by the time the third comes up. Not just the score but who was playing. When Wayne Rooney or whoever is breaking records, or not, my eyes go glazed, refusing to take in the figures. When I read that Newcastle are again winless in their first seven League games now, I start turning the pages. If I get asked who won the Cup in 1923, my immediate answer is HowthefeckdoIknow. Hold on, I do know that. It was the first Cup final at Wembley, won by Bolton Wanderers. I remember that, having been there. I don’t know the dates of any other Cup final winners. England’s World Cup win? That was 1966 and I really was there.

I love football history (I’ve written three books about it) but it’s the players and the history of the clubs, the boots and strips, development in the laws, that’s what I enjoy knowing. Spellings and dates – hmm, I do always have to think. Did the Football League begin in 1888 or 1885? If I pause for half a second, I can work it out. Professional football came in first, which must have been 1885, so the Football League came later. Thus the answer is 1888. Bingo. Got it.

But more often than not, I guess, or leave it out. So, sorry about those mistakes. And if you’ve spotted any today, do keep it to yourself. 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide