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

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