All schools must thrive

Rafael Behr sets out the dividing lines on education.

Michael Gove. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Gove’s plans to allow parents to set up their own “free” schools was one of few policies that the Conservatives developed fully while still in opposition. Once in government, they wasted no time; Gove set about pursuing his agenda with a revolutionary zeal that even his allies describe as Bolshevik. Underpinning the policy is a conviction that local authorities tolerate mediocrity and that teaching unions protect weak staff. To serve pupils and parents better, the complacent “Educational Establishment” must be broken up. Besides new free schools, more existing schools should have academy status, which will give them greater independence over the curriculum as well as more leeway in hiring, firing and pay.

And Labour is against all that?

Not quite. Academy status was devised under Tony Blair as a targeted intervention in inner-city schools where previous regeneration efforts had failed. But the party was divided, the left especially suspicious. The momentum went out of the programme when Gordon Brown took over, though the idea was not quite repudiated. That ambiguity has continued under Ed Miliband.

But Labour is against free schools, right?

Yes . . . and no. Stephen Twigg, the shadow education secretary, has said his party would “not continue” with the free schools programme, but allow those already “in the pipeline” to reach fruition. He also supports the idea of “parent-led” academies, which sound not unlike free schools.

So how exactly does Labour policy differ from Tory policy?
 
In Gove’s version, market forces are supposed to drive improvement in schools. Breaking up the old structures is meant to bring competitive new players into the system. The element of choice – parents shopping between schools – is supposed to act as an incentive for everyone to raise their game. But that means new schools muscling in where there are already enough places for local children, which Labour sees as an inefficient use of public resources. It would be better, says Twigg, to target academies in places where provision is lacking and to promote partnership and collaboration rather than competition. Labour’s concern is that some free schools will siphon off middle-class families, leaving their poorer neighbours concentrated in struggling local-authority schools. But the main difference is ideological. Labour recoils from the idea that education is a consumer marketplace in which non-state providers compete for parental custom.
 
But the new providers don’t profit from it.
 
Not yet. Devotees of Gove’s approach see no reason why they shouldn’t. Indeed, some worry that it won’t work properly unless profit-making is permitted, because that is what will attract newcomers in sufficient numbers to make the field competitive. That much was understood back in 2010 but a political judgement was made that the public was not ready for a policy that could be attacked as privatisation. There is a widespread assumption that a second-term Conservative government would go down that path.
 
Without those Lib Dems getting in the way.
 
Quite. The Lib Dems have gone along with Gove’s agenda but they draw the line at schools being run for profit. Before the days of coalition, the party’s power base was in local government, and that means a lot of activists and councillors who don’t like being told by Gove that they are part of the problem rather than the solution when it comes to educating the nation’s children.
 
So what’s the Lib Dems’ education policy?
 
The party is very proud of the Pupil Premium, introduced in April 2011 – a funding device that diverts resources to schools in proportion to the number of children receiving free school meals.
 
Does it work?
 
The impact is disputed. The allocated money gets moved around within limited school budgets and the difference it makes to children from low-income families is – judging within the wider fiscal story – easily outweighed by cuts to tax credits, benefits and other services. That said, it is doubtful that an incoming Labour government would scrap the Pupil Premium.
 
What about maths and stuff?
 
There is also a revolution under way in the curriculum, which has hardly been less controversial. Gove’s preference is for a classically conservative curriculum, emphasising narrative history, the orthodox canon of English literature and bringing primary school children into earlier contact with fractions. At secondary level, there should be less coursework and harder exams.
 
Gove’s enemies depict him as a fantasist trying to re-create classrooms of the 1950s. His supporters say it is an overdue assault on fashionable “progressive teaching” nonsense and the soft tyranny of an all-musthave- prizes attitude that fails children by instilling low expectations. We are in a global race, say the Tories, and we need to get training early. The pitch to parents is that every neighbourhood school can have the highachieving, pushy ethos that attracts those who can afford it to the private sector.
 
And what happens to private schools?
 
In Gove’s utopian vision, they federate with state schools, or even become academies. 
 
And in reality?
 
They carry on fast-tracking the progeny of the upper-middle classes into top universities and elite professions.