All schools must thrive

Rafael Behr sets out the dividing lines on education.

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.


Michael Gove. Photograph: Getty Images

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.