Is there such thing as life after Gove? The current education secretary’s ceaseless and frenetic activity sometimes makes this hard to believe. But one day he will be gone and the chances are that a Labour government will have to pick up the pieces.
The stand-out issues that must be faced are becoming clearer. How do we get excellent local schools, given the rapid fragmentation of the system in many areas? What sort of ‘middle tier’ should we have, what is the wider purpose of education and, perhaps most important of all given the coalition’s roller coaster reform of key stage four (KS4), what sort of curriculum and qualifications do we need for the 21st century?
The dilemma for Labour is how to develop a bold and radical alternative to the Gove revolution, without forcing even more change on an increasingly weary and demoralised profession. Yet we must find a way to build on what we might inherit. We must rapidly convert it into something more equitable and coherent than the Gove legacy will inevitably be, without being ‘Gove-lite’ or grinding down schools with more central government interference.
Who and what stands between schools and central government seems crucial. At the moment we have a mish-mash of maintained schools still working within a local authority framework, free schools and academies, some within chains and others that stand alone, only answerable to the secretary of state via their funding agreements. Even Her Majesty’s chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has expressed concerns that this is not an adequate way to hold schools to account or prevent failure.
Local authorities must have a role, especially in planning places, managing fair, non-selective admissions and the care of excluded and vulnerable children. But alongside that, we need fair funding and a consistent regulatory framework that makes the issue of school ‘type’ irrelevant. Schools rightly want a high degree of autonomy but that could and should be allied to more collaboration, school-to-school support, light touch local accountability and a relentless focus on teacher quality and morale.
The London Challenge, one of Labour’s most successful education interventions, provides a blueprint. A combination of central and local government intervention, focussed on teaching and leadership, sharing good practice, the strong supporting the weak, saw London schools outstrip the rest of the country, especially in outcomes for the most disadvantaged pupils.
The solid success of two different London authorities, Hackney and Camden, provide an interesting example of what can be done. Camden has very few academies or free schools; Hackney embraced the Labour academies movement.
Yet schools in both boroughs are popular and successful. What unites them is not the ‘type’ of providers but high aspirations and a strong, clear role for the local authority even where there is more diverse provision.
Perhaps more challenging for Labour is the issue of the curriculum and qualifications. The coalition’s latest announcement that GCSEs will not now be replaced with the proposed and divisive English Baccalaureate Certificates was met with relief. But scratch below the surface of the latest Gove plan – reformed GCSEs without coursework or modules, a more rigid, traditional curriculum and new performance table measures – and you will see not much has really changed
It still looks very much like what the CBI recently described as a “conveyor belt” of exams, neither suitable as a reliable indicator of personal achievement or of school performance. In its Next Steps report the CBI suggested that social and personal skills should be ranked alongside traditional subjects, practical, creative and technical education.
And it is in this area that Labour requires guts, vision and a readiness to work with heads and teachers to create a robust alternative. An incoming Labour government must have the development and wellbeing of all children at its heart, guaranteeing every pupil a curriculum and qualifications that are rigorous and inclusive.
Exams at 16 are increasingly irrelevant as young people stay on into education and training. We should be moving towards a final qualification at 18, which measures academic and vocational achievement and an accountability system that values the creative arts, practical and technical education, personal development and citizenship and allows education to become a more stimulating, liberating process than is currently the case.
The Tory press will be waiting of course, with accusations of dumbing down. But with the support of the professionals we can turn the tables on them. Gove claims that our qualifications system doesn’t match the best in the developed world but most of the developed world doesn’t use excessive high stakes testing to measure pupil achievement at 16, preferring graduation at 18 instead.
Respected international qualifications like the International Baccalaureate (IB) provide powerful role models. No one accuses the IB of dumbing down yet it boasts of promoting the education of the whole person – “emphasizing intellectual, personal, emotional and social growth”.
And there are still lessons to be drawn from Sir Mike Tomlinson’s proposed single diploma of 2004. Casually tossed aside at the time, it could provide another blueprint for the future and would certainly outshine the ‘Tech Bacc’, announced in Ed Miliband’s conference speech last year, which many fear will simply entrench the vocational/academic divide more deeply than ever.
Michael Gove likes to quote Tawney: “What a wise parent would wish for their children, so the state must wish for all its children.”
Luckily poll after poll tells us what it is that most parents want for their children; good local schools, with a balanced intake, excellent teaching, leadership and behaviour and the chance for their children to make the most of their talents and do their best in the subjects that interest and engage them.
Unfortunately the secretary of state’s reforms cannot deliver that. Only Labour can – if it has the courage to do so.