Schools: academic theory, practical problems | Editorial
Michael Gove has succeeded in pushing his legislation through, but messy realities may still come to bear on his policies
Bismarck never likened law-making to sausage manufacture, but the misquote is remembered because so many legislators act as if their craft is best carried out away from public view. Andrew Lansley did not have that luxury, as all comers stopped and started his mincing machine before a rewritten health and social care bill finally emerged to become an act, well over a year after he had introduced his original draft. Michael Gove, by contrast, rushed through his academies act within 11 weeks of the coalition being formed, so that assent was gained before dissent had time to build up.
There are, in fact, striking parallels between the coalition’s plans for hospitals and for schools, and yet their different experience in the law factory have set them on different time tracks. As the teaching unions assembled this Easter they were not wrestling with the sort of theoretical propositions that the medical professions spent early 2012 rejecting: they were confronting new facts on the ground.
After getting his legislation wolfed down in double-time, by the end of the year Mr Gove will have made academies of most English secondaries. There was little time to worry about the decidedly mixed results of the American and Swedish free school programmes from which Mr Gove hails as inspiration: his plans were swallowed without touching the sides. His rhetoric of school freedom sounded soothing, and for the most part drowned out nagging doubt that bulldozing the old devolved ecology of education in favour of bilateral private contracts between providers and Whitehall might concentrate power instead.
A sausage produced out of view might slip down more easily, but it can still cause nasty hiccups as it starts to digest, which is the stage the English school reforms have now reached. The slogans of parent power have come unstuck at Downhills school, north London, after a community that resisted the rush to academy status were branded “Trots” and effectively overridden; more widely, primaries judged to be “failing” by an entirely unfathomable yardstick are being frog-marched down the academy route. The appealing suggestion that new schools would establish a ladder of opportunity in the heart of the most deprived communities is less convincing, now that a new school set up in Bristol’s BS10 postcode is consulting on criteria which will see it draw 80% of its intake from the more prosperous BS9 instead. And the well-worn Govian refrain about social mobility rings rather hollow since it emerged that his rewritten admissions code will allow Kent’s grammar schools to set up satellite outfits, even though the OECD has looked right across the rich world and established that selectively educating children is a sure-fire route to a class-bound adulthood.
All of these point to grave local difficulties, but there are looming problems on a broader canvas too. Some individual academies will prove their worth, and others will falter. But once the inevitable mixed picture emerges as fact, it will no longer be plausible to talk – as Mr Gove has often done – as if overhauling governance structures on academy lines will resolve the deep social problems which English education is doomed to have to keep battling with.
In time, the withering of the duties of local education authorities could become as controversial as Mr Lansley’s botched operation to remove his own obligations to provide comprehensive healthcare. And as scores of notionally independent schools find themselves saddled with running human resources, procuring IT and other services they are not big enough to do efficiently, then the work will be punted out to private partners, partners whose role could soon become as controversial as NHS commercialisation, as was underlined by the revelation of Mr Gove’s one-time enthusiasm for getting News International involved.
Unlike Mr Lansley, Mr Gove has succeeded in pushing the education debate well beyond the academic stage. That is success of a sort, but he cannot rest on his laurels for messy realities have a habit of interfering with the most elegantly laid-down plans.