It was education's JFK moment: where were you the moment you heard Michael Gove was longer education secretary?
It will be a year to the day next Wednesday, and I can still remember driving to a cricket match through the Northamptonshire countryside on a well-earned day off when the news came over the radio that he was to be reshuffled.
Thoughts of cricket had to be abandoned for the day as I did a U-turn and headed for home in the sure knowledge that I would have to write his epitaph for the following day’s paper.
Now, though, it is a year on, and we have a very different style coming from the corridors of Sanctuary Buildings, the headquarters of the Department for Education. The job of his successor, Nicky Morgan, it was said at the time, was to douse the flames of controversy and keep education away from the front pages – while still steering along the path of her predecessor’s reforms. Education, it had been calculated, would be delivering a million votes and many of these voters had been alienated.
In achieving those aims, it has to be said, Morgan was remarkably successful – helped, no doubt, by the fact that the teachers’ unions were finding that there was little enthusiasm among the troops for further strike action over their workload, cuts (an issue with which the public sympathised) and pensions (with which they probably did not).
As one teachers’ leader put it: “They could have put a stuffed dummy in charge and it would have quietened the anger.”
There had been rumours that a right-wing apparatchik would be restored to the post. As a result of the thaw in relations, though, Morgan was rewarded by David Cameron, keeping the education portfolio in his new cabinet. So, the new Parliament begins – presumably with Ms Morgan being given carte blanche to carry on as before. On Gove’s school reforms, that has certainly been the case. Under her stewardship, the drive towards creating more academies has continued unabated, and the Prime Minister has indicated that he wants to see another 500 free schools created during the lifetime of this Parliament.
However, around 2,000 schools that “require improvement” will also be in danger of being forced into academy status. And the net has also been widened so that “coasting” schools fall into this category – causing teachers’ leaders to react with horror, and warn that even schools rated as “good” by education standards watchdog Ofsted may now fall foul of the pro-academisation drive.
I am with Morgan on the anti-coasting schools drive. In a bygone era, when I was working on the Daily Mirror, the article that caused the most opprobrium I had ever received (at that point) was one in which I produced a league table of the 10 worst grammar schools in the country. I had the temerity to suggest that – with their privileged and academic intake – they should be getting 100 per cent of the pupils to obtain five A* to C grade passes at GCSE. The head of the worst-performing grammar school – with 78 per cent of pupils in this category – phoned his headteachers’ organisation to berate its general secretary for suggesting that the 10 should be doing better. He threatened to resign his membership, whereupon the general secretary suggested he should think again, because he might be needing the organisation’s legal services soon. (The head kept his job, though.)
Where I quarrel with Ms Morgan is on the remedy: academisation. To hear many of the Conservatives speak, you would think there had never been a state school that was performing well until the academies programme was introduced. I think you could count on the fingers of one hand maimed after an incident with a fork-lift trick the number of local-authority-maintained schools visited by Michael Gove as exemplars of good practice. There are academies that have succeeded, but equally there are academies that fail and academies that are run by weak academy-chains.
The debate will intensify as more and more schools become academies. In my view, though, the secret to success is the quality of leadership in the school, rather than the structure available to the head to carry out his or her policies. (But a failing free school can have a more devastating effect on a child’s education than a failing local authority school, where support can be targeted on the institution at a moment’s notice.)
I predict a rocky passage over cuts to education spending. Remember, the pledge to maintain education spending does not cover early years and post-16 education. Expect, therefore, savage cuts in sixth-form colleges to the A-level options offered in some of our best-performing state institutions. Expect, too, cuts further down the line as a result of increased National Insurance and pension contributions that have to be made by schools. The Institute of Fiscal Studies warns of cuts of up to 10 per cent .
If the cuts to education spending ignite the wrath of teachers’ unions (and parents), we could see more pressure for industrial action in the nation’s classrooms. Whatever, Ms Morgan’s mettle will be tested – as it will over rising pupil numbers and whether school places are provided in the right areas to cope with the bulge in the population.
“She is a nice person,” says one source, “ But I think it will be difficult for her. There may be troubles ahead if you have teachers being sacked and pupil numbers rising.”
Ms Morgan is still in talks with teachers over their workload – a rabbit she pulled out of the hat in the run-up to the election when she asked teachers to email her about this. (They did in their droves.) But it may need more than the current formula – an absence of malice towards teachers but an insistence on sticking to the Government’s reforms – to carry the good ship education through the rest of this Parliament.Reuse content