Interrogation by email: Michael Gove explains his plans for Britain's schools

In a series of exchanges, Richard Garner put the Tories' education spokesman on the spot. Do his policies add up? See for yourself

From: Richard Garner
To: Michael Gove
Subject: Priorities, priorities, priorities

Michael, these last few weeks I've been following you round on an exhausting schedule. You've been announcing an initiative here, a policy there, talking about independent "free" schools, about raising the status of teachers, going back to a more traditional curriculum with an emphasis on the kings and queens of England in history. So imagine it's Day One of a new Conservative government. You're marching into the – I can't call it the Education Department any more – Department for Children, Schools and Families. What will you do? What in your first week will mark out your policies as different from those of your predecessor?

From Michael
To: Richard
Reply: re. Priorities

Well the first thing I'd do is call it the Department for Education. This isn't a cosmetic point. Under Labour, the Department has drifted. Its core purpose should be teaching and learning, yet in recent years it has spent more time worrying about box-ticking on peripheral issues. When 160,000 children leave primary school every year without meeting the minimum standards in English or Maths, and when 50 per cent of 16-year-olds fail to get five decent GCSEs, and when we have thousands of children leaving primary school incapable of reading, the focus of schools and colleges must be on increasing attainment.

If we are lucky enough to be elected, everything I do in the first days, weeks and months will be designed to help refocus attention on this core purpose of education.

Our top priority will be eliminating illiteracy, as they have in Hong Kong, Sweden and Canada. We'd immediately allow state schools to offer tougher IGCSE exams – currently only available in top private schools. We'd establish a full review of the curriculum, which focuses far too much at the moment on the process of teaching rather than the essential knowledge all children should be familiar with. We'd immediately ask Ofsted to overhaul their inspection framework so that it concentrates on the quality of teaching in the classroom rather than tick-box compliance. And we'd get to work on a short Bill to be passed before summer recess that would allow more state schools to take on academy-style freedoms such as full control over their budgets and curriculum, and allow parents, teachers and charities to apply to set up new schools. This is another crucial difference: we believe that power in the education system should lie with teachers and parents, not bureaucrats.

From: Richard
To: Michael
Reply: re. Illiteracy (Oh, and how you would pay for everything.)

Eliminating illiteracy sounds great – I seem to remember Michael Barber, Tony Blair's education adviser, promising that in 1997. Labour did deliver an improvement in the percentage of 11-year-olds getting the required standard in English and Maths, but got nowhere near 100 per cent. How can you be sure you can eradicate illiteracy? Also, do you have an idea as to how many new state schools would be set up as a result of your Bill? And the cost, and where the is money coming from?

From Michael
To: Richard
Subject: A new reading test for six-year-olds

Labour did pledge to eliminate illiteracy, but took their eye off the ball once Michael Barber and David Blunkett had left the Education Department. Over the past few years primary school results have flat-lined, despite billions being spent on the national strategies. One of Labour's biggest failures has been their refusal to properly embrace systematic synthetic phonics – a teaching method proven to have spectacular results in improving reading across the world.

They introduced a heavily watered-down version to the curriculum in 2007, but have failed to provide the necessary support and the programme they designed has been heavily criticised by experts. We would introduce a simple reading test for six-year-olds that would tell us which children needed extra help, and then we'd use budgets from existing programmes to provide that support. We would also introduce proper synthetic phonics training into the syllabus for primary teacher training, and ask Ofsted to report on which reading schemes schools are using.

On new state schools, we don't have a target. The whole point is that the process should be led by parental demand, and we've been overwhelmed by the level of demand. Hundreds of teachers, parents, charities and voluntary organisations have expressed interest in starting schools. But we've budgeted to provide capital costs for around 20,000 new places a year, or between 50 and 100 schools, depending on their size.

This is in line with growth of the "free" and "charter" school sectors in Sweden and the US – where President Obama is a vocal advocate. The capital cost will come from reducing spending on the Government's extremely wasteful Building Schools for the Future programme by 15 per cent. The revenue costs are minimal, as money follows the child in our system.

From: Richard
To: Michael
Reply: So is this testing, testing, testing again? And what about discipline?

Will it be a nationally delivered reading test for every six-year-old and, if so, will it increase the overall amount of testing in primary schools, or remove the need for Key Stage Two assessments in the core subjects for seven-year-olds? On another tack, you've said in the past that you plan to improve discipline in schools by removing the right of appeal for pupils excluded by headteachers. Heads have told me they are worried this will lead to their parents instead going to the courts, tying them up in costly and time-consuming legal proceedings for months. Are they right to worry?

From Michael
To: Richard
Reply: No.

The test will replace the existing Key Stage One literacy test, so will not add to the overall burden of testing. I emphasise it will not be a long or difficult test, but will establish whether children can accurately decode words and are on track to be fluent readers. Those who aren't will receive extra help.

On the question of exclusion, we think it's profoundly wrong that a child should be re-admitted to a school when the headteacher has decided to exclude them. It completely undermines their authority in the school and can be extremely upsetting for any victims (pupils or teachers) of the child excluded. Our legal advice is that as long as guidance is properly written, and there is the chance for school governors to be involved in the exclusion process, there won't be any problems with the courts.

More broadly, we have a wide range of policies to help teachers get control of discipline: stronger search powers and clarity on use of reasonable force; proper protection for teachers who have false accusations made against them; removing the ridiculous ban on same-day detentions. It is extra- ordinary that Ed Balls refuses to recognise there's a real problem, when 1,000 pupils a day are being excluded for assault or abuse and 40 per cent of teachers have considered leaving the profession due to poor behaviour. The Government claims pupils can't be searched for items like hard-core pornography because it affects their "human rights". I think that's absurd. We need to send a series of consistent signals that adult authority in schools has to be respected.

From: Richard
To: Michael
Subject: The key issue you haven't mentioned...

On testing, it looks as if you'll be faced with a boycott of the national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds if you win the election. What will you do to stop it? Legal action? A promise of a review of the tests? Or will you just stand firm against the boycott?

From Michael
To: Richard
Reply: re. teachers boycott

We think it's wrong for teachers to threaten a boycott of these tests. Although there are obvious problems with the way SATs are run at the moment, the solution is to sit down and work out a better process, not throw the system into chaos. We have suggested a number of ways to reform the process – including piloting tests in the first year of secondary in order to free up more time for teaching in primary schools. But we are committed to external assessment. It is crucial that parents, pupils and teachers have accurate information about how well children are doing.

From: Richard
To: Michael
Subject: What can you do in a year?

Finally, Michael, it's 7 May 2011. You've been in office a year and you're having a relaxing morning mug of coffee at home. (It will be a Saturday so you can!)

What would you like to be able to reflect on as your greatest achievement of the year? And what, in your darkest moments, is your biggest worry of what could have gone wrong?

From Michael
To: Richard
Reply: Reforms will be radical

I don't want to tempt fate! But I think the single biggest change that people would see in the first year, if we won the election, would be hundreds, perhaps thousands, of schools choosing to take up our offer of academy-style freedom from government. This would liberate heads and teachers across the country, allowing them to take control of their schools, and would represent a massive redistribution of budgets from local-government bureaucrats to the front line.

I'd also want to make real progress on our other big policies: allowing charities, parents and teachers groups to open new schools with small class sizes; radical reform of our exam system; getting more great teachers; and giving them more powers to discipline out-of-control pupils.

The biggest threat to all these changes are vested interests in the bureaucracy who are happy with the status quo. I find it extraordinary that some people don't seem to think we need radical reform – given we're plummeting down the international education league tables and the gap between rich and poor widens every year. But I believe we're winning the intellectual argument for the changes we want to make.

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