Andy Burnham: 'Why Michael Gove must try harder'

His policies are slapdash, his intellect lacking and his instincts elitist, according to his opposite number, Andy Burnham. Here, he delivers the Education Secretary's report, one year into the job
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The Independent Online

If I were to sum up Michael Gove after his first year in office, two words spring to mind: incompetent and ideological. It's never a good mix in any politician. He is, of course, a polished performer and a good talker. He has made some positive moves, particularly on discipline and simplifying adoption procedures. But just like the Prime Minister, his friend and great protector, this confident front often masks a serious lack of intellectual grip on policy detail. And, while I don't doubt his passion for education, I believe that his vision is, at heart, an elitist one.

From school building to sport to the education maintenance allowance (EMA), he has rushed headlong into poorly thought-through reforms to successful schemes. Decisions are taken with no consultation and no supporting evidence, subjecting schools and colleges to chaos when they need stability.

But the more serious charge I lay at his door is that he is bringing the same slapdash style to a highly ideological reform of the entire school system. It's not a question of change or no change, but a question of whether the changes proposed are the right ones. In health and education, the Government has sought to imply its reforms are simply a continuation of Labour's. They borrow our language of reform – foundation trusts in health; academies in education. But this is all cleverly designed to obscure a very different direction of travel towards an ideological free-for-all that amounts to a bastardisation of Labour's public-service reforms.

In Government, we too made schools and hospitals more autonomous and independent. In the main, that is a good thing. But we were always clear: if you plan more freedom for providers, it must be accompanied by a corresponding empowerment of the public, and a greater ability for users of services to hold providers to account. Without this, you are presiding over provider-led reforms with an accountability deficit.

Labour empowered head teachers, but took tough action in cases of failure through the National Challenge, through which 150-200 struggling schools were turned around every year. This Government has identified just over 200 schools that fall below the new basic threshold, but has no clear plan or timetable for how these schools will improve. It is a derisory lack of ambition on standards, from a Government that has fallen headlong into the trap of equating structural change in schools with higher standards. There is no automatic link between the two. So where Labour pursued structural change in Government, it was with a laser focus on improving standards.

Our academy programme gave a fresh start to struggling schools in our most deprived areas, and the effects in many cases were astounding. This Government's academy programme, by contrast, is focused starkly on increasing the number of academies – regardless of whether they are in areas of educational disadvantage. Michael Gove's Education Bill severely weakens the admissions system and reduces the rights of parents to challenge decisions.

This would be dangerous in any event, but is very worrying in a world where each school will be its own independent admissions authority – some 20,000 of them – with an incentive to admit children most likely to succeed in the English Baccalaureate subjects.

Without crucial parent empowerment, the result is an elitist, two-tier system where some people get a better deal than others. The sheer speed of these changes is all the more worrying when you consider the latent elitism running through Michael's statements and policies. His narrow, backward-looking English Baccalaureate has been foisted on schools with no evidence to back up the subject selection.

Many young people will struggle to see its relevance to helping them in the modern world. Latin and Ancient Hebrew – in; ICT, business studies and engineering – out. Creative and vocational subjects are nowhere to be seen, sending the troubling signal that any child whose talents lie in these areas is somehow second best.

The simple truth is you can't gear an entire school system around the requirements of the Russell Group. Studying at a top university is a huge achievement and should be open to all young people, but it is not the only barometer of success. This Government needs to do more to meet the needs and aspirations of young people who want to take a different path. And that is the fundamental problem with this Secretary of State: he has a plan for some schools and some children, not all schools and all children.

The great irony about Michael Gove's first year in office is that he has turned out to be more top-down and prescriptive than we ever were, having promised precisely the opposite. He wants to instruct teachers how to teach reading and children what books they must read. He wants to tell older students what subjects they should study. And he wants to tell communities what kind of schools they must have. He is in serious danger of collapsing under the weight of his own contradictions.

The Bill before Parliament gives the Secretary more than 50 new powers to control almost every aspect of our school system. It is never healthy for so much power over education to be vested in the hands of one person. But in the hands of such an ideological and incompetent Secretary of State, it is downright dangerous.

So, all things considered, I can only agree with the 79 per cent of teachers who last week judged Michael Gove's performance in his first year in the job to be bad or very bad.