What we'd like to teach Michael Gove

The Education Secretary has fast-tracked his radical reforms. But what should happen next? Two thinkers with opposing political views give their advice
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The Independent Online

Dr Mary Bousted, General secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers

Michael Gove did not have an easy time in his first term in the job. His confident predictions of more than 1,000 schools becoming academies appear wide of the mark. Only 32 have opened their doors at the start of this new school year. Then there were the mistakes in the list of school-rebuilding projects that were affected by cancelling the Building Schools for the Future programme.

So he will be hoping that things go better this term with a new education bill, fast on the heels of the last one, due to progress through Parliament. This bill will establish, apparently once and for all, a new national curriculum to be taught to pupils in state schools in England.

What the new curriculum will look like is a mystery, and one which, I suspect, will create tensions within the ministerial team. Michael Gove's desire to give teachers more control over what and how they teach undoubtedly sits uneasily with the authoritarian instincts of his Schools minister, Nick Gibb.

The national curriculum is certainly over-stuffed with content and over-tested. It fails to provide a range of experiences to develop the skills and abilities that pupils need to live fulfilled lives. Employers are not being well served by the current curriculum and assessment system, which promote superficial learning and teaching to the test. So curriculum change is needed, and I hope the Secretary of State for Education remains true to his stated conviction that he wants the Government to stop telling teachers how and what to teach.

Teachers must be accountable for the professional decisions they make about what and how to teach, and there need to be checks and balances to ensure that pupils are well taught and properly assessed. This might look like stating the obvious, but it appears the Government does not agree. If it did, why is it allowing academies and "free" schools to adopt any curriculum they choose, in stark contrast to the "ordinary" state schools, which will be required by law to follow the new national curriculum?

Michael Gove would argue, and indeed has argued, that academy and "free" schools will be regulated by market forces, with parents moving their children if they are not happy with what is being taught. But the market works by creating inequalities, whereas education should be about giving all children a good start in life.

Michael Gove and his ministerial colleagues have been repeatedly challenged to explain how, when public spending is tight, they will pay for the "free" schools. Apparently, "free" schools will compete for funds with existing schools and the weakest will go to the wall, dying slowly by degrees.

Ministers are failing to answer other important questions, such as how the Government is going to ensure that all schools take their fair share of children with special needs. Ministers maintain that schools will have to abide by the admissions code, but who will ensure that they do? No "pupil premium" for taking hard-to-educate pupils will stop these schools manipulating their admissions procedures to get better results in the league tables.

Michael Gove has to realise that good intentions are not enough. As the Secretary of State for Education, he has to ensure our education system is fair to all our pupils, and particularly the most vulnerable. At present, he is unable to answer how he will ensure equity in education. Pupils, parents and teachers deserve much better. We want, and are waiting for, some answers.

Dale Bassett, Research director at the independent think tank Reform

The Coalition Government has approached education reform at breakneck speed. Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, has launched an academy-conversion programme, funding for new "free" schools and a "pupil premium" for the poorest. He has announced reviews of the national curriculum, GCSEs, A-levels, special educational needs and early-years provision. He has let state schools teach the International GCSE and has made some (minimal) cuts to his budget, including the Building Schools for the Future programme.

Does this flurry of activity add up to a coherent agenda for improving education? At first glance, it looks as though there is one overriding theme – more autonomy for schools. The Government expects that academy status will become the norm, taking schools out of local-authority control and giving them more freedom over curriculum and teachers' pay. On the other hand, the Department for Education seems to want more control over what pupils study and the qualifications they sit, not less. This dichotomy at the heart of government policy raises the question: what really makes the difference in education? Is it freedom from government, or nationally set standards?

The evidence leans towards the former. Over the past 25 years, successive governments have dictated more and more how money is spent in the schools system, what children can and can't study, and how it should be taught. The result has been the waste of countless billions and a system in which only half of all 16-year-olds get five good GCSEs (and well-off children are three times as likely to do so as those who receive free school meals).

So the first thing the new government needs to do is stop the waste. Education spending has been focused on the visible outputs that politicians like – class sizes and buildings – despite extensive evidence that these have little impact on educational outcomes. Study after study shows that what makes the difference is teacher quality. Mr Gove and his colleagues are right to promote more autonomy for schools and more choice for parents. But this will not drive up standards when the Government incentivises schools to boost their league table results, instead of focusing on the quality of education they are delivering. The Government has to change the way schools' performance is measured to incentivise schools to offer quality education for all – not how many pupils they can push over the C-/D-grade borderline to benefit their league ranking.

And while the concept behind free schools is laudable, this kind of supply-side change will make a real difference only if there is a genuine revolution. This would mean hundreds, thousands of new schools cropping up all over the country, with plenty of surplus capacity. Schools would have to compete for students, raising standards and value for money as they battle to deliver the best possible education for their pupils.

But the reality of change is more likely to be a ripple than a revolution, with only a few dozen new schools opening over the next couple of years. The solution is to allow profit-making companies which already run successful schools in scores of other countries to open their deep pockets here in England.

Mr Gove understands, fundamentally, that schools have got a much better idea of what is good for their pupils than any minister ever could. The priority for the next year is to ensure that the reality matches the rhetoric. If the Government really sets schools free – and gives parents the power to demand the best for their children – it could herald a once-in-a-generation shake-up of the system that will improve things for all.