Steve Richards: Gove needs to rewrite his homework

In its complacent selfishness, the drive for free schools is part of an atomised, reactionary vision
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The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is the latest minister to don the radical's mantle and outline his revolutionary crusade. How times have changed. Before the election Mr Gove was seen widely as the only figure on the opposition side with a transforming zeal. Now he joins a crowded field of new ministers who plan sweeping change. From George Osborne to Andrew Lansley, and not forgetting Nick Clegg, Mr Gove makes his moves with a protective shield of other ministers who are also in a rush to be radical. Seemingly untroubled by the lack of a mandate, they press on with the speed of a rocket.

Mr Gove no longer stands out.

A White Paper published yesterday forms only part of Mr Gove's revolution. It is the part most likely to lift standards across the board in schools. For a supposed de-centraliser Mr Gove displays a reassuring faith in the centre and its capacity to make a difference. I share his faith and welcome in particular the focus on improving the quality of teaching and, most specifically, those who teach. The consistently perceptive David Willetts observed recently from his perspective as a minister in the Business Department that the plethora of structural reforms relating to choice, competition and the rest does not address what he called "supply side" issues. In Gove's case the supply side issue is good teachers.

We need lots of them. There is a chance we could get them now that graduates are less tempted by jobs in the City, banking and the buzz of easy money. Of course we will have to pay for the best teachers and get them into the more demanding schools. I also have no idea whether former army officers will necessarily make good teachers on the grounds of their disciplinary techniques, as Mr Gove suggested yesterday. But his reliance on the army is only one of several moves, building on the previous government's initiative, to attract potentially talented teachers.

I approve also of Mr Gove's determined intolerance of failing schools, or under-performing ones as he wisely prefers to call them. Again, his strict demands and his remedies have an echo with the previous government, but are in some cases more expansive. If necessary more schools will become academies. That is fine. The line of accountability in relation to academies is clear. They are accountable to Mr Gove at the centre. Local authorities have had long enough to prove whether or not they have the skill and immense political will required to revive schools.

If they have not, Mr Gove seems willing to intervene, the model of a statist Secretary of State. In his statement to MPs yesterday afternoon, the forbidding declaration "We will..." preceded several of his announcements with the flourish of an ardent centraliser.

One of "we wills" led up to an overt and welcome statement against re-introducing selection. Mr Gove claims he will not let schools choose pupils. At times he sounded like the progressive he claims to be.

Mr Gove's willingness to aim high and be accountable for what follows deserves a high grade even under his more demanding criteria for examination success. There is, though, a problem with his crusade. Another part of his revolution hails the introduction of so called "free schools".

Admittedly the appetite for such "freedom" amongst parents seems small at the moment, but the principle behind the initiative could not be clearer. The stifling state must step back. Parents and teachers must be allowed to get on with it without giving another thought to their impact on other schools. In its complacent selfishness, the drive for free schools is part of an atomised reactionary vision at odds with Mr Gove's resolution at the centre.

I know he would disagree intently, arguing that his resolute ambition is all about giving power and responsibilities away to teachers, heads and parents, but I do not see a coherent picture. There is a difference between a reactionaries' desire to let a thousand flowers bloom even though many will die in the creative chaos, and a ministerial recognition that a government must seek a rise in standards in every school, especially those with the least promising intakes.

Mr Gove's contradictory instincts take tangible form in his attitude to spending on school sports. Suddenly there is no "We will..." driving his approach. Instead he is dropping the ring- fenced cash that was targeted on sport. No doubt ring-fencing of cash has a sinister ring to it. It sounds indiscriminately proscriptive to those, including most in the Coalition, that regard the state with extreme wariness.

But ring-fencing is a highly effective way of targeting tax payers' money on a particular worthy cause and making sure the cash is spent productively. In this case head teachers popped up on the airwaves to say, whether the money was ring-fenced or not, they would continue to spend it on sports, only the cash was being scrapped altogether.

Hostility to public spending is the other flaw in Mr Gove's revolution. The hostility is one of the Coalition's unifying themes. In his Hugo Young lecture this week, Nick Clegg argued that the level of public spending should not determine whether a policy was progressive or not. Of course it should not be the only criteria, but it is an important one. Countries that spend more on public services tend to be the fairest and have most social mobility.

But Mr Clegg is a small state liberal who has concluded that social democracy failed in the UK. Mr Gove has a similar outlook, although Tony Blair is his political hero, and if there has been a social democratic experiment in Britain – which is debatable – presumably the long serving Mr Blair was its pioneer.

As far as secondary schools are concerned, smaller class sizes would probably make more of a difference to pupils' prospects than all the never-ending structural reforms put together. They are one of the main reasons why wealthy parents send their children to public schools. The teaching is not necessarily better but the pupils get more attention. Smaller class sizes cost money as the Government has to pay for more teachers and even more to good ones.

There is not much money around at the moment but I wonder if the Coalition would want to spend much of it if the economy was booming. After all, Mr Gove rushed to scrap the school building programme even though Georg Osborne had given the green light to capital spending. The scrapping of the school building programme was the only Coalition policy opposed by Mr Blair in his memoir. Presumably the sentence is the only one that did not excite Mr Gove.

The Education Secretary raves about the memoir. In a brief exchange at the cenotaph, David Cameron told Ed Miliband how much he was enjoying Mr Blair's book. I am told that George Osborne has the audio version so he can listen admiringly as Mr Blair reads the words. Mr Blair never resolved how to encourage local innovation from the centre. Nor did Gordon Brown. Perhaps the challenge is beyond resolution. Mr Gove has not found an answer to the impossible conundrum in his well meaning but muddled mission.;