'Far too many schools are still letting families down'

Last summer, Michael Gove spelt out his planned reforms in an email conversation with Richard Garner during the election campaign. A year on, in a similar exchange, we question how he has performed

Saturday 22 October 2011 23:40

Richard Garner You've been in charge of our state schools for just over a year now. What difference do you think you've been able to make? What is your proudest achievement? And what would you do differently if you had your time again?

Michael Gove It's been the most incredible privilege to work alongside the best cohort of teachers and headteachers our schools have ever had. And I don't think my worst enemy would accuse me of a slow start.

We've opened almost 500 new academies – more than twice as many as Labour did in 10 years. The desire for genuine autonomy over curriculum, staffing and budgets has proved overwhelming – over a third of all secondary schools have already applied for academy status. The first free schools will open this September and groups are now applying for the chance to open in 2012.

We've given teachers tough new disciplinary powers. The current education bill working its way through Parliament ends the ban on same-day detentions and gives teachers a general search power for disruptive items like mobile phones and cigarettes.

And because malicious allegations have blighted so many careers, the bill will also provide anonymity for teachers accused by pupils until they are charged with an offence.

We've begun to restore confidence in the exam system following Professor Alison Wolf's revelations about the full extent of the "equivalence" scandal perpetrated by the last Government. Weak, pseudo-vocational courses that schools used solely to improve their league table positions are being phased out and the new English Baccalaureate measure will show parents whether schools are teaching an internationally recognised core of academic subjects: English, maths, science, history or geography and a language.

Moreover, despite a tough spending review, schools are already in receipt of the pupil premium – £430 for every child on free school meals.

But it's too early to talk in terms of achievements and regrets. We've only begun to implement the reforms necessary to transform our school system into one of the world's best.

RG A couple of things I'd like to take you up on. On free schools, we've only got a handful of proposals making their way to the finishing line for opening this September. Are some of the proposals you've had just not up to scratch? Do you think they've found it harder to run a school than they – and possibly you – thought? Secondly, on the English Baccalaureate, why do arts and drama and religious education not qualify? Heads are saying they plan to sack teachers in this area as a result to concentrate on those subjects singled out for recognition. Are they right to do so?

Also, I think you'll find the "equivalence" scandal – the decision to give vocational courses equal weight to four GCSEs – predates Labour.

MG Up until 2004, nearly all qualifications taken at 16 were academic GCSEs. It was Labour who opened the floodgates by massively increasing the number of pseudo-vocational qualifications that could count in GCSE league tables. In the last seven years we've seen a 4,000 per cent rise in their use in schools. This has had a hugely negative impact on the teaching of subjects like history, science and modern languages. A tougher approach to "equivalence", combined with the English Baccalaureate, will start to repair the damage.

The purpose of the Baccalaureate is to define a core of subjects that act as gateways to wider learning. Almost every other developed country in the world, from Singapore to Holland, defines a very similar core, as does the Russell Group.

Its introduction as a league table measure has been widely supported by parents. We have kept this core small so students can achieve the benchmark while still having plenty of time for arts and other subjects.

As for free schools, I think it is an incredible achievement for any group of parents or teachers to set up a school in just 15 months. I don't think that ever happened under the last government. It normally takes years to set up a school. Obviously, numbers will grow in future years. In the past few weeks alone we've seen a number of very exciting projects floated, such as Peter Hyman's all-through school in Newham and Brighton College's proposed sixth-form for deprived young people in the same borough. We've said from the very start that we intend to copy the most successful American charter school programmes in having a very rigorous application process so that only the best projects succeed. That does mean that applications will be rejected but we are determined that this programme be based on the best available international evidence.

RG Some would say it's the pressure of league tables that leads to schools taking easy GCSE options. I've just visited Finland. They have higher starting qualifications for teachers, which I know you want to bring on board here – but they also have no league tables, no national testing (teachers assess their own pupils) and no inspections. They say it is because they trust their teachers, having trained them to a high standard. Any chance of you taking these measures on board here, too?

MG When it comes to accountability, it's important to realise Finland is the exception amongst high-performing countries. The majority of these countries that do better than England – whether Canada, Australia or Singapore – use external testing and rigorous inspection and see these as crucial to their success.

We've seen the performance of Welsh children in PISA (the international league table) deteriorate compared to those in England since they decided to drop external assessment and league tables.

So the real question is what enables Finland to be an exception to the rule? Having an unusually well-qualified workforce helps, as does having an extremely homogeneous society and a highly literate culture.

What Finland does share with other high-performing countries, as you point out, is tough entry standards for those wishing to train as teachers. That's why in the White Paper we announced that only those with a 1st or 2nd class degree will qualify for state-funded teacher training in the future. And I will shortly be setting out further steps to increase the quality of entrants to teaching and boost the prestige of the profession.

RG Does that mean you plan to keep to a system of external testing at the age of 11 after the review of SATs is completed? Your predecessor, Ed Balls, indicated he would be prepared to move to some form of teacher assessment if he could be convinced it was robust enough. Do you not think you might be storing up trouble for the future with – among others – the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) if you stand by external testing?

MG I understand some of the frustrations that primary heads and teachers have had with Key Stage 2 tests in the past, which is why I appointed Lord Bew to review the current arrangements. He's due to report today and I don't want to pre-judge the findings, but his interim report acknowledges that there are very strong arguments in favour of external assessment if parents and taxpayers are to have faith in the education system.

Whatever the technical arguments about types of assessment, I don't think anyone – including the NAHT – would argue that proper, transparent, accountability isn't essential in an increasingly autonomous school system. Whilst the majority of schools are good, there are still far too many that are letting down their communities and it is crucial that the Government is able to identify them and intervene.

One of Labour's biggest mistakes was its failure to include primaries in the academies programme. While the weakest secondaries were taken over by new sponsors, albeit too slowly, underperforming primaries were left alone to continue letting down generations of young people.

Because of the last government's failure to act, we now have well over 1,000 primaries where fewer than 60 per cent of children leave with basic literacy or numeracy. Very few kids who fail to achieve these minimum standards when they leave primary school go on to get five good GCSEs. We've now started work on pairing these underperforming primaries with successful academy sponsors and outstanding schools. Dealing as quickly as possible with this group of schools will be a major priority for our second year in government.

RG Here's the final question. As you come to the end of your first full academic year in charge of schools, you are making a statement to the House of Commons. Is it (i) to celebrate your achievements; (ii) to soberly say you have made a start to raising standards but recognise more needs to be done; or (iii) to apologise to the Commons for the Government leading the education service to the brink of industrial chaos through cuts in public spending and threats to reduce public service pension entitlements?

MG I see that you've learnt the classic civil service trick of offering three options, only one of which is palatable!

I would tell the Commons that I'm delighted with the progress we've made so far: the major expansion of the academy programme; introducing the pupil premium; new rules to help teachers crack down on bad behaviour; the first steps to restoring confidence in our exam system; and all the other reforms signalled in our White Paper.

Of course, after just one year there's still much to do. Many of the reforms we've initiated will only come into effect next year, such as new powers for heads to remove underperforming teachers or free nursery places for disadvantaged two-year-olds. Our overhaul of the national curriculum won't be complete until 2014.

And on our major school reform initiatives – whether giving all schools the chance to claim academy status, ensuring underperforming schools are taken over by new sponsors or opening new free schools – our timescale is the course of a Parliament rather than a single year.

But I certainly think we're winning the war of ideas. Labour's confusion at the moment is conspicuous. Andy Burnham [the Shadow Education Secretary] was initially strongly opposed to free schools but is now in the contorted position of supporting those proposed by former Labour advisers like Peter Hyman but not others.

He has attacked our decision to allow schools to convert to academy status but has also told headteachers' conferences that he would not seek to reverse any conversions.

I think this incoherence is a result of the support that our reforms are receiving both from the profession and the public. And it's this support that, over the coming years, will lead to real and sustained improvements in standards.

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