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Everybody out?

09 June 2010

Will schools follow Michael Gove’s lead? Tom Peryer assesses the new broom

WHEN John Major, having just become Prime Minister, presided over his first Cabinet meeting, his opening, characteristically diffident, words were: “Well, who’d have thought it?” Similar sentiments must have gone through most of the people present at David Cameron’s first Cabinet, along with those other Prime Ministerial truisms “A week is a long time in politics” (Harold Wilson), and “It’s a funny old world” (Margaret Thatcher). All of them wonderfully apt after 6 May.

The parties to this very civil — and top-drawer — partnership say that they intend to be there for the next five years, cleaning out the financial Augean stables and ushering in a new era of freedom, fairness, and responsibility. Little did they know that the media would claim the scalp of one of their brightest stars before the month of May was out.

Whether the Tories and the Lib-Dems will succumb to the spirit of the age, falling out with one another after a few tiffs and not getting their own way, remains to be seen. David Cameron could do worse than book a few appointments with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who knows a thing or two about keeping people together who are constantly arguing with one another.

But, for the time being in this honeymoon period, it is best to assume that the Coalition Government is going to be around for a while, and that it does not intend to let dust gather under its feet. Both Tony Blair and Mr Major expressed regrets that they were not more radical and iconoclastic in their first year in office.

Nowhere is the frantic sweeping of the brush more likely to be more clearly seen than in education. Like a greyhound straining at the leash, Michael Gove was first out of the slips with a change of name for his Department and the publication of his Academies Bill, which landed on the red benches before their Lordships had barely disrobed themselves of their State Opening ermine.

Furthermore, not content with one Bill in his first 100 days, Mr Gove intends to have another one out in September, ushering in more big ideas to transform (yet again) education and schools in England. Schools in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland must feel aggrieved that they are not going to be liberally scattered with some Govian gold dust.

MICHAEL GOVE is an extraordinary cre­ation. It is as if some mad scientist (no, not Richard Dawkins) sat down and took ele­ments from Julian (of the Famous Five), the Boy David, and Tigger, together with other Wunderkinder from history and fiction, to create MG. Energy, erudition, and what seems dangerously like certainty emanate from him, halo-like. Or is it ectoplasm?

Like many another Cabinet minister these days, and indeed Prime Minister, he has not had to endure years as a private on the back benches, followed by more years as a lieutenant junior minister. He has gone from journalist to MP to Shadow Secretary to four-star General, aka Secretary of State, in five years.

Nearly every Secretary of State for Educa­tion since Shirley Williams (and there have been 14 of them) has come into office believing that there are significant faults in the school system. Mr Gove is no exception.

Over the past years, dragons to be slain have included: sloppy progressive teaching; domineer­ing but ineffectual local authorities; schools hampered in being able to discipline pupils; lack of setting or phonics or uniform or nutritional school meals or national tests or cash; and so on. Eyes shining with the enthusiastic certainty of a born-again believer, Mr Gove believes that he has the answer.

No longer need schools be shackled to their oppressive au­thorities. Overnight, they will find that their chains have fallen off, their hearts and schools will be free, and they can go forth to follow him to the land of Academies — a place where the sun shines all the day long.

AMAZINGLY, this radical proposal to allow all schools to become academies did not figure in the manifesto or in the Green Paper that preceded it. It is not even in the Coalition Agree­ment. If you search, you can find two lines about it buried in Mr Gove’s speech to the last Conservative Party Conference. But this single action of the new Government is likely to be far more significant than the one that attracted all the pre-election debate — parent-promoted free schools.

Of course, it remains to be seen how many schools will take the plunge, and if it really will, as the Times Educational Supplement put it, “change the landscape of English education”. When Kenneth Baker introduced grant-maintained schools in 1988 as part of his Great Education Reform Bill (sic), he hoped that most of the schools in “loony Left” authorities would jump at the chance to escape the clutches of those left-wing councils. But it did not quite work out as intended. And in the first year of the academies proper, only three were opened. The first one (by two days) was a C of E academy.

There was many an Israelite school that pre­ferred life under the pharaohs than an uncertain life in a faraway promised land. In the end, only 1200 schools out of 22,000 went grant-maintained, and, ironically, they were mostly in Conservative areas. Lord Baker of Dorking, as he is now, may like to have a quiet word with his successor to warn him.

AS PARENTS of school-age children, Mr Gove and Mr Cameron could start with the school their children go to — which just happens to be the same outstanding C of E primary school in London. Mingling with other parents in the school playground, they could start a parental campaign for academy status, pour encourager les autres — especially the Lib Dem autres.

Someone who might need encouragement in this direction is the Deputy Prime Minister, whose children attend an RC school. Presumably, when signing this bit of the Coalition Agreement, Nick Clegg had to hold his nose, letting go only when he signed off the pupil-premium proposal.

And here’s another funny thing, as Frankie (not Michael) Howard used to say: David Miliband also sends his child to an outstanding London C of E primary school. So, if he is elected leader of the Labour Party, that would mean the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, and Secretary of State for Education all send their children to church primary schools. Cue much wailing and gnashing of teeth at the National Secular Society HQ.

But there might also be some gnashing of teeth — or at least anxious picking of nails — across the road from the newly named Department for Education, in Church House. What do the new Government and the new legislation mean for church schools and the part played by the Churches (as well as other faith-school pro­viders)? The mood music of the new Government is likely to be genuinely more attuned to church schools than was the case under Ed Balls. There may even be some relaxation of the über-bureaucratic framework of the National Code of Practice on Admissions, introduced by the last Government.

In fact, the Coalition Agreement has an explicit pledge on faith schools. The promise is to “work with faith groups to enable more faith schools” (there speak the Tories) and “facilitate inclusive admissions policies in as many of these schools as possible” (there speak the Lib Dems).

BUT every government pays lip-service to the historic part played by of the Churches in education. This Government, like the last one, is perhaps more attracted to the new chains of schools as a magic bullet that will deliver transformation to those hard-to-shift schools, as well as making sure that the new, parent-led free schools are a success. Time will tell.

If existing schools, including church schools, do wave goodbye to their local authorities, they might be tempted to join these and new school-chains; they should be careful that it is not a case of new chains for old. “Economies of scale”, “sharing of good practice”, and “learning from each other” may be the language of the new kids on the block, but corporate bodies favour corporate practices and consistency. Individual autonomy will mess up their data­bases and muddy their branding.

A real challenge now faces dio­ceses and the National Society (and the same is true for the Roman Catholic Church). How should they respond to the possibility of hun­dreds — perhaps thousands — of schools’ going for new academy status, not to mention the possibility of creating new schools? These proposals are both oppor­tunities and threats for church education in England. Make the right call and it could be a huge gain, but make the wrong call and it could go the other way. I hope it is keeping chairs and directors of boards of education awake at night, because that will mean that they are taking the wind of change very seriously indeed.

As diocesan directors of education gather with national officials for their June residential conference, this must exercise their minds — whatever else they had planned for the conference programme.

The temptation will be to issue “balanced” guidance, full of “on the one hand this” and “on the other hand that”, which hides their own views under a cloak of neutrality for fear of offending local authorities or disconcerting those schools that wish to stay as maintained schools.

Or will they, spurred on by the predatory instincts of the new kids on the block, take a risk and actively encourage church schools to take the Queen’s shilling and come out of local authorities? Dioceses could then strengthen the ties between themselves and church schools by providing or brokering services.

This has been the dream of many a diocesan director of education in recent years, as the local-authority system of being the sole provider of everything has been more and more eroded. But lack of capacity and risk-averse boards of education and finance have, for the most part, prevented the entrepreneurial spirit from taking off.

THE truth is that pragmatically, theologically, and educationally, dioceses have been queasy about the notion of independence and go-it-alone schools. It took a while for dioceses to embrace academies, and most of them were never really comfortable with church schools that went grant-maintained. But if dioceses and the national Church sit on their hands for too long waiting to see how things go, there is a real risk that they will be further sidelined by a Government more keen on dialogue with the new providers such as ARK, Oasis, E-ACT, Emmanuel, and other sexier ones.

Although there are 5000 Anglican schools, it is a sobering thought that nearly all the chains or groups of schools have more staff at their head office to look after a handful of academies than most of the dioceses with 100 to 200 schools to look after. And the salaries are much better. Make no mistake: all the big players in the increasingly privatised world of education will be eyeing up the prospects of many more academies and free schools as either a steady source of income, or aggrandise­ment, or both.

Next year, as well as celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, the Church of England will mark the 200-year anniversary of the founding of the National Society, which marked the start of a huge investment and commitment to the cause of uni­versal education in England.

Something of the same boldness of vision, energy, and ability to mobilise people and resources needs to be on show in 2011 by the Church in education. That way, in this post-modern, pluralistic society, Church of England schools will continue to flourish and grow in number and quality, offering a very distinct view of learning and what it is to be a human being fully alive.

Tom Peryer is a former director of education for a London diocese. He is now an education consultant.

Church of England schools

The Church of England has been a provider of free schools since 1811, and is the main voluntary provider within the maintained system. The C of E currently has 4409 primary schools educating 771,690 pupils (about a fifth of the total number of pupils in state primaries). The C of E’s 207 secondary schools educate 181,050 pupils (including 15,780 in 19 academies as at January 2010) (about six per cent of the total number of pupils in state secondaries).

The Church of England has been a provider of free schools since 1811, and is the main voluntary provider within the maintained system. The C of E currently has 4409 primary schools educating 771,690 pupils (about a fifth of the total number of pupils in state primaries). The C of E’s 207 secondary schools educate 181,050 pupils (including 15,780 in 19 academies as at January 2010) (about six per cent of the total number of pupils in state secondaries).

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