Only perseverance will pass the grade, Robert Peal on why the Govian reforms must continue
Education may be the only cabinet role where an incoming minister in 2015 will not be encouraged to ‘create more waves’ than their predecessor. As Michael Gove explained in a speech to the Social Market Foundation in February 2013, his mission in government fell nothing short of overturning the “betrayal” of British pupils by progressive education since the 1960s.
When Gove came into power, progressive education was orthodoxy within state schools. The widespread promotion of ‘trendy’ teaching methods, dumbed-down curriculums and lax approaches to school discipline were all endemic within the education establishment. Not so now. Challenging the education establishment – which consists of teacher training institutions, local authorities, government quangos, and teaching unions – was a fight that Gove threw himself into, with some significant successes.
Of Britain’s secondary schools, 56% are now academies, as are 12% of our primary schools, meaning they are free from local authority control. In addition, teachers, parents and charities can now establish new state schools from scratch. Currently there are 252 of these ‘free schools’ open, with many more to follow. This has been an enormous achievement - when a similar policy was attempted in the late ‘80s, just 15 such schools were established. The challenge for the next government is to ensure that this liberalisation of the education sector translates into system wide improvement. Gove was not liked by teachers, but a Conservative manifesto could win back some of their support by promising to sort out the schools inspectorate, Ofsted. Founded in 1992, Ofsted is often assumed to be on the side of rigour and school standards. Sadly, this is not always the case. Many inspectors have a pronounced sympathy for ‘trendy’ teaching methods, and for too long they have been able to penalise schools for not conforming to this orthodoxy.
Michael Wilshaw, Gove’s appointment at Ofsted, has done some excellent work – in particular challenging schools to improve pupil behaviour. However, he has been too blind to the issue of teaching methods. Significant reforms to Ofsted are promised for September 2015. The Conservative party must promise that these reforms will curtail the malign power the inspectorate sometimes wields: Ofsted’s role should be focused on finding failure, not defining success. The curtailing of Ofsted’s power is an issue on which everyone in education, from teaching unions to right-leaning think tanks, seems to be in agreement. Ensuring it takes place would be an easy crowd pleaser for a new education secretary.
Next on the list needs to be examination reform. The content of GCSE and A-level examinations is far more important than the national curriculum in influencing what pupils actually learn at secondary school. However, here the government has so far made limited headway. Important structural reforms have taken place. The days of widespread grade inflation are over, and next year we will see the scrapping of the terrible accountability measure of ‘5 GCSEs graded A* to C including English and Maths’ which created a perverse incentive for state schools to focus on converting Ds into Cs, and ignore achievement at the top. It is a celebration of mediocrity.
However, the reform of examination content remains in its early stages. As any parent who has glanced at their child’s homework practice papers will know, the content of many of today’s GCSEs is absurdly dumbed down. Compared with the GCSE of yesteryear, let alone the Olevel it replaced in 1986, it offers little challenge to our brightest pupils.
The current thinking is to use the exams regulator Ofqual to stipulate more challenging exam content. This is taking place, but it is a lengthy processes. The reformed GCSEs in English and maths will be sat for the first time in 2017, sciences, geography, history and languages a year later. This leaves a great deal of time for the diehards of the education establishment to subvert Gove’s original intention, and simply recreated the current ubiquity of non-academic slush.
A courageous move for the next government would be to break the GCSE cartel, and allow a return of the O-level. Gove flirted with this idea in his early days as education secretary, but could not carry it through. For a new Conservative government, such a measure would show a clear dedication to high academic standards.
University education faculties remain a redoubt of progressive educational ideas and sociological theorising. Disabusing new teachers of the nonsense they have learnt during their training can be a frustrating process for schools. The government have made headway here through ‘school direct’, where teachers train on the job at outstanding schools. However, to challenge the university education faculties further, new training institutions should be allowed, like free schools, to set up from scratch and certify teachers. Like the ‘teacher colleges’ of old, these could be practical, commonsensical, and devoid of ideology.
Lastly, the next government should think hard about the presentation of education reform. Gove did a tremendous job confronting the education establishment, but this made him a hate figure in some quarters. With reforms already beginning to bear fruit, the next government should deliver a more positive message through celebrating the successes of exemplar academies and free schools.
As an example, King Solomon Academy (KSA) is situated in the ward with the highest levels of child deprivation in London, and three-quarters of its pupils qualify for extra financial aid. However, when they took their GCSEs for the first time this summer, 93% achieved five good grades, and 75% achieved the academically challenging English Baccalaureate – more than many independent schools. There is little surprising about how this was achieved: KSA has firm discipline, a dedication to academic achievement, and a refusal to make excuses on behalf of its pupil’s backgrounds.
Such successful academies and free schools, of which there will be an increasing number in the coming years, have the potential to become exemplars of a new style of schooling. The next Conservative manifesto should base their campaign on celebrating such success stories, and allowing their number to grow and grow in the coming years.
Robert Peal is a teacher, education researcher, and author of ‘Progressively Worse: the burden of bad ideas in British schools’