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For those who would rather spend their weekend dodging thunderstorms than sitting in a sweltering conference hall, what did we learn from speeches by Michael Gove and Tristram Hunt at Policy Exchange’s Education Conference on Saturday about the party's election manifestos 2015?

Whose backchat is the most fly?

For Michael Gove, the speech was an opportunity to re-state his overarching moral purpose, whilst sedately clobbering those local authorities and other opponents who are still resisting his flagship Academies and Free Schools programme.  Applauding the achievements of some of his favourite schools and head teachers, Mr Gove commented that they had managed to replace the competitiveness of street culture – “whose trainers are smartest, whose attitude is hardest, whose backchat is the most fly” – with the competitiveness of academic culture.  For those of us still reeling from MC Gove’s rendition of the ‘Wham rap’ (“Hey everybody take a look at me, I've got street cred-i-bil-ity/ I may not have a job but I have a good time, with the boys I meet down on the line”), such talk sent chills down the spine.  But no fear, there was no repeat performance, 'vanilla' or otherwise, to put us off our morning coffee.

Playing to a friendly crowd of mostly compassionate conservatives (plus a few waifs and strays), Michael Gove batted away a pesky question about his relationship with the Home Secretary, Theresa May, and the ongoing investigation into religious extremism in Birmingham schools.  Was he reconsidering his position?  Had his behaviour embarrassed his government?  A firm and defiant “No” on both counts – with no hint that a letter of apology would be forthcoming, at the Prime Minister’s insistence, later in the day.

Rejecting the label of ideologue, Gove was keen to stress that his education policy is characterised by a pragmatic, evidence-based approach to education policy, based on the simple test: ‘what’s right is what works’.  As chair of one of five Conservative Policy Commissions set up in November last year, he is clearly well placed to know what to expect in the Tory election manifesto 2015.   Judging by Saturday’s performance, a good place for the uninitiated to start would be to cast one’s eyes over the relevant pages from the 2010 manifesto, Invitation to Join the Government of Britain, which pretty neatly summed up the major themes of the speech: (1) Better teachers and tougher discipline; (2) A rigorous curriculum and exam system; (3) Give every parent access to a good school.

Appealing repeatedly to 'what works', these were recast as three core principles of high-performing systems: autonomy, accountability and teacher quality, for which there is strong evidence; plus two additional elements that the Education Secretary feels very strongly about: namely, behaviour and curriculum:

Although no explicit mention was made of further plans to expand the number of primary Academies, it is widely assumed that the 2015 manifesto will contain a pledge of this type.

1. School Autonomy: giving head teachers, rather than bureaucrats, the chance to be “captains of their ship”, as delivered through the continued expansion of the Academies and Free School programme. Although no explicit mention was made of further plans to expand the number of primary Academies, it is widely assumed that the 2015 manifesto will contain a pledge of this type.

2. ‘Proper’ Accountability: for the Education Secretary, this means data generated by external tests and the judgements of expert inspectors, which has been achieved through a more “proportionate and focused” Ofsted inspection regime (delivering the 2010 manifesto pledge for “more rigorous and targeted” inspections).   One of the key issues for 2015 will be how to hold all providers in education properly to account, including Multi-Academy Trusts. (Although asked a specific question about inspection of MATs, I for one could not decipher the answer, so can only assume that Mr Gove – who does not normally have a problem with speaking in Plain English – has yet to make his mind up on this one).

Although not always regarded as the teacher’s friend, Mr Gove was keen to stress how much he values the teaching profession

3. Improving the Quality of Teaching, by increasing the number of Teach First trainees, school-based ITE and “attracting experts from the outside world and teachers from independent schools into state schools”.  Although not always regarded as the teacher’s friend, Mr Gove was keen to stress how much he values the teaching profession in general and specific individuals in particular – having appointed outstanding teachers to run Ofsted, the National College for Teaching and Leadership and the Review of Teaching Standards, as well as the recently announced Review of Initial Teacher Training. Although the latter may contribute to future policy recommendations, there was little here to indicate how a future Conservative government would continue to improve the quality of teaching or ensure that effective CPD becomes an entitlement for all teachers.

4. Behaviour: Back in 2010, the manifesto pledge was to “reinforce powers of discipline by strengthening home-school behaviour contracts”. Presumably, these have not been as effective as was hoped, since Ofsted’s Annual Report in December showed that 700,000 pupils were attending schools where behaviour needed to improve. In the run-up to 2015, the Conservatives are trailing newer, tougher measures in this regard, namely the issuing of stronger sanctions for parents who fail to ensure their children turn up to school “ready to learn and showing respect for their teacher”, with a suggestion that parents will lose child benefit if their children have poor attendance, punctuality or behaviour.

5. Curriculum: Defending the government’s reforms to semi-vocational qualifications and return to a knowledge-based academic curriculum, Gove argued that fluency in reading and writing and mastery of mathematics are “the keys which secure access to a broad and enriching academic curriculum”, whilst also stressing that they provide the basis for critical thinking, problem solving skills and genuine creativity.  Here, there was an indication that further reforms to GCSEs could follow after the election, encouraging or requiring young people to follow an academic curriculum to the age of 16.

On the subject of oversight and accountability, Michael Gove was playing both offence and defence, rejecting claims that Academy schools are less accountable than local authority maintained schools, before going on the offensive: arguing that the system of independent audit and publishing of accounts is in fact more stringent than the rules for charities, limited companies or LA maintained schools; whilst singling out three named local authorities for profligate spending, failing to deliver improvements in performance and resisting the Academies programme; and throwing in for good measure the number of cases of fraud (191) discovered by the Audit Commission’s review of LA schools in 2013.

On the subject of oversight and accountability, Michael Gove was playing both offence and defence

While Saturday’s coverage focused on the proposals for tougher discipline and the moral mission to combat illiteracy and poor numeracy, yesterday’s Observer ran a story detailing a squabble over who came up with the idea of the Pupil Premium first – the Lib Dems apparently indignant that the Conservatives had laid claim to one of their pet ideas.   Following a recent spat over free school meals for infants and funding for free schools, there is clearly ongoing sensitivity between Tories and Lib Dems over key aspects of education policy.  On the Pupil Premium, although it may be a point of principle and historical accuracy to note that Nick Clegg came up with it first in 2002, the idea was subsequently developed and promoted prior to the election by both Centre Forum and Policy Exchange, before featuring in both Parties’ 2010 manifestos.  More to the point, before fighting for credit, it would be worth making sure it actually makes a difference: to date, the overall FSM achievement gap for 11 year olds has reduced by an underwhelming 1 percentage point since 2010, remaining constant at 19 percentage points since 2012.  As all sides would surely acknowledge, despite the collective sense of moral mission, there is a strikingly long way to go before the life chances of children from richer and poorer backgrounds are anything close to equal.

Labour's alternative?

The life of professional historian/politician Tristram Hunt could have turned out rather differently...

Taking to the podium as the audience started to wilt under the heat, we were refreshed to learn that the life of professional historian/politician Tristram Hunt could have turned out rather differently, if he had not been dismissed from Cambridge Footlights for being “not regularly funny”.   Whilst thankfully not pretending to be a stand-up comedian, the audience did wonder whether the eloquent education spokesman had forgotten how to use a full stop.

Building on his speech to the North of England Education Conference in January this year, Hunt's speech outlined four broad priority areas and specific proposals for reform, as well as being clear that where Labour agrees with recent policy changes (such as on the Progress 8 performance measures and overhaul of semi-vocational qualifications), these would not be reversed:

1. Improving the Quality of Teaching: the starting point for a Labour Government would be to ensure that there is a highly qualified teacher in every classroom.  To this end, Labour would change the rules, so that unqualified teachers were no longer allowed to teach in any state school, including Free Schools and Academies.  Furthermore, Hunt described how qualified teacher status (QTS) should be seen as the bare minimum rather than the culmination of teacher’s professional development, through a new 'licence to teach' scheme which expects/ requires all teachers to revalidate their knowledge and expertise at regular intervals.  In addition, he outlined new career pathways to ensure that highly capable teachers are encouraged and incentivised to stay in the classroom, rather than necessarily having to take up a management post; and to ensure that all teachers are entitled to effective professional development throughout their career.

2. Extending School Autonomy: rather than another round of structural reform, Labour's priority would be to allow all schools, regardless of status, to enjoy the freedoms currently restricted to Academies

3. Technical and vocational education: reverse the long-standing failure to invest in technical and vocational education, which is the biggest failure of the post-war education system (as well as a continued failure of the current government);

4. Oversight of schools: introduce new local Directors of School Standards, with responsibility for all schools - in place of the regional commissioners brought in by the current government, with a remit just for Academies.

Despite his fulsome and well-deserved praise of Policy Exchange for its thought leadership and contribution to education debate, Hunt did not hold back from criticising its founding chairman, Michael Gove, for his own approach in office - seemingly taking the route of most resistance, adhering to a political rather than an educational timetable for reform, failing to communicate the principles behind the policies, and making provocative decisions, such as the removal of Baroness Sally Morgan, from her position as Chair of Ofsted, which only served to alienate the wider educational community.  Given the composition of the audience, this line of attack was not to everyone's tastes (though it should be noted that the Education Secretary did not himself hold back from a strident critique of those local authorities he sees as antithetical to the Academies programme).

Nevertheless, beneath the argy-bargy, there was much common ground in the wider themes covered by both politicians:

  • For teachers, the importance of research and using evidence about ‘what works’;
  • For pupils, the importance of ‘character’: grit, resilience and other positive character traits;
  •  For schools and the wider system, the importance of collaboration and effective partnership - learning the lessons from the London Challenge and making this learning relevant for other parts of the country, at a time of much more constrained economic finances, to tackle regional inequality in school performance;
  •  And a strong emphasis on technical innovation and genuine creativity, to meet the current and future needs of the economy and society.
  • In principle, a stronger focus on all these areas is to be strongly encouraged.  But in practice, all the main parties’ education proposals will need to meet the same concrete test: do the policy ideas and initiatives add up to a coherent system of education for all learners?  Is there a clear sense of how to piece back together the increasingly fragmented system?  As the history of education reform too often shows, although hopeful interventions can look promising, if they are not joined up as part of a coherent systemic approach, the energy and excitement they generate will be sunk into small pockets of innovative practice, or merely lead down cul-de-sacs of frustrated ambition.

    Louise Bamfield is Associate Director of Education at the RSA.




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