Peter Hoskin

Exam result shock: Balls fails

Exam result shock: Balls fails
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You know how it is.  You start reading an article by Ed Balls - in this case, in today's Guardian - and, before long, you've come across so many deceptions, half-truths and tribal slurs that you decide to fisk the whole thing.  So here is Balls's article, with my supplementary comments in bold:

The first group of young people to have been entirely educated under Labour pick up their GCSE results today. No doubt this will provoke some commentators into even greater efforts to do down their achievements – claiming more young people succeeding must mean exams are getting easier.

In the early years of David Cameron's leadership, the Tories didn't join in this annual "dumbing down" chorus. But over the past year, they've changed tack with a concerted campaign to criticise the state education system and rubbish the achievements of young people.

This is one of the most disingenuous beginnings to an article you could ever fear to read.  The first paragraph just dimisses the "dumbing down" argument out of hand.  Convenient that, given how it will be the main topic of the day; with over one-in-five GCSE results at A or A* grade - more than double the share in 1988.  And the second paragraph is typically tribal: as if criticising a system which has one of the worst performance gaps between state and private education in the entire world is somehow unpatriotic, or somehow "rubbishing" the achievements of young people.

Of course, making the case for cutting investment in our schools, even in the middle of a recession, is easier for the Tories if they also deny the huge improvements of the last decade. But  also reflects something more worrying – the emergence of Michael Gove's increasingly narrow and deeply conservative view of education policy.

"Making the case for cutting investment in our schools."  Balls comes remarkably close to a crude "investment vs cuts" line here, although he slightly mitigates it by mentioning the "middle of a recession".  Still, I doubt folk like Darling and Mandelson will be too pleased with the message here.  And then there's "deeply conservative" used almost as a swear-word.  What we're seeing is the development of the "behind the Cameron mask" attack that Labour used during the recent NHS row: the idea that if you peel back the Cameron veneer, there's a bunch of unreconstructed, nasty, cruel, fox-hunting, NHS-hating - ahem - conservatives waiting in the wings.  Problem is, as the Smeargate scandal showed, you don't need to peel back much of the Brown veneer to see a nasty element in government. 

My ambition is a state education system in which every child can succeed and can fulfil their potential. That requires a choice of excellent qualifications for all young people – whether their strengths are practical, academic or both; whether they want to go to university, get a job or an apprenticeship.

It means attracting the best graduates into teaching, backing strong headteachers to combine tough discipline with inspirational leadership, but being uncompromising when performance isn't good enough. And it demands, as our children's plan sets out, that schools work with parents and other professionals to tackle all barriers to children succeeding – inside and outside the school gates.

There is nothing in the last two paragraphs which Michael Gove wouldn't say.  But Balls starts his next para...

Over the past year, Gove has set himself against this vision of excellence for all. He dismisses our children's plan as a distraction. He opposes our radical reform to raise the education and training age to 18. And he refuses to match our guarantee this September of a place in school, college, training or an apprenticeship for every 16- and 17-year-old who wants to stay on.

But it's on qualifications and school improvement where his views are fully revealed. Now Gove has entrenched his opposition not just to diplomas but all vocational qualifications, saying they should be excluded from comparisons of schools' overall performance. I find this baffling. Time after time I've visited schools where heads have proudly shown me design and dance lessons and told me those subjects have inspired young people and improved their maths and English results too.

Instead of destroying the damaging old divide between "excellent" academic qualifications for some and "second class" for the rest, the Tories seem determined to turn back the clock. It is the wrong approach for the 21st century.

Ed Balls doesn't quite set out the full Tory position here.  Rather than completely excluding vocational qualifications "from comparisons of schools' overall performance," as Balls implies, the Tories want to separate a schools league table based on rigorous academic qualifications from another for vocational qualifications, which they feel are less rigourous (and, on that point, they have the support of Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools).  The argument is that, then, schools can't skew the league tables by putting more and more pupils on vocational courses. 

To my mind, this isn't dismissing vocational qualifications, but could rather improve the service on offer.  For starters, parents and pupils would be able to see clearly which are the good academic schools and which are the good vocational schools.  And schools which want to rise up the vocational league table would have to improve their performance in vocational subjects, just as schools which want to rise up the academic league table would have to improve their performance in academic subjects.  Makes sense to me.

Our diplomas, combining theoretical and applied learning, are our best chance to break this historic divide. They are widely backed by employers and universities and I'm determined to do everything we can to make them a success.

Our schools white paper set out how we will establish chains of schools so our best school leaders can help transform other schools. And our national challenge means there is now extra investment and an action plan for all schools where less than 30% of pupils get five GCSEs at A*-C grade, including English and maths. Over half of all secondary schools, over 1,600, were below this standard in 1997. That's now down to 440 – just one-in-seven schools – and we expect that to fall below 280 following today's results, on track to the national challenge target of zero by 2011.

Again, dimissing the "dumbing down" argument out of hand: of course more and more schools are reaching Balls's targets if exams are getting easier.  What Balls fails to admit is that, as I mentioned above, the UK's performance gap between state and private schools is among the very worst in the developed world.  There are few more damning indictments of the education system in this country.

Michael Gove says this approach is too "centralist". Instead of local government being the strategic commissioner for education in their area, his approach – the so-called "Swedish model" – is to sit back, tell parents who want better schools they must set them up themselves and wait for the market to decide.

Well, yes.  And as Sweden has shown, this approach improves standards - and tends to help the poorest areas most.

But this free-market approach is unfunded, unfair and unworkable. As the Observer reported this week a major study by the Swedish education agency shows that far from driving costs down, as the Tories have tried to claim, their system of independent school providers actually drove costs up. At a time when the Tories are already committed to cutting frontline spending on schools, their uncosted and expensive experiment would create thousands of extra surplus places and inevitably mean big cuts to existing schools as their smaller education budget is spread more thinly.

Again Balls veers closely to a straightforward "cuts vs investment" argument - although it does feature the twist that Labour spending is "investment," while Tory spending is "costs".  Thing is, no advocates of the Swedish schools programme deny his first point: that there will be short term costs in establishing the new system.  But he fails to mention the key point: that costs will come down in the medium term.  This is what reform does.

While parents want action to raise standards and guarantee choice, the Tories would leave underperforming schools, disproportionately in poorer areas, to decline and slowly wither away. As for their bold talk of 3,000 new schools, that would mean one new school opening every working day for 15 years. No wonder senior Tories are whispering that the policy is unworkable and unrealistic.

This might be my favourite passage, and a good Brownie for the collection.  Sure, 3,000 schools is ambitious.  But there are two points that need highlighting: a) Gove has only ever said that this "could" happen; it's not a formal target, and b) under the Swedish schools plan, a "new school" needn't mean a multi-£million complex, built from scratch - parents, charities and providers can quickly establish one in a few rooms of a former office block, if they so wish. 

Here's where it gets funny, though: Balls attacks the "unrealistic" aim of "one new school opening every working day for 15 years" - that's 250 a year.  Erm, let's compare that to the government's own Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, which Balls presides over.  According to schools minister Vernon Croaker, speaking a couple of months ago, BSF would mean "at least 200 BSF schools opening every year, and a further 300 a year will be under construction" from 2011 onwards.  And how long would that go on for?  Well, until 2023 - 14 years from now.  Classic.

By dressing up his policy in Swedish clothes in the hope it looks progressive and socially democratic, Michael Gove is trying to hide the true nature of his deeply conservative, unprogressive and laissez-faire approach to education.

Labour's education policies will rightly be scrutinised this week. But so too must Michael Gove's Conservative alternative.

Yep, completely agree - so it's a pity that Balls would rather caricature the "Conservative alternative".