Fraser Nelson

The problem for Gove is that structures beget standards

The problem for Gove is that structures beget standards
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As you’d expect, Michael Gove’s White Paper is a feast of good sense. His speech in the Commons was powerful analysis, and his rebuttal of Labour MPs fun to watch. He’s all for making kids learn properly in primary school, retaining order in the classroom, making detention easier and better modern language teaching. Amen, amen, amen.

But, I fear that the White Paper will not be transformative, for a simple reason: the schools system is broken. It doesn’t respond to instructions. The Education Secretary does not run education - power rests with local authorities and the teaching unions. They’re not too keen on Gove, and have allies in parliament ready to insert the odd amendment into legislation. Top-down instructions won’t work. Only competition can deliver the transformation he seeks. That can only come from his ‘free schools’ programme.


When I tweeted as much this morning, Paul Goodman kindly picked it up and suggested I believe that free schools are everything, and the White Paper almost nothing. I wouldn’t put it quite like that. I would put it in the following words.


“Labour came to power in 1997 saying it was 'standards not structures' that mattered. In other words: forget about the complex, institutional structural reforms; what counts is what works, and by that we meant outputs. It was fine as a piece of rhetoric; and positively beneficial as a piece of politics. Unfortunately, it was bunkum as a piece of policy. The whole point is that structures beget standards.”

This is Tony Blair, in his memoirs (p265). Let us remember his Education White Paper in 2005 - making every state school an independent school within five years. Had he managed that, Gove would not have an agenda. Competition, where schools vie for the right to educate working-class pupils, is the surest remedy to the scandal of failing schools.


Now, you can have a list of what makes a strong school: hero headmasters, small class sizes, etc. But these cannot be created by bureaucratic edict. If schools are fighting for pupils in order to retain funding, then they will seek what parents want: talented teachers, good discipline and a robust curriculum. I differ from Gove in that I don’t think any minister should rule on what pupils learn at school. As George Tomlinson, Labour’s second education secretary, declared “the minister knows nowt about the curriculum”. In the last few weeks, Gove and Clegg have been discussing the relative merits of history v languages. It should be up to the parents. And diversity is the great goal of the ‘free schools’ agenda. In Sweden, some state schools major in Mandarin, while other are vocational; some are disciplinarian and others are liberal. Different pupils respond to different subjects and different approaches.


During the debates today, Gove kept coming back - again and again - to academies. I suspect even he knows that the White Paper may tweak the league tables, but will not transform education. As Sweden shows, where the new schools count for one in ten of secondaries, a tipping point is reached: true competition is delivered, and power flips to the parent.


Gove is having the fight of his life right now, and is undermanned and outgunned. A battle is on to yank the genie of school choice out of the bottle, and the unions are launching an energetic below-the-radar campaign to crush each individual school that either applies to set up as a free school, or seeks status. There is something wonderful in the fact that Andy Burnham’s state school in Liverpool is now reaching for those freedoms too.


Structures beget standards. Markets work because they are the most effective means of tapping parent power. The minister does indeed know nowt about the curriculum, and all the tweaking in the world will not save England’s schools. The problem is not the orders you give to the system: the problem is the system. His mission was clearly expressed to The Spectator two years ago. By the end of the first term,“in your neighbourhood, there will be a new school going out of its way to persuade you to send your children there. It will market itself on being able to generate better results, and it won’t cost you an extra penny.”

Structures beget standards. Gove’s White Paper will bring real improvements, but not the transformation he seeks.