Dennis Sewell

The Tories have one real success in government – and they’re scared to talk about it

Despite all the spin from the left, the school reforms have made a huge, positive difference. It’s time someone in power said so

The Tories have one real success in government – and they’re scared to talk about it
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The most significant achievement of this coalition, the only thing they really have any right to crow about, and possibly all that posterity will ever remember them for with anything approaching gratitude, will not be the ‘long-term economic plan’ they never cease to talk up, but the school reforms that the Conservatives seem almost to want to deny as the general election approaches.

This reticence is a mistake. With many voters grown so cynical about mainstream politics that they’re ready to throw in their lot with any passing populist chancer, here is a rare success story that needs shouting from the rooftops. It’s a story about how a cabinet minister took a principled stand against vested interests, delivered in government what he’d promised in opposition, and made a dramatic and sustained difference to a generation of young people, giving them the chance to become the authors of their own life stories.

It is easy to forget how horribly bad so many schools were before Michael Gove became education secretary and it can be surprising — given the relentless badmouthing he had to endure from the teaching profession — how much better those same schools became before Gove was bundled out of his job in last year’s reshuffle.

This week the Commons Education Committee published a report on academies and free schools, two of the government’s flagship policies. The scale and pace of change has been astonishing. Actually it was Labour that invented academies (schools that are independent of local authorities and funded directly by government) back in 2002, and at the initiative of Lord -Adonis just over 200 of them were established in England by the last general election. Now there are 4,344, including around two thirds of all secondary schools. In the same four and a half years, this government has opened 252 free schools. It has a further 111 in the pipeline. These are a special kind of academy opened by groups of parents, by teachers or by charities in response to local demand for a particular kind of school or style of teaching that was not being supplied.

Of course, structures are just structures. You do not change the culture of a school just by adding the word ‘academy’ to its name, nor do you necessarily improve teaching by funding a school from Whitehall and cutting out the local council. But the greater autonomy enjoyed by academies and free schools — being free to innovate, not being bound to follow the national curriculum, being able to hire their own staff directly and negotiate their own terms and conditions — has made a huge difference, allowing head teachers to make swift and radical changes without being constrained by petti-fogging bureaucracy or having to square union representatives before getting anything done. It has allowed new organisations such as Ark and the Harris Federation to create centres of excellence that can leave the fee-charging independent sector open-mouthed in admiration. For many schools all across England, it’s been like moving from the organisational culture of a 1970s-style nationalised industry to that of a 21st--century tech start-up: from nothing is possible to everything is possible.

Although the benefits of autonomy are well attested by organisations such as the OECD, they are hard to quantify. Or, at least, they are hard for the unimaginative types who populate so many of our university education research departments to quantify. Tens of millions of pounds are wasted each year on education research that has little or no value. Much of it is jargon-ridden Marxist drivel, critical of the alleged ‘market-isation’ of education worldwide. Much of the rest of it is just plain junk social science, insufficiently rigorous and with results that are rarely replicated. Charting the impact of academies and free schools hasn’t been a big priority for our academics, thus the Education Committee’s report had to acknowledge that ‘current evidence does not allow us to draw conclusions on whether academies in themselves are a positive force for change’. This allowed the Guardian to spin the report as saying that ‘Policies for improving schools had “no effect”, finds parliamentary enquiry’, the BBC to follow sheep-like down the same path with ‘no proof academies raise standards, say MPs’ and Labour’s Tristram Hunt outrageously to claim that the committee had delivered a ‘damning verdict’ on the government’s school improvement policy.

In fact, what the committee concluded was that while there wasn’t sufficient data on academy performance and it was too soon to draw meaningful conclusions from free schools that have only been open a short time, ‘What can be said is that, however measured, the overall state of schools has improved during the course of the academisation programme.’

And that is the key point. The beneficial effects of the Gove reforms are not confined to the most obvious beneficiaries — the academies and free schools themselves. The rising tide has lifted all boats, including those still under local authority control. ‘The competitive effect upon the maintained sector of the academy model,’ the report ventures, ‘may have incentivised local authorities to develop speedier and more effective intervention in their underperforming schools.’

What’s more, this ‘competitive effect’ may be only half the story. Large numbers of maintained schools (those funded through local councils) have improved phenomenally since 2010, often as a result of learning what is, in fact, possible: how good they can be. For years many of these schools languished in the educational equivalent of total squalor. They were resistant to every top-down initiative and directive that Labour education secretaries from David Blunkett to Ed Balls showered upon them. They could not or would not improve. In many cases this poverty of ambition and aspiration was mirrored in the low expectations staff had of their students. Particularly if those students came from economically deprived backgrounds or ethnic minorities, staff would tend to write them off at an early age. Certainly they wouldn’t imagine that people from challenging backgrounds might have any use for history or modern languages, let alone classics. The idea that any of them would succeed in winning a place at a Russell Group university would have been far-fetched.

What the Gove reforms — not just the structural ones, but changes to curriculum, exams, standards of behaviour, all working together — achieved was a change of collective mindset, a system-wide realisation that a culture of low expectations was self-fulfilling, and that a culture of high expectations could be too. The example of high ambitions, pioneered in the new academies, proved as potent, perhaps more potent than simple ‘competitive’ effects in catalysing change. Academies such as Mossbourne in Hackney, where Ofsted boss Sir Michael Wilshaw used to be headmaster, showed that even schools in the poorest areas, with very high numbers of ethnic minority pupils, many with English as a second language, could nevertheless perform academically at the highest level, obtaining stunning GCSE results and sending significant numbers of students to Cambridge. That was a lesson for everybody, everywhere.

We can be sure that between now and May there will be an endless barrage of lies and disinformation aimed at belittling this government’s achievements in improving schools. The real danger is not that these arguments will be persuasive, but that they will not be rebutted. It sometimes seems as if the government has lost faith in its own successful reforms. Where Tristram Hunt was poised ready to pounce, misrepresenting the committee’s report the moment it was published (in fact, he was at it the day before it was published!), Nicky Morgan has been recorded as absent once again. It may be that the new Education Secretary has orders from No. 10 to do little and say nothing beyond making emollient noises about teacher workload. If so, this is an opportunity missed. No Labour-supporting teacher (or SWP-supporting teacher, for that matter — and there are plenty of those) will be persuaded to vote Conservative by Nicky Morgan avoiding controversy. However, many votes could be lost by the Conservatives if they neglect to accentuate their biggest positive. If Nicky Morgan cannot defend academies and free schools, then let Michael Gove off his leash: we know he can.

‘Now does anyone here speak doctor?’