A series of posts about the never-ending story of progressive Conservative change, which will contrast with the events of this week’s Labour Party conference.
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Labour’s reactionary education proposals, if you probe them, are fearful of Michael Gove’s progressive schools’ settlement – so much so that they are wary of assaulting them head-on. Angela Rayner’s speech to the party’s conference yesterday swerved round the twin pillars of the former Education Secretary’s reforms: new schools and curriculum changes.
Instead, she targeted a creation of Ken Clarke’s era as Education Secretary (Ofsted, which Labour would abolish without providing a replacement), and endorsed a signature policy of the Hard Left: stealing private property. (The party voted for state control of “endowments, investments and properties held by private schools”.)
But Rayner steered clear of a full-frontal attack on the school and exam structures that Gove put in place. Readers will remember that David Cameron moved his protege from Education Secretary to Chief Whip because of the latter’s apparent unpopularity with voters. The Shadow Education Secretary’s reluctance to confront Gove’s legacy suggests that it is more popular than many claimed while he was creating it.
Rayner’s speech reheated Labour’s plan for a “National Education Service” – a phrase designed to draw a comparison with the National Health Service. The idea is worth mulling, because her address was a bit like a speech on healthcare that has plenty to say about patients, but somehow fails to mention treatments.
The Shadow Education Secretary referred to only one aspect of learning: sex and relationships education. Gove, by contrast, put it at the heart of what he was trying to do. The core of his reforms was the belief that every child should be introduced to “the best which has been thought and said”. No boy or girl should be robbed of the chance to gain a first-rate education by “the soft bigotry of low expectations”, however deprived their circumstances.
On this site five years ago, John Bald sketched out those twin pillars – exam and curriculum reform, plus free schools and academies. The latter were a Blair-era construct which in turn looked back to the grant-maintained schools of the Thatcher era.
Gove was the first senior politician of the Cameron era to grasp that reform could not simply be imposed from the top down. Phonics and curriculum reform and the exam board rationalisation must march hand-in-hand with pressure from parents and, in some cases, heads and other teachers. Hence the setting-up of the New Schools Network.
The best part of ten years on from Gove’s appointment, some seven in ten secondary schools in England are now academies, and there are the best part of 500 free schools. This is major structural change: no wonder Bald called Gove “the most important Secretary of State since Butler”.
Have the reforms worked? In his memoir, Cameron says that that there are now 1.4 million pupils in “good” or “outstanding” schools, and makes much of school-led teacher training. (“The number of Oxbridge graduates teaching in state schools has doubled.”) But assessing the effects of educational change is a slow-moving business – not to be reliably assessed until an entire generation of children have passed from school into adulthood.
What we do know is that the three-yearly PISA years, which compare education in different countries, last showed the UK in broadly the same position as previously. But the differences between results where the Gove reforms were beginning to kick in and those where they weren’t even being tried are suggestive.
For while England effectively held its position, Scottish schools obtained their worst ranking ever while Wales’ results were even worse. In this light, Gove’s shake-up in England looks a good deal more effective than the SNP’s in Scotland, which deliberately departed from the traditional model. It can also be argued that holding one’s position is increasingly hard, given the gradual improvement of literacy and education worldwide.
Some on the Right distrusted Gove for his reluctance to push grammar schools – one that Theresa May, in her Mark One incarnation with Nick Timothy in place, didn’t share. There is certainly room for more local autonomy in the system, and this points towards more selection: Respublica wants an experiment in especially deprived areas.
But Gove was right to see that the age of national selection at eleven has passed, and to concentrate on seeking to raise attainment, and to do so in ways most likely to cut through to the average pupil (and parent). The most glorious feature of the Gove period was his enthusiasm for learning for its own sake: consider, for example, his legendary intervention in support of studying French lesbian poetry.
A mention too in dispatches, and more, for Nick Gibb, who has served as Schools Ministers under five Secretaries of State, including Gove himself. Gibb has been at the heart of much of the curriculum reform, and has seen fashions for other changes come and go.
The first name on our list of progressive Tories yesterday was Lord Shaftesbury and the last was Sajid Javid. The gap between their work in politics is roughly 150 years. ConservativeHome might have opened this series with the first – or with Disraeli, who first got modernising Conservative reform going in the age of mass democracy. We will return to him in due course.
But it’s topical to start today with the greatest reforming Minister of the modern Tory era, given Labour’s roundabout plan to collapse his legacy. And to end by noting that his biggest achievement in government was ground out when he was going against the grain of lobby groups, not with it; when he was flying in the face of the conventional wisdom, not bowing to it, however gracefully.