Unqualified headteachers? Welcome to Michael Gove’s educational dystopia . .

Pimlico Primary, a new free school in London, made the news this week for hiring a  27 year old as the head teacher ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-22016045 ).  27 does seem a rather young age to take responsibility for a school, although an outstanding candidate with 5 years of experience in the classroom and as a deputy head could take the role and make a success of it.  Except this appointee has none of those things. Anneliese Briggs does not have a teaching qualification. Yes, that’s right, a school is hiring a headteacher who is not really  a teacher.

How in the name of feck did we get to this sorry state of affairs? I have nothing against Ms Briggs personally, and I think she is probably a victim in all of this caught up as she is in the ideological blitzkreig which Michael Gove is waging against state education.

Apparently what makes Ms Briggs suitable to be the leader of a state funded school (so we pay her salary), is her experience with the ‘cultural literacy curriculum’ of E. D.  Hirsch. Hirsch’s emphasis on the systematic teaching of facts and his creation of a curriculum which appears to follow a logical order has been the doyen of Gove’s eye for many years now, offering as it does a veneer of theoretical credibility to his curriculum reforms which are leading to a bloated and fact-heavy curriculum.  I too have experience of the concept of cultural literacy as a curriculum, and cutting the chase I can let you have my expertise for free right now, the cultural literacy curriculum is a load of old tripe.

Briggs was no doubt involved in Civitas’s ‘anglicisation of E. D. Hirsch’s curriculum ( http://www.coreknowledge.org.uk/coreknowledge.php ).  Maybe she even helped draw the wonderful diagram below, with its *amazing* insights into how a school curriculum is not just about core knowledge, but also about the school’s ethos and values.  Not that the diagram is wrong or anything, it’s just that it’s so glib and patronising.  The whole thing reeks of posh kids holed up in a London office thinking they have all the answers to education because they can draw a pretty diagram using PowerPoint.

It’s hard to know where to start with the debunking of the snake oil drenched chicanery of ‘core knowledge’, there’s just so much to go at.  But how about you just pause reading and quickly outline the story of Gawain and the Green Knight (from the top of your head, no Googling it). I don’t want you to quote from the original, just tell what the story is, and what it’s meaning is within Christian thought.

No doubt you rattled that off easily, but if you had trouble, then bear in mind that Civitas recommends that Year 5 children are familiar with the legend of Gawain and the Green Knight.  And if you teach in a school using the core knowledge sequence then you can’t miss this out, as the theoretical foundation of cultural literacy is that it is impossible to acquire later knowledge unless each interim step has been achieved. So miss out Gawain and his jolly green mate, and you’re stuffed when it comes to year 6 and you have to learn about ‘The legend of Culhywch and Owen’.. it will make absolutely no sense whatever to you. *

Gove, and his previous school minister Nick  Gibb have been obsessed with curriculum reform, because the curriculum seems, to the education outsider, the one thing you can grab hold of in education and change to impose your will on schools and bring the unruly teaching profession to heel.  But if  you’ve worked in education for even a short time (ie longer than Ms Briggs), you will soon learn that the curriculum is only part of the complex picture of education. Driving up standards and the quality of learning is not all about changing the curriculum, especially if your conception of the curriculum is a list of stuff to be taught and learned, rather than a more progressive view of the curriculum which is rooted in what we know about learning and child development.  Andrew Pollard writing of the pernicious influence of Hirsch’s ideas on the new national curriculum pointed out that  the new curriculum ‘neglects the way children learn’ ( http://www.ioe.ac.uk/64559.html ), but his views were ignored by Gove. Pollard has decades of experience in education and published his first book on primary schooling in 1985. If he was 27, had spent a few years knocking around in a think tank and spent a few hours once in a school, maybe he would have been listened to.

This whole story summarises what Gove is doing to UK state education.  He is using his pet free school project to create chaos and uncertainty, and undermine the professionalism of teachers in the most cynical of ways.  No doubt, Pimlico Primary will have lots of help from the DfE once opened (although we probably will never know how much as previous FOIs to determine levels of spending on free schools have been ignored or bypassed), so it will be a success and Gove can confidently declare that not only teachers not need to be qualified, but head teachers don’t need to be either.  And so the assault on state schools will continue as more are driven into the academy chains of the Tory backers and primed for profit making.

Welcome to the topsy turvy world of Michael Gove’s education dystopia, a nightmare from which we may never awaken.

* Just for the record I had to study Gawain and the Green Knight at university, but I never really got on with it, so I missed the lectures and tutorials and in the exam answered on Chaucer instead. I still have no idea what Gawain and the Green Knight is about, I know a Knight is involved and he is green, but my ‘core knowledge’ fizzes to a halt then. Thank god cultural literacy was not invented when I was a student or would have been stuffed for any literature written after 1370 which would have had serious ramifications for my degree .

It wasn’t so I graduated with a 1st.

Free Schools? Emperor’s New Clothes!

Just because we are Swedish, it doesn't mean we have all the answers

One of the Coalition’s flagship education policies is free schools. Free schools are free from local authority control and derive their funding direct from the Department for Education. They can be set up by any group including parents, as long as they meet the approval of the Secretary of State.  They have been billed as being set up in response to ‘what local people say they want and need in order to improve education for the children in their community’.  They are therefore seen as the epitome of localism, the very essence of local people being empowered to bring about positive change by wresting control from the clammy hand of the local authority and creating schools which really make a difference.  Michael Gove has championed this policy, and despite desultory numbers of applications, still pushes ahead with this strategy.

Gove cites two countries, the US and Sweden, as influencing his Free Schools policy.  The US have charter schools and Sweden has free schools which are run by the private sector for profit. This article focuses on the Swedish free schools.

I was lucky enough to spend some time with Susanne Wiborg from the Institute of Education recently, who is an expert in comparative and international education and has written a report on the Swedish free school model.  Our conversation, and my subsequent reading of some of her work illustrated some very telling points about how the debate (or rather lack of it), has unfolded in this country, and I would like to share some of this here.

I tend to believe people when they talk to me, even politicians, even Michael Gove.  If someone tells me something is good, I tend to believe them because why would they lie to me? So people could tell me Ikea does great stuff for your house, particularly if you are on a budget, and I get down to the store and find this to be true (and knock myself out with a plate of meatballs to boot).  So when Gove started lauding the benefits of the free schools in Sweden I just assumed they were a great success and they had a real coverage and impact, a little like Ikea. The lazy part of my brain ran a nice little riff which went:

‘the Swedes are logical and good at design, they are unsentimental but also have a kind of flinty soul which redeems them, they can take something boring like buying stuff for your house and turn it into a great day out for the family with cheap food; when they turn that kind of intelligence to education they are bound to do something equally transformative, the Tories must have heard of this, fully researched it, and brought the policy back to England for the benefit of all’

It turns out the reality is a great deal different. Firstly Swedish Free Schools are a lot rarer than I had thought. Here are the facts:

In 1991, there were a little over 60 non-public schools in the country and, by 2009/2010, their numbers had reached 709 […] The number of pupils in free schools has increased from 20,247 pupils in 1995/96 to 95,948 pupils in 2009/10.

So there are free schools in Sweden, but they hardly outnumber the public schools, and Susanne explained that when Free Schools were first being brought up as a policy she was surprised as she did not see this as a particularly important feature of the Swedish education system.

Secondly I believed that the Swedish public were in favour of free schools, surely this wonderful new way of providing education was going to capture the hearts and minds of the public and parents. Wrong again! The report explains that free schools have met ‘profound criticism’ and the public seem to have been most exercised by the idea of shares, money and profit rather than any innovative forms of education the schools are providing.  Now the UK model has taken profit out of the system, but the report found little or nothing to suggest that these schools, once free of central or local control, actually did anything meaningful with that freedom.  Free sounds such a good word, who wouldn’t want to be ‘free’, but without substantial and sustained educational innovation, this freedom means nothing.  The Free schools didn’t use their freedom to reinvent education in the same way as Ikea reinvented furniture, they simply set up another beige version of MFI, eroded the workers’ pay and conditions, and were constantly looking over their shoulder at the balance sheet to make sure they made a profit rather than doing anything radical to improve the way they delivered education.

My final belief, soon to go the way of the other two as the hard facts loomed into picture, was that the free schools must have better results and achievement than the public schools. Surely this is where the emperor’s real clothes would shine.  After all, Michael Gove never gives any speech without waving PISA data around like a talisman and berating the English system for falling so far behind international standards. Surely the Swedish free schools, whatever else they were doing, showed much much better results than their public school rivals.  The reality is not the case, based on summaries of Swedish research comparing free schools and public schools. Some studies found no differences at all,  one study did find a short term and small improvement in results in free schools, but:

…the short-term effect is too small to yield any long-term positive effects for young people. In other words, the advantage that children schooled in areas with free schools have by the age of 16 is not translated into greater achievements later in life as they score no better in the final exams in upper secondary education at the age of 18/19. They are also no more likely to participate in higher education than those who were schooled in areas without free schools. The children from highly educated families gain mostly from education in free schools, but the impact on families and immigrants who had received a low level of education is hardly visible. (Wiborg, 2010, p. 14)

“Damn!”, I muttered, wrong 3 times; made a fool of 3 times by my belief that Gove had done his homework (in Latin) and the Swedish Free schools were a) widespread b) popular c) had great results.  Bear in mind the final part of the quotation above which shows there is no visible impact for children of parents with low levels of education or immigrants, and then read these words from a Michael Gove Speech:

In every school year there are 600,000 children. The very poorest are those eligible for free school meals – 80,000 in every year. And out of those 80,000 how many do you think make it to the best universities? Just 45.  More children from one public school – Westminster – make it to the top universities than the entire population of poor boys and girls on this benefit. (Gove, 2010)

I end this post with one simple conclusion. This is an emperor without any clothes, an emperor so naked he would shiver as the cold wind blew from the Thames and tickled his nether regions as he paraded on Parliament Square. Even if we implemented the Swedish free school system on the kind of scale needed to make a difference (say around 60,000 students in free schools in every school year, 10% of the total), Gove’s aim of increasing the intake of Free School Meals students to the top universities would not be met. The importing of the free schools idea from Sweden clearly has nothing to do with proven success in raising educational outcomes and very few commentators to date have picked up on this simple but crucial fact.

The English free school policy is pure ideology on Gove’s part driven by a desire to break the teaching unions and national pay and standards for teachers.  Gove has by now realised that free schools are going to be so rare that they won’t help him achieve this goal. Hence the recent shift to accelerate the academisation of English education.


Gove, M. (2010) Speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, 5th October 2010. [online] Available at: http://www.epolitix.com/latestnews/article-detail/newsarticle/speech-in-full-michael-gove/. Date accessed: 17th June 2011.

Wiborg, S (2010) Swedish Free Schools: Do they work? published by the Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies at: http://www.llakes.org

Gove and the Wild West of Education Policy

I shoot from the hip, any LA who crosses me is for it!

Michael Gove appears to love getting into trouble. Shortly after becoming Secretary of State for education he was in the House of Commons taking his ‘decisive’ axe to the BSF programme and looking every inch like the decisive sharpshooter, confident in his own abilities and assured his enemies would soon be lying at this feet.  He was back in the house of commons not long after looking less like a sharpshooter and more like the clerk of a parish council suffering from a nervous breakdown as his paperwork gets out of hand. The BSF saga rolled on until we finally had a list of local authorities which were going to have their programmes axed, and those who could go ahead. This debacle ended up in the courts, much to the delight, I imagine of the barristers on both sides who were in for a nice earner.

Gove’s latest assay into the courts relates to the funding of his flagship academies programme. You will remember he took the New Labour idea of allowing a school to relieve itself of the command of the local authority and go it alone, but applied it to successful schools whereas labour had only allowed failing schools to do this.  Many right wing commentators are calling the ‘academisation’ programme one of the unchampioned triumphs of the first year of the coalition and proof that Gove is indeed a hero.  But the academy bill was forced through parliament using procedures usually reserved for anti-terrorism laws. Why the rush, Michael, we might ask? And why the abuse of democracy in borrowing emergency powers wholly unsuited to deciding education matters to shoehorn the bill in before the summer 2010 recess?  If the academisation programme is the right policy for English schools, then surely it would stand up to proper scrutiny in the house and a full debate could be held. After all the media lately are full of the government’s backtracking over NHS reforms where serious checks to the over zealous free market reforms of Lansley have been scuppered by the operation of the democratic process.  Gove seems immune to verbs such as ‘consult, listen or debate’ and either he ignores the advice of mandarins within the department who advise him of legal challenges (they must have knowledge when they are leaving themselves open to this), or he runs the department in such a way that these opinions don’t get voiced.  He clearly sees himself as the true wild west hero, solely self reliant and not beholden to the law.

So Gove will be back in court soon, or at least his department will. The charge from local authorities is that the cut to their grant created by schools converting to academies has been miscalculated. Some are arguing that they have had the full costs of the setting up of the academy deducted from the monies they receive from central government, when it is clear that the cut should only account for services which the LA no longer needs to provide to schools which have become academies.  The barristers will once again be celebrating some easy work and high fees. after all, that 3rd holiday home is not going to pay for itself. But this is public money being wasted here (on both the part of the local authorities and central government), and the prospect of there being some kind of consensus amongst the right and the centrist tendency about education reform is all but dead. Gove wants a gunfight it seems.

And what of our Wild West hero, the sharpshooting man who knows his own mind and who is determined to shape the territory of education in his ideological image. Well he rides on, but with pension battles with teachers around the corner to add to all of this, he best clean his gun and sharpen his spurs, there is trouble ahead.