by David Butler
“Woo! Balrog’s dead” – Phil Smith, upon the downfall of Malcolm Tucker, The Thick Of It
Cheers rang out in classrooms across England. The leaders of the NUT and NASUWT punched the air. The great phantom is finally vanquished. The revolution is over. Except, their celebrations are hollow and wasted. For there will be no return to the status quo ante. Gove’s school structure reforms are not going anywhere
In policy-making terms, institutions matter. Institutions set the rules of the game; they mediate and seek to balance powers through norms and rules. In the case of education, this means moderating the competing demands of parents, teachers, business, the wider community and the state (on behalf of the taxpayer/general citizenry). Through building institutions, politicians can embed the aims and principles they are seeking to achieve and extend.
The institutional analysis can help explore Gove’s expansion of academies and creation of free schools. His reforms represent the culmination of a thirty-year project (of both centre-left and centre-right) to create, mould and embed a new institution, namely the independent state-funded school. Baker’s City Technology Colleges evolved into Adonis’s City Academies, which in turn provided the foundations for Govian Free Schools (and the Twigg-Hunt proposed Parent-Led Academies).
School autonomy, the main feature of the new institution, involves greater freedom over the curriculum (and its delivery), ability to set their own pay and conditions for staff, and control over school day and school term lengths. This autonomy is aimed at raising standards and extending parental choice (the principles capture by the institution).
Without the careful, painstaking work of Baker and Adonis, it is unlikely that Gove would have been able to proceed with pace that he did. Yet, Gove took the school autonomy project to a place far beyond where either Baker or Adonis could have imagined (or necessarily desired). He rapidly expanded the ability of schools to convert to academy status, and legislated for Free Schools within three months of becoming Education Secretary. He seized the moment ruthlessly. These institutions now dominate the secondary education landscape. Around 55% of secondary schools in England are now academies (and that is without including the 170 or so free schools open as of January 2014).
It is hard to imagine a future where a Government has the desire, political capital or zeal to end the existence of this institution. A Party may tweak the model to encourage more ideologically acceptable providers, look to create institutions to ameliorate downsides to the model (like Labour’s proposed School Commissioners), or even attempt to stop new academies and free schools from opening. However, it is unlikely that they would close existing good academies or free schools, a guaranteed voter loser.
It is worth highlighting that this institution has changed the Tory Party too. As Andrew Old points out, Gove, through pursing academies and free schools, has wedded the Tories to the comprehensive principle and to a policy of improving all schools, and away from the mythic social mobility of the grammar schools.
As he settles into Number 12 Downing Street and thinks about how to deal with various Tory backwoodsmen, Gove may well reflect that he hasn’t fully achieved his education policy goals. But, he has remoulded the structure of secondary schools in England, something that will live on far beyond his ministerial career. The independent, state-funded school is here to stay.
David Butler is a Labour activist