Schools out – for ever
Anyone who has recently bought a house next to a good school — they typically command a £20,000 premium — has good reason to loathe Michael Gove. The Education Secretary may well be about to bring the whole catchment area game to an end. Quietly, but at a surprising rate, schools are fleeing the control of local councils and becoming academies: independent, but within the state sector. What was a trickle under the Labour years is turning into a flood. This time last year, just one in 16 state secondaries had this ‘academy’ status. Now, it is one in eight. By Christmas, it should be one in four. And by the next election, most state secondary schools in Britain — about 1,600 — should be free to run their own affairs.
Had Gove suggested such an expansion before the election, he would have been laughed at. The last time the Conservatives sought to give state schools independence was under Kenneth Baker; just 50 took up his offer in three years. What a difference good legislation makes. Gove spent years preparing his Academies Act, calling in an external team of lawyers to make it watertight. At first, the teaching unions sought to intimidate would-be academies, bombarding head teachers with Freedom of Information Act requests and threats of judicial reviews. But now the unions have too many targets. Gove has approved 357 schools, with 470 applications being processed.
This matters because, in Britain, the fastest way to improve a school is to liberate it from the control of incompetent local authorities. It was demonstrated by Labour’s city academy project. Whenever a state school was taken over by an independent provider — such as the Harris Federation or Absolute Return for Kids — its results would skyrocket. If schools are given the powers to set the curriculum, to pay teachers what they like and, yes, to sack whom they like, then the results can be extraordinary. Britain’s schools have the talent, resources and the determination. They just need the freedom.
This progress is not Gove’s doing: he simply made the offer of independence.Teachers are driving the change, and the trajectory of reform is fuelled by their energy. With local authorities squeezed out of the picture, priorities change. More money can be spent on tuition and less on HD-ready whiteboards. As money follows the pupils, the interests of the school are realigned to those of the pupil. The unions, managers, bureaucracies and local education authorities find they are surplus to requirements.
A snowball effect is already emerging. The first, and hardest, steps for academies were taken under Labour by Tony Blair and the architect of city academies, Lord Adon
In some areas, such as the London Borough of Southwark, more schools are academies than not is. But Lord Adonis had to fight, sometimes in the High Court, for each school because the approval process was so slow under the Labour legislation. Now that approval is almost automatic, in some areas, such as the London Borough of Southwark, more schools are independent academies than not. School chains are emerging as successful secondaries seek to take over failing primaries. Thus competent school management spreads. And sink schools slide towards deserved extinction.
Gove should now build on his success.The state schools converted into independent academies need to be joined by new schools, adding capacity to the system. The Spectator’s Toby Young has been a pioneer with his West London Free School, which opens its doors in September. But as those who follow his column know, the bureaucratic obstacles to such providers remain formidably high. In ruling that schools should not be able to run at a profit, Gove turned down the chance to foster a British education industry. There is still time to change his mind, and coax our world-leading private schools into a new state education market.As the Swedish experience shows, the profit motive is the surest guarantee that successful schools expand at the fastest possible rate, reaching the neighbourhoods which need them most.
Worryingly, there is still little sign of progress on planning reform. This part is crucial. The Swedish system only succeeded because planning permission was granted by a central licensing body. Councils will use any excuse to blackball a new, rival school. Planning is split between too many government departments, so No. 10 must use its authority to demand that spurious objections are blocked. The need to provide our children with better schools is little short of a national emergency. It should trump other considerations.
Finally, the lawsuits. When Gordon Brown was retreating, he cleverly transferred power towards the left-leaning judiciary, disguising this machinery under names like the Equalities Act. As a result, almost everything this government does, from the budget downwards, can be subject to a judicial review. The teaching unions know that, if Gove’s trajectory continues, they will have lost control of English state education within four years. They will sue, having been given the power to do so by the last Labour government.
David Cameron is on the cusp of making history. He could become the Prime Minister who ended the national scandal of sink schools, and reversed a decline which started with Crosland’s war on grammars in 1965. In politics, success, as well as failure, can be unforeseen. But when success appears, it must be reinforced and encouraged.
the spectator | 9 April 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk