Michael Gove has spent a long time over the past few years brandishing his credentials as a zealous reformer, committed to freeing up schools and finally breaking the link between background and achievement. In these terms, his speech yesterday at the Conservative Party conference was a big disappointment.
Firstly, the policy content was based on his personal preferences for schools rather than the needs and choices of parents and pupils. He insisted that heads should focus on smart uniform, “set” by ability, have smaller classes and shun trendy ‘ fads’ in the curriculum. The problem is that in practice these things are neither intrinsically good nor bad. Setting works in some schools, for some pupils and not in others. Instead it is innovative school leaders, free to meet the needs of the pupils and parents in front of them that make the real difference. They do not need to be encumbered by the ‘one-size-fits-all’ proscriptions of the Secretary of State.
Secondly and more worryingly, Gove’s commitment to the most disadvantaged seems to have wavered. He bemoaned the high number of suspensions from schools and confirmed that he would change the rules to limit pupils’ right of appeal to permanent exclusion. This is short sighted. Given that excluded pupils are more likely to be from tough backgrounds, more likely to be illiterate and more likely to end up in prison, shouldn’t part of his agenda focus on keeping these kids in full time education? Shouldn’t some of the new schools he talks about be targeted at particularly challenging pupils? In reality, if schools are able to exclude pupils more easily, the discrepancy between educational outcomes at the top and bottom of society will only increase.
Our guest writer is Oli de Botton, a former assistant headteacher of a London secondary school
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