Teachers cheer exit of Balls, but what will they make of Gove?

Teachers have cheered the exit of Ed Balls - one of the most unpopular education secretaries in recent history - but what will they make of Michael Gove?

Teachers may be cheering at the exit of Ed Balls, supposedly one of the most unpopular education secretaries in recent history (you only need take a glance at the TES web forums), but this sense of relief may not last long. Enter Michael Gove, a man who is already attracting the twitter hash-tag #leavethosekidsalone. Will teachers welcome Gove’s plans to shake up the education system, or will they be teaming up with those furious architects who want to “smack” him?

Education experts are still scratching their heads over the coalition agreement on schools. Earlier this year, Liberal Democrat education spokesman David Laws, who was widely tipped to get the education post in the coalition line-up, told the Times Educational Supplement that Gove “has some pretty eccentric ideas”.

The LibDems were vocal critics of the free schools policy, arguing that it would take away funding from other schools, with Nick Clegg only last week describing this policy as a “disaster for standards”.

Yet, this is precisely what the parties have agreed today:

We agree to promote the reform of schools in order to ensure:

• That new providers can enter the state school system in response to parental demand;

• That all schools have greater freedom over curriculum; and,

• That all schools are held properly accountable.

So, how will this coalition work?

Without doubt, there are several points of common agreement between the parties, most notably on the idea of a ‘pupil premium’, which will see extra funding attached to children from poorer backgrounds, following them as and when they move schools, aimed at cutting class sizes. This pledge featured in both their manifestos and the new cross-party agreement promises to “fund a significant premium for disadvantaged pupils from outside the schools budget by reductions in spending elsewhere”.

This might sound more radical than it really is. As BBC education correspondent Mike Baker writes:

“A premium for pupils from poor homes already exists in the current funding mechanism, even though it is not labelled as such.”

The real question is whether the new administration will fund it to the tune of £2.5 billion, which is the price that the Lib Dems quoted in their manifesto, promising that this would be ‘additional’ to existing budgets. Laws was deeply critical of the Tories’ plans for funding the premium, which The Institute For Fiscal Studies claimed would lead to 57 per cent of secondaries and a third of primaries receiving less money.

Laws had said:

“They would wreck opportunities for millions of children and would mean many schools have their budgets slashed.”

But there are key areas on which the parties have had the same message for some time. There’s a great appetite to axe the education quangos like the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) and Becta, which few people are that bothered about (although the Conservatives are hardly likely to sign up to the Lib Dems’ idea for an independent Education Standards Authority of respected education figures as they will dismiss it as another expensive quango).

More importantly, both parties are likely – for now – to reach a consensus on teaching and the curriculum. Both have called for an end to the micro-management of schools too, which will be of great relief to heads and teachers feeling the burden of being dictated to by the photocopiers of DCSF. But there is already anxiety about whether the politicians will keep their word. Can you remember a minister who could resist the urge to meddle?

Gove has already said that he wants a return to traditional values in the classroom, stating that he expects pupils to wear ties and stand when an adult enters the room. He would also advocate the presence of ex-soldiers in schools to impose discipline. He has taken a tougher line on teacher training by stating that teachers are not up-to-scratch unless they have at least a 2:2 degree , which Laws has scoffed at in the past.

Tories may also find that their new bedfellows express reservations about their plans to scrap the right of appeal over school exclusions, which Gove has admitted may leave him open to legal challenges on human rights grounds; equally, the Tories may go cold on the Lib Dems’ plans to have fewer exams and more teacher assessment.

So what are their differences?

Relations start to get even more complicated when you look at the agreement to press ahead with Swedish style free schools. For those hoping that the LibDems may have tempered Gove’s invitation to free-marketeers to profit from contracts in schools, forget it. Was it ever realistic to think that the Tories would sacrifice their most distinctive policy on public services?

As Gove himself has said:

“Allowing new schools to be created is the most revolutionary thing we’ve talked about. And what I’ve learnt is that revolutionary ideas attract the most attention.”

Tories want to allow parents and charities to set up their own schools free of local authority control (based on Swedish free schools and US charter schools), with an accelerated transition for both excellent schools and ‘failing’ schools. The Lib Dems, by contrast, campaigned for a greater role for local councils, with plans to turn Academies into ‘sponsor managed schools’, with closer ties to town halls.

Lib Dems will be concerned that these ‘boutique’ schools, the plans for which many experts have dubbed “barking“, will take money away from existing schools. They might ease their consciences with the argument that, freed from local authorities, schools will also be liberated from over-prescriptive politicians until they realise that they have left them wide open to profit-making businesses (some based abroad) could – a move that could be even more crushing and make a mockery of the bold vision to empower parents and local communities.

We already know, from David Laws’s comments, that education was one of the sticking points during the talks, and so would be of no surprise if the coalition’s agreement on education soon came unstuck. It should also be remembered that every policy will have to win the support of both parties, meaning that radical plans on both sides could end up as mere pipe-dreams and that the most dramatic effect of a coalition government on schools is years of cuts.

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