Gove has established quite a reputation for turning all he touches, not to gold, but to dust. His Big Idea of course is to raise standards by spreading Academies all over the country and providing incentives for parents to set up Swedish-style so-called ‘free schools’. It’s true that UK educational standards are still disappointingly low compared with, say, France or Germany. Whilst 75% of pupils achieved 5+ GCSEs at A-C grades, this was inflated by the extensive inclusion of non-academic subjects like sports management or catering. If the latter are excluded, only 53% achieved these grades in English and Maths. However, when the Department of Education last year retrospectively applied the EBacc standard to the 2010 results, it was found that only 15.6% of pupils achieved the English Baccalaureate.
The EBacc is achieved by passes at C or better in English, Maths, two sciences, a language and a humanities subject. For comparison, the French Baccalaureate pass rate was 85.5% of thos entering. This indicates that, whilst we have been lulled by significant improvements in performance in much more modest levels of achievement, we are very far behind comparable European countries by the much more exacting standards that they lay down. The challenge to the English educational system is much more demanding than most people realise.
Whether Gove’s objectives bear any relation to this central task is quite another matter. The effect of Academies, whose attraction has been largely financial in the higher funding allocated, is already being blunted by the significant cutbacks in that funding announced last week. And since Gove intends to universalise Academies across the system, their initial comparative advantage will steadily diminish as more and more schools qualify for the same funding levels.
‘Free schools’ have been hailed as the opportunity for parents to break free and create their own excellence in their neighbourhood, on the Swedish model. But that model has been wholly misrepresented. What has driven this development in Sweden is not the search for higher standards at all (they were already very high), but rather antagonism to the growing number of immigrant children and the wish to keep ‘Swedish’ pupils separate. Gove’s misappropriation of this idea may well be really aimed at an equally indirect objective, namely that the vast majority of parents who may be attracted to this idea will almost certainly have neither the time, the skills or the inclination to do the job themselves. They will recruit private sector partners to do it for them. Just as most GPs will hire big healthcare multi-nationals to run their consortia privately, so Gove is using the Swedish device to privatise more and more of the education system. And the real ultimate goal of Tory educational policy – to re-introduce selection and middle class advantage – will advance several further notches.