Gove blows trumpet for his model of school improvement but sounds duff notes

Janet Downs's picture
The best model for school improvement is based on teachers supporting each other, Michael Gove tells the Education Committee. And he is right. However, his efforts to show that his policies, especially academy conversion, are “more powerful than the levers available to previous Governments” fail to realise that most of the initiatives he praises began before 2010.

Mr Gove’s first duff note is that converter academies are committed to supporting weaker schools. It’s true that schools say during the conversion process that they will offer such support but they don’t put this commitment into action – only 3% of converters are helping other schools.

Undeterred, Mr Gove gives examples - he even changes the names of some schools so there’s no doubt that these praised institutions are academies. The Crypt School, Gloucester, becomes The Crypt Academy and is praised for links with Beech Green Primary. But relations with primary schools were established before conversion – Crypt’s 2008 Ofsted praises them - and Beech Green is part of Gloucester Schools’ Partnership, a head teacher-led programme which began in 2008 as an offshoot of an Education Achievement Zone initiative established in 1999. Rugby High School, a converter academy, is commended for its work in primary schools but the school’s 2006 Ofsted shows that mentoring was already present. Mr Gove writes how Nene Park Academy was turned round through its sponsorship with Swaveley (sic) Academy – but Nene Park’s predecessor school, Orton Longueville, had been supported by Swavesey Village College under a National Support School Contract since 1 April 2010 when Swavesey was a foundation school.

Mr Gove praises other initiatives which involve peer-to-peer support – National Leaders of Education programme (started 2007) and his own flagship programme, Teaching Schools. But he didn’t mention the School Improvement Partner programme which began in 2005 nor Local Leaders of Education (LLE), another pre-Coalition initiative, which produced 2,000 leaders committed to supporting weaker schools. Presumably Mr Gove didn’t want to mention successful programmes which involved local authorities (LAs) because he is keen to portray LAs as controlling bureaucracies so he can more easily dismantle the buffer between centralised control and local schools.

According to the Government, schools will only improve through its initiatives and teachers are now better able to cooperate than at any previous time. But this attitude shows an arrogant disdain for what teachers have been doing for years with the support of, among others, local authorities, subject organisations and government initiatives.

Government strategies will reduce cooperation not make it more likely. Head teacher leaders warned in May 2011 that the Teaching Schools initiative would flop if insufficiently funded. The Association of Directors of Children's Services warned that the Government’s insistence that academies are only supported by academies will “prevent some effective school-to-school support". Restricting the number of local leaders means a successful LLE scheme can grow no further. And the Government’s belief in market forces whereby schools are in competition with each other will prevent, not encourage, cooperation between schools.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Tim Bidie's picture
Sat, 02/06/2012 - 07:37

I'm not too clear exactly what it is that the poster wants; presumably just about anything provided that it is not being proposed by Mr Gove.

Other posters on this forum have been shouting from the rooftops about the merits of the Finnish statist educational model.

Here we have our own government, with cross party support, backing, in spades, a labour initiated educational reform that embraces one of the basic tenets of the Finnish educational system.

'School principals have become the key facilitators of professional development of their teaching staff and lateral cooperation with other schools. It is commonly recognized among school principals in Finland that promotion of cooperation rather than between school competition has been the key strategy in reaching out for better schools.’

Secondary school curriculum reform in the mid-1990s revealed that teachers with high professional competency are quite motivated and easy to engage in school development processes in their own schools as well as in national and international projects (Sahlberg 2007). They also tend to work just as seriously at developing their own personal professional knowledge and skills.

Strengthened teacher and principal professionalism gradually shifted the authority and locus of control from central administration to schools.

Yet, in Britain, this is, apparently, a duff note and we just need to keep on with 'what teachers have been doing for years with the support of, among others, local authorities, subject organisations and government initiatives.'

We all know what the OECD had to say about that approach, 1997-2010.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 02/06/2012 - 10:53

Tim - I am surprised you thought the peer-to-peer support was a "duff note" when my post clearly states that Mr Gove is right to say the best model for school improvement is based on teachers supporting each other.

Perhaps I was too subtle - Mr Gove is implying that he is mainly responsible for between-school support which has been going on for years. He is claiming the merit - blowing his own trumpet. That is the "duff note".

Allan Beavis's picture
Sat, 02/06/2012 - 11:30

One of the most deplorable consequences of the current government's approach to schools is how their "reforms" have encouraged competition between schools, notably between Academies/Free Schools and maintained schools. Gove himself has fanned the flames by forcing his favoured schools to opt out of local authority stewardship and for the DfE to virtually ignore the existence of maintained schools on its website or in public pronouncements. This culture of competition is deliberate, another example of the the unfettered free market ideology to which the Tories subscribe wholeheartedly.

Pasi Sahlberg, right at the beginning of the talk at the House of Commons, contrasted Finland's culture of inter-school co-operation, supported by a middle tier of local government supervision with the competitive nature of schools under Gove and it was clear that he did not think competition was healthy.

Tim Bidie is of course completely wrong to even suggest that either Labour or the current incumbents at Number 10 are embracing one of the basic tenets of the Finnish model. Had he bothered to read Pasi Sahlberg's books or research papers, turned up at his lectures, or read Melissa Benn's book on English state education, he might learn a lot more and not depend quite so much on cutting and pasting random findings on the internet which he then incorrectly ascribes to other cut and pastes. Getting is so wrong, whilst posing as one burdened with knowledge in the face of so much liberal shouting from the rooftops, is really quite funny - but then that is how so many privately educated people have been taught.

What Bidie also fails to recognise is that countries like Finland give real autonomy to teachers and local government. This is why both state and teachers are respected there. Gove, on the other hand, orates about freedom whilst imposing his ideology on schools. Hardly the same thing.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 02/06/2012 - 13:07

Thanks for the link to that report Tim,

It pulls out the interesting observation, not previously mentioned, of the importance of careers counselling to children in lower secondary education in Finland.

This resonates with our experience in the positive benefits of extending 'Aim Higher' activities down to primary level but contracts with Gove's move away from careers counselling and work experience at secondary level.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 02/06/2012 - 08:06

Hmmm - yes. He's still a long way from understanding why things are as they are isn't he.

It's interesting to look at his link to the Ofsted complaints department and so consider how many of the functions of LAs Ofsted have now taken on. They're now the complaints department and they've long been a mechanism for organising cheap school closures (bully all the staff out their jobs - collapse the numbers and then shut the school - much lower redundancy costs and far fewer objections to the closure). Local democracy in action! =/

One thing I suspect Michael Gove still has no insight into is the extreme politics which exist between schools these days and how these play out. It would be useful if he sat down with one experienced head at at a time (preferably those with substantial experience) and listened to them talk about how it is.

The march away from promoting people who command respect through their ability, understanding of education and children and their personal characteristics towards the promotion of those who are feared and can bully staff into concealing reality continues. It worries me that there are people contributing to this forum who seem to think that this is a positive of inevitable thing. It isn't of course. It didn't used to be this way in many LAs - which is how Pasi Sahlberg found his inspiration here.

The propensity for intelligent and personally mature leaders to be replaced with ignorant but forceful ones who are unaware of their own weaknesses is real so we need to put in place coherent measures to militate against that propensity - not to encourage it.

I think Michael Gove is still a long way form understanding all this. His comment about not wanting to do harm is quite revealing and sad. I wonder how he would feel if he gained just a tiny amount of insight into how the careers, health and lives of many of our best teachers and leaders in education are being destroyed because of his actions? I suspect he would struggle to cope - which is why he will still be pretending to himself that those being destroyed are the incapable ones or are the left-wing socialist ideologues. Doubtless the army of followers he assembled around him when he got rid of all the people with ability will help him in his self-deception and I strongly doubt Ofsted will be remotely interested in describing to him what they are actually doing. I notice his parroting of Christine Gilbert's 'oh so salient and honest insight' in this letter.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Sat, 02/06/2012 - 08:22

they’ve long been a mechanism for organising cheap school closures (bully all the staff out their jobs – collapse the numbers and then shut the school – much lower redundancy costs and far fewer objections to the closure).

Could you name any secondary school closed by these means since the 2010 General Election?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 02/06/2012 - 09:41

The process takes a while and no-one can talk about it in public for a variety of reasons:

Firstly - if they speak and are still working for the school they will be one of the ones who are culled.

Secondly- speaking out will lead to you being blamed for what happens and you expose your naivety in thinking it's appropriate to speak out. This was one of Katherine Birbalsingh's classic mistakes.

A third dynamic here is that in the twists and turns of politics and society you never quite know what's in the future. Death warrants sometimes get reprieved no matter what is intended at the time they were issued. So you don't want to rock the boat in case you stop this happening.

Then we have the reality that history is written by the victor and it is hard for the insightful voices to be heard through that. Those voices will have been discredited as part of that history and those who have them are likely to be ill and broken. There will be many who believe the new history and are more comfortable for believing it. Which young teacher who's been brought in as a saviour to a situation actually wants to look at their predecessor and see that they were a very highly skilled person who they will take years to be able to emulate?

I can talk about specific details in private with those I trust not to abuse what I say but I can't publicly share them. Many others could do the same but they won't unless they are asked and trust exists. One of the reasons I know so much is because when I meet teachers and leaders in education and chat with them they can sense that I 'get it' and am not judging them and will not misinterpret what they say so they tell me things they don't tell anyone else.

It's really difficult to describe the culture of fear and silence which surrounds schools. Often the main impact of special measures is really to take a staff who used to talking about issues openly and honestly and to teach them that they must never do that again. You start off describing your perception of your leadership honestly on the Ofsted forms (think what MPs would say if they were asked to give honest feedback on their leaders at present). You end up with something far worse having been thoroughly taught never to do that again.

The media spin of caricaturing all schools in challenging circumstances as being failed versions schools in good areas, instead of creating any positive image of what they actually are, and the move towards not-unsatisfactory being the new unsatisfactory has made things much worse.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 02/06/2012 - 10:47

Perhaps I didn't make it absolutely clear what the post is about so I will repeat the main points as simply as possible.

1 Mr Gove and I are agreed that an effective way of improving schools is peer-to-peer support.
2 Mr Gove writes a self-congratulatory letter to the Education Committee in which he makes certain claims (a) that his policies, in particular academy conversion, are paving the way for schools to co-operate in a previously unprecedented manner, and (b) that this co-operation is more likely between academies.
3 The figures refute his claim that converter academies are co-operating with each other (only 3% are).
4 The inter-academy cooperation cited by Mr Gove started before the schools converted.
5 Mr Gove forgot to mention any successful peer-to-peer initiatives which involved local authorities.
6 Mr Gove's policies are more likely to hinder between-school co-operation than encourage it for reasons given in the final paragraph.

At no point did I mention Finland. Neither did I mention Ofsted or special measures. I was concentrating on one thing - Mr Gove's tendency to suggest that his policies alone have set teachers free. In the case discussed above, it is the freedom to cooperate.

Teachers have been doing it for themselves for decades often with the help of the much-derided local authorities.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 02/06/2012 - 11:59

"2 Mr Gove writes a self-congratulatory letter to the Education Committee in which he makes certain claims (a) that his policies, in particular academy conversion, are paving the way for schools to co-operate in a previously unprecedented manner, and (b) that this co-operation is more likely between academies."

Mr Gove has consistently done precisely the opposite of what he thought he was doing regarding freedom in schools.

We see elements of the anarchic libertarian fallacy that if you shut down all the systems of planning and the orthodoxies which protect established wisdom 'we will be more free' in his thinking.

We also see the influence of the ludicrously ignorant 'blind leading the blind' Westminster bubble think tank culture of Reform, the Policy Exchange, the CPS and so on.

Disturbingly at the key time when his policy was being rammed though, all the established UK consultative bodies in education were shut down or systematically ignored in favour of his regular meeting with Pearson who he clearly idolised (see his Leveson evidence) while the Murdoch press were systematically discrediting all with credible ability in education.

And he very firmly and forcefully established the culture that those who told him what he wanted to hear 'would be free' while those who didn't would be dispatched - a culture which spread like wildfire through and already disempowered system.

How can anyone be truly free in such as system? All you nurture is the heady exhuberance of the young and ignorant who suddenly find themselves with an unsustainable force of energy from the imbalance between the power they have and their inability to yet see the consequences of what they are doing. No attention is given to the professional freedom of those actually doing the job.

Mr Gove does not yet understand the nature of cooperation and politics between schools and how these things are best managed constructively. His claims of facilitating collaboration are ludicrous as he has not invested in Teachers TV (moving it on into a collaborative age) or online forums for teachers (which the US are researching so heavily) or in supporting the collaborative associations and networks which already exist. Instead he has shut down, dis-empowered and undermined local collaboration and made it toxic through his systematic pressure in forcing the schools with good cohorts to claw resources away from those with more serious challenges to face.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Tue, 05/06/2012 - 09:43

... have been doing it for themselves for decades often with the help of the much-derided local authorities.</i.

But clearly not very effectively, Janet. Otherwise those schools wouldn't still be in such need of improvement after "decades" of LA managed co-operation, would they?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 05/06/2012 - 10:29

"Otherwise those schools wouldn't still be in such need of improvement after "decades" of LA managed co-operation, would they?"

So long as politicians put themselves at the centre of education schools will always be 'in need' of whatever type of 'improvement' those politicians demand they receive.

One day I hope there will be a healthy balance of improved central resourcing and the professional freedom for schools to respond to the needs and strengths of their students, communities and staff which will allow schools to rapidly improve in ways which are healthy, sustainable and cost effective.

I continue to hope despite the obvious likelihood of our going straight from inappropriate 'forced improvement to suit the needs and egos of politicians' to a devastating collapse in school funding. Pasi Sahlberg's comments about progress achieved during times of financial adversity was reassuring and I have often found that good things get done during the darkest hour......

Tim Bidie's picture
Sun, 03/06/2012 - 06:30


Yes, yes..... it's all clear now. It was the right note, but on the wrong trumpet, or maybe a bassoon...or was it a duff note on somebody else's trumpet?

I thought I had it there, for a moment.

Anyway, well done everyone, whoever they are, including Michael Gove, for clearly doing the right thing.

Is that it?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 03/06/2012 - 08:02

To check the veracity of what I'm saying, a senior figures at the DFE could contact ASCL or the NAHT and ask for them to arrange for them to meet a series of credible and respected heads of secondary schools in challenging areas who have been in post for at least 10 years. You are looking in particular for those heads who established themselves without the help of 'special measures' or 'school improvement' so they may now be retired. That official should allow at least a couple of hours to meet each one individually and simply ask them to talk about the challenges involved in achieving what they've achieved - and in particular local politics between the schools and the role of Ofsted.

Here's some more context. If anyone reading this does know which schools I was placed in for my PGCE please conceal this publicly. I am absolutely not looking to create trouble for those schools. It was a long time ago and there is no need for that.

When I started my PGCE placement I was in a small maths department with some older teachers who had developed their skills in teaching over many years - attending substantial CPD along the way - both that provided by the school and that they had attended in their own time and at their own expense.

They were using highly respected teaching methods - blocking topics into two week chunks and starting each with core visual structures or imaginable roots and building from their so each student went as far as they could go with that topic. I remember using the early Shell Centre teaching materials created by Malcolm Swan and the wonderful DIME booklets for visual quadratics and so on. The students were relaxed and at ease with those staff - there was a culture of personal respect so the many boundaries so loved by the likes of Mossbourne were simply not needed. If you asked the students to do something reasonable they would and these were a challenging cohort.

But a new head had been brought in to 'improve the school'. Suddenly those teachers were moved post, told to change the way they taught, observed in their non-specialist subjects, told they were failing teachers, put them into capability and so on. The clear agenda was to 'clear out the older staff'. What horrified me was that the young new head clearly had no insight at all into what the qualities of these staff were and hadn't bothered to look. When he'd received a complaint about one of them he'd simply reassured the parent that he'd be 'getting rid of that teacher'. It took him a couple of years to clear them all out. I watched them personally collapse and suffer from severe depression.

They were replaced with young teachers who focused only on the particular targets the head was interested in and neglected everything else. What was obvious to me but not to them was that those older staff could have achieved the new targets with the new resources available without compromising the other things they did but obviously that was a bit of history that was never written.

The head was a very gifted speaker who went out into the community and charmed and persuaded all that the schools was on the up. The middle class parents believed him and moved their children there and so the school's cohort completely changed and that school's results improved at the expense of the other local schools. The reputation of the head was sky high. The loss of the skills the dispatched teachers had had in high quality teaching and personally commanding the respect of children were not noticed as the cohort became one which was more motivated and engaged by the endless process of cramming for exam after exam after exam.

But the process I'd seen happen in this school without special measures seemed to spread like wildfire through schools put into special measures. Only it happened much faster. None of this fighting on for two years. That was mainly because everyone began to realise that the writing was on the wall and there was no point in fighting at all. The maths teachers said that this process would eradicate those skills of teaching which really taught students to be confident with their maths and they were right. When I stopped for breath in 2009 those skills and teaching methodologies were gone. No-one was using them any more.

Teachers were trying to re-invent them. Teachers become better teachers as they mature and gain experience. The propensity for intelligent techniques to be rediscovered and readopted is always there. But the young teachers who were brought in after a clear out of old staff, who then matured themselves and sought to learn better teaching techniques then became over 40 (or in some cases over 50!!!) and so are obvious candidates to be culled in the next wave of special measures. In fact most of the victims of special measures aren't even deliberate. They select themselves by being the ones who have breakdowns because they can't cope with returning to the level of ignorance of the structure of teaching demanded for every single lesson.

So that's why Pasi Sahlberg was inspired here. And that's why our results have not improved. As he said so strongly - teachers need a lot of time to become truly expert. Ours our not allowed either the time or the professional freedom to become so any more.

Far and away the key element of the solution is that we need to bring Ofsted inside the standard laws and principles of inspection and regulation.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Tue, 05/06/2012 - 09:57

they don’t put this commitment into action – only 3% of converters are helping other schools.

Not strictly true, Janet. The figure you cite was one for formal partnerships. Nearly all the outstanding converters are helping other schools in some way, according to DfE.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 05/06/2012 - 14:07

Ricky - unfortunately you provide no link to the DfE "evidence" which shows that "outstanding" converter academies are helping other schools "in some [undefined] way". In any case, most of the links cited by Mr Gove as exemplars of academy co-operation and sponsorship existed pre-conversion as my post showed. And Mr Gove is deliberately putting a cap on the numbers of teachers in links which co-operate with local authorities (eg LLE).

Co-operation between schools doesn't just consist of a high-performing school (as measured by raw results) helping one weaker one to improve. In can be clusters of schools working on one project (eg the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative - TVEI - in the 80s). And it's on-going - professional development doesn't just stop but continues throughout teachers' careers.

However, Mr Gove's so-called reforms are likely to put inter-school cooperation into jeopardy as my post explained.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Tue, 05/06/2012 - 17:36

Mr Gove’s so-called reforms are likely to put inter-school cooperation into jeopardy as my post explained.

I don't accept that, Janet. The reforms open the way for co-operation on a scale hitherto unknown. The difference will be that in each case it will be a bespoke arrangement, not having to conform to some prescriptive bureaucratic scheme.

As with the school meals controversy, we must all get beyond the idea of government (central or local) bossing everyone around. The schemes that really work best in the world are those freely entered into. Statist projects always seem fine in concept but are more often than not wasteful and useless in practice.

Have faith: the post-bureaucratic age is a better place to be.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 05/06/2012 - 21:33

"Have faith: the post-bureaucratic age is a better place to be"

Why should the end of local planning, democratic accountability and complaints procedures mean we are in a better world Ricky?
Will the return of turkey twizzlers make up for it all?

"The schemes that really work best in the world are those freely entered into."
Are you confusing the application of the economics of education in emerging markets to the structures which are needed to underpin fully developed systems of education with an accountability to all again Ricky?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Tue, 05/06/2012 - 17:47

Janet, you might find this worth a look:

Most schools engage in collaboration to some extent and there is a variety of different mechanisms for this, with varying degrees of formality. Federations of schools have shared governing bodies and operate as a single legal entity, usually with very close working between the constituent schools. Academy chains tend to have strong central accountability and a degree of prescription, with schools operating relatively autonomously within this framework. Organisations such as The Schools Network provide support, share and develop best practice and provide advocacy and quality assurance, but do not perform a governance or accountability role.

Other kinds of networks also exist, with autonomous schools agreeing to undertake a degree of mutual cooperation and collaboration. Some, like Challenge Partners, consist of excellent schools engaging in mutual support and challenge. Looser groupings – often a secondary school acting as a hub for surrounding primaries – might undertake joint working on a regular basis and pool activities from teacher development to HR services. In some networks, like HertsCam, a university takes a coordinating role.

These different types of networks are not necessarily mutually exclusive; schools could be part of multiple groupings serving different purposes or with different types of school. The essential factor is that this kind of school improvement system can help to improve all schools, instead of focusing solely on those that are failing. This kind of collaboration can also tackle coasting schools and schools that are good but want to become even better. The new network of Teaching Schools could be an important component of a self-led, self-improving school system.

From Plan A+ : Unleashing the Potential of Academies published by The Schools Network in collaboration with Reform, March 2012.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 05/06/2012 - 21:37

"From Plan A+ : Unleashing the Potential of Academies published by The Schools Network in collaboration with Reform, March 2012."

Ricky this is propaganda, not research. Dale Bassett may think it's research but really he should stop behaving like a student on work experience in the education industry.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 06/06/2012 - 07:38

Ricky - this report has been discussed on LSN before when I raised concerns about its impartiality. Just in case you need a reminder I've given the link below.

And did you know that the Schools Network has gone bust? (TES 1 June 2012)

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 06/06/2012 - 11:41

I'm just looking at Dale Bassett's article in Total Politics (May 2012).
It really is so impossibly shallow and ignorant it could only appear vaguely relevant to anything to do with education in a magazine written by totally out of touch politicians for even more seriously out of touch politicians.

There's just no insight into anything.
For example he points out that the vast majority of academies have made no significant changes to their curriculums but shows no insight whatsoever as to why this might be (because most of them think the NC is basically okay).

Then he comments on the reality that most academies are using standard national pay structures but again there is not insight whatsoever into why they are doing this (that they have found the benefits of abandoning standard pay and conditions do not outweigh the disadvantages of doing so having totally passed him by).

His conclusions - that we need to completely scrap the national curriculum, completely scrap standard pay and conditions, removing schools' freedom to freely adopt either in order to 'increase their freedom' are..... well...... do I have to spell it out?

He makes such weak, idealistic arguments and concludes by calling for a revolution. Surely this article is a parody of the kind of extremist idealistic views the Tories so like to deride?

tim bidie's picture
Sun, 10/06/2012 - 05:07

Substantial overheads will have that effect.

'Let all who are without sin cast the first stone.'

'Its central London offices in Millbank Tower were reported to have cost the organisations £1.4m a year. At its height of success, the network also employed 400 people.

The charity was first formed in the 1980s as the City Technology Colleges Trust and grew under Labour with the introduction of specialist schools and academies.'

'The charity will continue to exist, thanks to a management buyout, albeit under its former name, the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT).'

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.