“Handpicked team” made the DfE the most successful department in the Government’s eyes. But successful at what exactly?

Janet Downs's picture
On the Government’s own terms, “the education department has probably been the most successful, and unsurprisingly was highlighted by David Cameron in his age of aspiration conference speech. The education secretary, Michael Gove, has assembled a handpicked team to drive reform relentlessly and take on what he calls "the blob" – the education establishment,” wrote the Guardian.

So how has this “handpicked team” contributed to the work of the Department for Education (DfE)?

First, it’s ignored the majority of English schools – the 18,000+ that are not academies. The DfE Home page contains links to Academies and Free Schools, but no links to Maintained Schools. Clicking on Academies takes the reader to a colourful page with up-to-date information, subheadings, more links and a video for an “Academy in Focus”. In the side bar is a link to Maintained Schools – this leads to a bland page containing a few links to articles (only one is dated 2012) giving information about different types of maintained schools.

Second, the “handpicked team”, Education Secretary, Michael Gove, and other education ministers have continuously broadcast misleading information. Ten examples are listed on this thread which was published before the UK Statistics watchdog expressed “concern” about the DfE’s use of data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests for the UK in 2000. The watchdog concluded that ‘it may be difficult to treat an apparent decline in secondary school pupils’ performance as “a statistically robust result”’. But that warning didn’t stop Lord Hill telling the House of Lords on 18th October 2012, “We know that the UK has fallen back in the PISA rankings…” before saying, “ Across the board, performance in sponsored academies has improved at twice the rate of maintained schools.” But, as regular readers will know, this claim does not stack up when the results of sponsored academies are compared with those of similar schools*.

So, apart from ignoring 18,000 English schools and giving out misleading information, what else has the DfE “handpicked team” done for us?

The DfE set up the Stakeholder Advocacy Group (now disbanded) to recruit heads sympathetic to Government policies to provide favourable quotes. A Special Advisor cleared incorrect data which was published in the Daily Mail. The DfE has acted “unobtrusively” in paving the way for profit-making firms to run English schools. Gove has been accused of leaning on Ofqual. Carping by Education ministers and others has been blamed for creating a climate of fear. Schools complain that intimidation is being used to force them to convert to academies…

The “handpicked team” has been very “successful” indeed – in deception and intimidation. At the same time it has promoted its favourites (certain academies, chains, head teachers and free school proposers) while dismissing those who disagree with Government policy as “Trots”, unenlightened bigots and members of the “blob”. The “team” promotes parental choice but treats with disdain parents who are loyal to a school the Government deems as failing.

But the “dedicated team” couldn’t correctly answer this sum: 77-73. Its mathematical whizz-kids got the answer 15.

Still, the pantomime must go on.

*See Do academies get better results, or improve more quickly, than other state schools? in faqs above.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Ricky-Tarr's picture
Thu, 08/11/2012 - 16:34

Successful at what exactly?

One answer might be: successful at implementing the best of Labour’s education policy.

Labour’s 2005 schools White Paper was in many respects far-sighted. The Guardian summarized some of its key proposals thus:

All schools will be encouraged to become "trust schools" with greater independence and freedoms to run their own affairs

Trust schools will be backed by businesses, charities, faith groups, universities and parent and community groups. …..trusts will be able to appoint the majority of the governing body, control their assets, become their own admissions authority …and potentially vary the national curriculum. A trust can run more than one school.

(As the economy began to collapse around their ears, Labour made little headway with this. But Gove and his handpicked team have, under the rubric of another Labour wheeze, delivered this for just over half of secondaries.)

The role of local authorities will change

Local education authorities will change from being a direct provider of services to a more strategic commissioning role.

(The Coalition has delivered that one for Labour too.)

Parents will get more rights, more choice, better support, and a bigger say

Parents will be able to ask for new schools to be set up to reflect local need and demand. Local authorities will be duty bound to consider their requests. Where local authorities refuse to take this new duty seriously, the education secretary will use her powers to intervene.

(Yes, Labour more or less invented the free schools policy too. They just didn’t have the energy & oomph to see it through. The hand picked team has.)

Private schools will join the state sector

There will be new legislation to make this easier, and private schools will be able to run trusts.

(This has now begun to happen as well.)

New measures to tackle school failure

Failing schools will be given one year to turn around. If there has been no progress, the running of the school will be effectively put out to tender to find a new provider.

(Yep, Labour was planning to be tough on Downhills and tough on the causes of Downhills. Gove finished the job.)


Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 08/11/2012 - 17:00

And we must remember that deception about academies has been going on since academies were started by Labour c 2002 (see first link).

Labour's education policy was flawed and paved the way for Gove's "reforms". Labour knew, as this Government knows, that UK schools already had a significant amount of autonomy because of Local Management of Schools (LMS). But by continuing the quasi market in schools established by previous Conservative governments, New-Labour made it difficult for the education system to be equitable. In fact, it made it worse by allowing schools to select by aptitude.

So, the DfE has used misrepresentation and intimidation to carry on New-Labour's flawed policies which were themselves built upon policies of previous Conservative governments. That is nothing to be proud of especially when the implementation of these policies is surrounded by mendacity, misrepresentation and intimidation (and an inability to do simple sums).



Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 08/11/2012 - 17:03

Of course, it’s not just the DfE and Michael Gove who use misleading or inaccurate data. The PM in his Conference Speech praised Harris Academy Peckham for raising the proportion of pupils gaining 5 GCSEs (A*-C) from "12 percent when it was under local authority control to almost 90 percent now." This number drops when English and Maths GCSEs are included - the proportion of pupils at Harris Academy gaining 5+ GCSEs A*-C (or equivalent) including Maths and English falls to 50%. Still pretty good - but when the equivalent exams are removed then the figure dives further to 30%*.

And the 12% figure isn’t from the time when Harris Academy Peckham was in LA control. It’s from 2004 – a year after Harris took over Warwick Park School in June 2003 (no GCSE results are available for that year). In 2002, when Warwick Park was under LA control, the proportion of 16 year-olds getting 5+ GCSEs (A*-C) was 22%. Not brilliant, but better than the 12% cited by Cameron. The Southwark average in 2002 was 36%.

*See document DEP2012-0657 downloadable from the House of Commons Library.



A guest says's picture
Thu, 08/11/2012 - 19:32

Do you know Janet whether the intake of the schools (Warwick Park /Harris Peckham) is comparable. When schools talk about improvements it is never clear whether the intake has changed and hence how much is real improvement and how much reflects a changed intake.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 09/11/2012 - 09:31

A guest: it’s difficult to discover attainment levels of cohorts when they entered secondary school because this information wasn’t available on school performance tables until 2011.

The 2002 school performance table for Warwick Park School, the predecessor of Harris Academy Peckham, show that the cohort had 16.3% SEN pupils.


The 2011 school performance table for Harris Peckham shows that the 2011 GCSE cohort was skewed to the bottom end (only 7% high attainers, 37% low attainers).
This suggests that the equivalent (vocational) exams were the most suitable for the intake. However, Gove attacks the use of equivalent exams to raise GCSE performance so it is hypocritical for the Government to use GCSE/equivalent figures to show that particular schools (ie academies) are performing better than other schools (which in any case isn't true - see faqs above).

The 2011 SEN% for Harris Peckham was 32% - this is higher than the figure for Warwick Park.

Ofsted (September 2011) rated Harris Peckham as good and said this was due to
"the executive principal’s inspirational leadership, her high expectations of staff and students, and the careful targeting of support and resources so that the school’s challenging targets can be achieved." Ofsted has previously reported that when schools improve they use similar methods which have nothing to do with academy status. This had been noted by PriceWaterhouseCoopers in 2009 (see faqs above) which found that where academies were improving, they were using similar methods to those found in improving LA schools. Outstanding leaders and stability in leadership were “critical” to improve standards.

So it is misleading for the government to keep repeating that academy conversion is the only way to improve schools.


Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 08/11/2012 - 17:32

"One answer might be: successful at implementing the best of Labour’s education policy."

To be successfully implements policy needs to be consulted until it's purpose is clearly established and the route by which the agreed purpose will be achieved is coherent. This was happening under the last government. It's collapsed under this one.

To say this government is more successful at implementing education policy is simply ludicrous. It has no idea.

Except for the early years reforms which I'm finally hearing really good things about.

Ricky you're talking Govesque pie in the sky bunkum. As I've pointed out before you clearly have no idea how organisation change is achieved, let alone how it is assessed.

Ben Taylor's picture
Thu, 08/11/2012 - 18:56

What do DfE say about free schools?

"Free Schools are all-ability state-funded schools set up in response to what local people say they want and need in order to improve education for children in their community.

The right school can transform a child’s life and help them achieve things they may never have imagined. Through the Free Schools programme it is now much easier for talented and committed teachers, charities, parents and education experts to open schools to address real demand within an area."

WLFS is an example of such a school.

It is an organisational change in response to consultation which is easy to understand.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Thu, 08/11/2012 - 19:19

To be successfully implements policy needs to be consulted until it’s purpose is clearly established and the route by which ....blah....blah....blah....

The White Paper was published in October 2005, Rebecca. There was consultation before it. There was consultation after it. Almost five whole years of rabbiting on.

Eventually the time for talking passes and the time for action arrives.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 08/11/2012 - 19:01

"in response to what local people say they want"

should be replaced with

"what a small group of people say they want whether or not that seriously damaged what people in general have been shown to want through robust democratic consultation."

if truth mattered.

"It is an organisational change in response to consultation which is easy to understand."

What are you talking about Ben?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 08/11/2012 - 19:32

Indeed. The action did arrive after the consultation. I was there remember? Then this government chucked out all the findings from all the consultations and did something completely different.

A guest says's picture
Thu, 08/11/2012 - 20:12

Except Ben WLFS is not necessarily an all ability school. The data I saw about the first intake showed very few students came into the school with Level 3 Maths and Eng at KS2.
I think many of the Free Schools will not have a true all ability intake.

Ben Taylor's picture
Thu, 08/11/2012 - 19:22

This is an example I guess of how it is impossible to debate this here. Certain things that seem obvious to me are contested which are reliant on simple statements in English. Well that's how it seems to me.

I think your only counter argument could be if someone has consulted parents and children in LBHF (we could define them as "people in general" from your statement) and you then it can be SHOWN that they are quote contrary to a school.

What is wrong with the measure of about two to one preference for the school as a first place (I think that's about right?).

And what's right about relatively small groups such as LA staff, political activists and some unionists telling the rest of us that we can't choose where to go to school?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 08/11/2012 - 20:29

Is any school an all ability school?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 09/11/2012 - 08:57

It did what was in Conservative policy, Lib Dem policy and.... (let's celebrate this rare consensus and unanimity) what had been in Labour's White Paper. The settled will of the people and Parliament should take precedence even over the views of the teachers' unions and this Blob thingy, surely?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 09/11/2012 - 09:53

In 2011 (WLFS's first cohort), 84% of Hammersmith & Fulham's primary school children achieved Level 4 or above in English and 82% in Maths.

The 16% or 18% that did not do so tend to be concentrated in the poorer, northern wards of the borough.

WLFS is not out of line with other schools in its immediate area.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 09/11/2012 - 09:19

Please can you point me to the part of Lib Dem policy which talks about the blobby thing Ricky?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 09/11/2012 - 09:27

No, sorry Rebecca, I just can't bring myself to open the Lib Dem 2010 Manifesto because that pledge to "scrap tuition fees by 2016" brings me out in fits of giggles.

The bit of Lib Dem policy the government has delivered is the Pupil Premium, which is a good thing.

Ben Taylor's picture
Thu, 08/11/2012 - 21:22

I don't think it is a necessary measure to have a balanced distribution. Especially when the whole bell shaped curve of ability lies too far to the left on a graph and the whole thing needs a good shove to the right. I think you might have a point regarding objectively grading school performance but this sort of forced distribution seems to be a get out clause and a brake on developing high achievement. If you can square the circle go ahead.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 08/11/2012 - 21:30

That's what I'm working on. Other regulators understand and overcome these issues. Organisations in other sectors are not placed and stupid, distracting, counter-productive bell-curves.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 09/11/2012 - 09:57

This thread seems to straying from the original subject - the "successful" nature of the DfE. It's "success", as I pointed out, is based on misrepresentation, bias in favour of certain types of schools and intimidation. Whether this "success" is founded on the flawed policies of New-Labour (also underpinned by deception) is irrelevant.

Even those who support the end (ie the mass conversion of English schools into academies) cannot reasonably approve of these methods. It is not OK to use deception, to pour unctious praise on favourites, to suppress dissent by demonising any opposition, to feed inaccurate information to the media or to create a climate of anxiety and fear in order to push through certain policies.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 09/11/2012 - 10:14

Janet, nearly all policies in the political arena could be said to 'underpinned' by deception, exaggeration, hype and so on. That doesn't make them intrinsically bad policies. It's just the nature of politics.

The reason that DfE is so widely seen as one of the most successful departments is because it has got stuff done.

Many schools improved under New Labour. More are improving under the Coalition. I can't imagine many people would want to go back to the way things were in 2002.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 09/11/2012 - 11:41

"nearly all policies in the political arena could be said to ‘underpinned’ by deception, exaggeration, hype and so on"

Categorically - that is NOT what I have found since I've got involved with the Lib Dems. I've found policies underpinned by people with tremendous dedication and commitment who've been heavily scrutinised not only about their knowledge and ideas but also about their character, their general views and their commitment over time.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 09/11/2012 - 11:59

Oh don't be ridiculous Rebecca.

The Lib Dem leader has only recently issued a humiliating public apology for adopting a policy at the last general election that he and his senior team knew at the time was unworkable and unaffordable. It was adopted for purely opportunistic purposes by a party that believed at the time they would never be held to it because they wouldn't be in office. It's all out in the open now.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 09/11/2012 - 12:03

Have you ever been anywhere near Lib Dem conference Ricky? Do you have any insight into how the communication networks work which generate roots up policy and which analyse top down policy work?

Obviously I do as I am precisely who I say I am.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 09/11/2012 - 12:09

Mr Clegg this week issued a public apology over a pre-election pledge he signed to vote against any rise in university fees. ...

…Mr Clegg’s aides have insisted that he was not apologising for the fee increase, but for making the pre-election pledge to vote against higher fees.

…Steve Webb, the pensions minister, told the BBC the apology meant the party should never have promised to oppose fee increases. “What Nick’s saying is that we have learnt about making a pledge, which if we could rewind, would we make that pledge again? No we wouldn’t,” he said.

…David Laws, the Cabinet Office minister, said he had always had doubts about the pledge, which was signed by all Lib Dem candidates at the last election. He said: “I was sceptical of the promise in the sense that all of us in the party appreciated it was a very tough budget environment and we had to look at how we could afford all our promises.”

Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, has also said he had doubts about the promise, but Mr Laws insisted that Lib Dem MPs had to share the blame. “This was a decision not just by Nick Clegg and Vince Cable but by all of us in the Liberal Democrat party,” he said.


Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 09/11/2012 - 12:19

For all I know, Rebecca, you might actually be another figment Dan Falchikov's creative imagination.


Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 09/11/2012 - 12:20

Indeed and it has been hugely discussed inside the party.

Nobody expect the country to be in such a precarious economic position at the time of the election. It was considered to be the right thing to sacrifice a much loved policy at tremendous cost to achieve stability.

The general public didn't get that. Some in the party didn't get it. Most did.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 09/11/2012 - 12:29

Nobody expect the country to be in such a precarious economic position at the time of the election.

Huh? Just read again the bits where Laws and Cable say they DID. Besides, by February/March 2010 even the Lib Dems had noticed the financial crisis.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 09/11/2012 - 12:41

Can you provide a link please Ricky.

I think most of us were very shocked at the effect the Tory electioneering strategies had on market confidence and how precipitous things became.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 09/11/2012 - 12:52

Re your weird fantasies Ricky,

Please do come and meet me here:

Re Dan Falchikov,
If you look at his linkedin profile does it not strike you that 'needing the work and the money' might explain his job application?

Given your level of insight into the real world and your generally disturbingly paranoid and deluded comments I'm suspecting you might not have stopped to consider the obvious...

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 09/11/2012 - 10:06

Here’s another example of Government misinformation - this time about housing benefit which might not seem to have anything to do with education. However, this policy is likely to affect the number of children in inner-city boroughs (eg Westminster) which in turn will impact on the number of school places needed.

Cameron told the Tory Conference about “individual families – getting 40, 50, 60 thousand pounds of housing benefit to live in homes that these hard working people could never afford themselves.".

FullFact looked at claims by Department for Work and Pensions minister Lord Freud which he made after the Conference that the benefit system “allowed some families who were living in areas with incredibly high rents to claim over £100,000 per year in housing costs.”

Full Fact found: “over four out of every five Housing Benefit claims are below £100 per week (the equivalent of £5,200 per year) according to the September 2010 figures, while only 70 out of over 4.5 million recipients claimed over £1000 per week, around 0.001% of the total. Even this is likely to overstate the number claiming £100,000 per year however, as a family would need to claim over £1,900 per week to hit this total.”

FullFact highlighted the danger of using "outliers" to underpin policies especially when the subject matter was sensitive. It doesn't lead to an informed debate.

And that's precisely what this Government appears to want to quash - informed debate.



Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 09/11/2012 - 10:18


That is plain silly. You can't have it both ways.
The new policy is to place a cap on payments. Of course you have to use outliers to underpin a policy of setting a maximum!

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 09/11/2012 - 11:54

In March 2011 the numbers of families receiving housing benefit on the scale the PM alluded to were:

In excess of £30,00 - 2,170
In excess of £40k- 450
In excess of £50k - 160


Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 09/11/2012 - 13:09

Cameron's emphasis on the 680 or so families who receive over £40,000 in housing benefits hides the fact that the reforms are estimated to result in around two million households receiving lower benefits. Large families and claimants living in areas of high rent such as London will be most affected. (NAO report “Managing the impact of Housing Benefit reform” November 2012)

So the cap which is supposedly meant to deal with "outliers" is estimated to reduce the benefit paid to nearly half of the 4.5 million recipients. A sledge hammer to crack a nut, presumably.

Although the NAO doesn’t mention schools, changes in housing benefit will affect the supply of school places leading to oversupply in authorities which lose families with children and a sudden undersupply in areas which deal with an influx.


Ricky-Tarr's picture
Sat, 10/11/2012 - 17:51


The cap is designed to reduce the amount of subsidy from the taxpayer being paid out to benefit recipients living in properties that do not fall within the the cheapest 30% of properties in the private rented sector. If they are claiming benefits, why are they not already living in the cheapest 30% of properties available?

Imagine if the government were to pau a 'car benefit'. Wouild it be so unreasonable for them to say they'd shell out for Fords and Vauxhalls but draw the line at BMWs or Mercedes?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 10/11/2012 - 18:01

Is it the 30% of properties big enough for them in the area they live in the private rented sector?

Add new comment

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