[Below is the text of an op-ed by me in The Times, 1 September 2014. There is an addition that was cut for space, inserted in square brackets.]
One evening in Whitehall, an exhausted and enraged senior official spat out at me: “You’re a mutant virus, I’m the immune system and it’s my job to expel you from the organism.” It was a typical day in the Department for Education.
When Michael Gove arrived there in 2010, he inherited a dysfunctional institution — a department spending a billion pounds every week wasted money on a vast scale. Every budget, every set of figures was wrong, every process blew up, everything leaked, while Whitehall used European law and threats of judicial review to scupper anything that it disliked.
The school system was grim. Among schools with the same proportion of poor pupils and the same funding, some struggled to get a fifth of pupils to basic levels while others managed over four fifths. This was down to bad management failing to do basic things. It was also due to disastrous micro-management by MPs and Whitehall.
The curriculum and exams had been devalued over the quarter century since MPs took control of them. The gap between sharply rising scores in those tests controlled by MPs but poor performance in international tests was one obvious sign of this. Another was that the devaluation of GCSEs had forced the devaluation of A Levels and, in turn, the devaluation of degrees. Science degrees had to be lengthened to reflect the decline in A levels. Language degrees, including elite courses such as Oxford classics, became unrecognisable and remedial classes were ubiquitous.
Almost nobody with power in the education system wanted to discuss these problems. The attitude was: the numbers are going up, they show that we’re doing a great job and deserve our large pay rises. If you go along you’ll get good press; if you don’t, woe betide you.
We didn’t go along. We changed every major pillar of the system. We cut the department’s headcount by more than a third and halved running costs. [We more than halved the press office, and cut 95 percent of the communication budget.] Senior people were replaced. Outsiders were brought in. The organisation improved, contrary to all predictions. All this happened because we operated outside Whitehall protocol, causing many battles. The results are now being felt in schools.
This week the new national curriculum starts and new exams will test it. Primary maths standards are aligned to standards in world-leading jurisdictions. Languages will again be the norm in primary school, to reverse catastrophic decline. There is more maths in secondary science. There is more essay writing — so important for further study and work. Conditional probability, vital for understanding risk, is introduced. Pupils will learn about computer coding and 3D printers. [Projects such as the British Museum’s ‘Teaching History in 100 objects’ will help pupils learn a deeper history curriculum.]
SATs at 11, GCSEs, and A levels are changing. We attacked the treadmill of modular exams, constant resits and the abuse of coursework. We returned power over A levels to universities and made it harder for MPs to regain control.
The old league-table system, based on five A*-C GCSEs, has been replaced because it had so many bad effects. First it encouraged schools to enter pupils for courses that were defined as “equivalent to GCSEs”, but which were often worse than useless. This was a disaster for millions of pupils. We scrapped this system and published data with it stripped out, so that everyone could see who was cheating. We also put out transparent data on achievement in English, maths, sciences, history, geography and languages. This led to many more pupils taking these courses: entries to physics and further maths A levels are up by a fifth.
Second, schools focused only on pupils on the C-D borderline. We brought in a points system that encourages schools to try with all pupils. Third, schools entered GCSE pupils early to “bank a C grade” so they could focus on other C grades. Now only the first entry counts in league tables and damaging early entry is plummeting.
We decentralised all main aspects of the teaching profession. We abolished national pay so schools, not MPs, control pay. We made it easier for teachers to keep order and easier to remove teachers who couldn’t. We put money into training teachers from the top third of graduates, with skills in desperately short supply, such as languages. We gave schools the power to recruit and train teachers. Teacher-training now feels an icy bath of scrutiny and evaluation.
To reduce Whitehall’s power further, we allowed state schools to convert to academy status. About two thirds of secondaries and a tenth of primaries did so. Many of the best then took over the worst schools. We encouraged schools to form chains, so knowledge about what works can be spread, saving money that can be spent where it helps learning. Chains are increasingly building their own teacher-training systems integrated with curricula and tests, such as Ark’s Maths Mastery programme. This will bring big improvements in the next decade.
Academy chains, as well as groups of parents and teachers, can now set up new schools. It used to take three to five years to open one; it now takes 18 months and the capital cost is nearly half. There will be 300 free schools open this month and another hundred should open next year, whoever wins the election. Most are in poorer areas. Failures have been swiftly dealt with, in contrast to many local authorities that won’t act year after year.
Our team broke up with the project half done. Schools are still rationed by house price and are at the mercy of a dysfunctional Ofsted. Although we tried to replace GCSEs with exams that would enable a genuinely scientific approach to learning, Nick Clegg and David Cameron stopped us, supported by almost everyone powerful in the system.
Will anyone build on what we did? [As we struggled to keep our heads above the tide,] Labour and the unions were largely irrelevant. By far our biggest problems were with the dysfunction of Whitehall and Downing Street.
Officials who see themselves as “the immune system” are about to return in a powerful role. Some whom we purged are polishing their CVs, confident that “the mutant virus” has been expelled and Downing Street will be compliant regardless of the election. Others are watching carefully. They know No 10 wants quiet interspersed with electoral gimmicks. They suspect that Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, agrees with much of what we did but that Ed Miliband does not.
Nicky Morgan faces a horrid quandary: while she could — and should — be less confrontational than Michael Gove, she will find it impossible to maintain the momentum of change and simultaneously obey Downing Street’s orders. Whitehall knows this and is quietly pushing forward its betting chips.