A year into the coalition and the Department for Education is forging ahead with far reaching reforms despite opposition and unprecedented reductions in spending.  Certainly much credit must be given to Michael Gove, known for his energy and zeal for reform. Yet, more crucially, changes are moving so quickly because they are finding some traction with the people on the ground to whom it really matters – pupils, parents and even teachers.

Take the recent decision, for example, by the National Association of Head Teachers to revise its long-standing policy that every school should have its own dedicated headteacher. Why? To “reflect the changing landscape”, it was reported. Or what of the parents in one London suburb currently embarking on their own free school who chased the ‘anti-academy’ alliance out of town when they travelled in to protest – hardly a sign that there is little appetite on the ground for change?

Opposition criticism is heavily dependent on the voice of the unions – a voice that seems increasingly self-interested and outdated. Despite their intransigence, a third of all secondary schools today are either academies, or in the process of becoming one. In an age of digital technology and feedback, the Association of School and College Leaders risks looking as if it might have something to hide when it criticises Ofsted’s new policy of allowing parents to rate schools in online surveys. Listen to the unions and you would be forgiven for thinking that the government’s policy on ‘teaching schools’ is dead before it even begins. However, despite applications opening just before Easter, up to 100 schools will be designated as having teacher training status by this summer. 

Nevertheless, this government has far from cracked education reform. Only an estimated 17 free schools will open their doors this September. Since the programme was launched last year, just 40 out of 323 proposals have been accepted for consideration. We should not be too surprised that the free school initiative has been slow to evolve. It will take more time and political leadership for the scepticism to give way. The fact that a considerable number of proposals have been turned down reflects a considered approach to applications, critical in terms of maintaining the integrity of the entire project.

Yet, these factors aside, the government will need to inject some further catalyst into the process if free schools are to expand at any noteworthy rate. Nothing bar the sanctioning of private sector involvement in the running of these, and other schools across the country, will deliver the scale required to really shake things up. Of course, the political capital to embark on such a daring policy might not currently exist, nor might it realistically this side of another general election. Yet the government of today has a duty at least to dispel much of the shrouded myth that lies over the current extent to which private profit-making companies are already involved in many aspects of our education system. Private profit-making companies have to date been commissioned to operate teacher training facilities and to deliver all-school improvement programmes. Other companies can make profits in nursery education, special needs education, further education and higher education. It’s time for mainstream school education to catch up.

Just as crucially as opening up a debate on the role of the private sector in education, the government must do a better job at getting a clear message across to the people who really matter. Freedom, autonomy, devolved decision-making − all concepts that we would like associated with our current education administration. Yet, rather like the child who was accompanied each day into the classroom, teachers have in many ways been left at the school gate and told to make their own way. Many consequentially decry a ‘clear lack of direction.’ Much of this is actually the fear of suddenly not having your hand held. But, particularly in an age of unprecedented cutbacks and freezes, this dependency culture has to be redressed in a careful manner and is something that this government would ignore at its peril. Likewise, the government cannot have it both ways and the expectations of the freedom and autonomy agenda must be more carefully managed than to date. If not, charges of having your cake and eating it will inevitably be levelled at a department that decides teachers should have responsibility for running schools, yet less so for the content and manner in which they teach.      

All told, one year in and much has changed. The tectonic plates of education policy have shifted. Future advances are dependent on a government that is not afraid to keep taking risks and that always prepares the ground and does its utmost to build upon the traction that it has begun to establish.

James Groves is head of the education unit at Policy Exchange

Tags: Education, Free schools, Issue 36, James Groves, Michael Gove, Policy Exchange