This started as a small idea, and grew into a bit of a monster rant. I’d advise making yourself a cup of tea before reading. For those members of society with better things to do than waste ten minutes on my waffling, here’s a summary :
Some argue Gove’s reforms won’t last long without him. I argue that GERM reforms come in two flavours : ideological/religious, and financial/self-interested. The former classroom-based reforms may well change rapidly because GERM ideology is inconsistent, unpopular, faith-based not evidence-based, and even GERM zealots disagree with each other on various issues. The latter structural reforms are likely here to stay because they have created a cadre of self-interested “winners” who have a vested interest in defending the new system. I also pepper the argument with historical references which made a lot of sense in my head. Sorry.
Gove The GERM
This weekend, Warwick Mansell – possibly the only education journalist who doesn’t simply repeat government clichés uncritically – wrote a rather excellent piece for the NAHT. It’s linked here, and I think it’s essential reading for any education policy anoraks.
In this blog, Warwick considers whether Gove’s reforms, as part of the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) will long outlast the man himself. His suggestion is that the democratic deficit inherent in the reforms – put simply : most people don’t want them – may ultimately lead to their demise in this country. Asked to choose between an establishment “glob” of privately educated politicians, journalists and businessmen on the one hand, and their children’s teachers on the other, the great majority of the public trust the people they see caring for their children, rather than the ones they see caring for their image or bank balance. One could add to that unpopularity the large number of emerging cases of corruption (financial or religious) and incompetence in the now chaotic education system, which are likely to provide plenty of outraged column inches even while not providing sufficient numbers of school places.
Gove fancies himself a history buff, so I’m sure he’d recognise this quote from Tacitus’s account of the British leader Calgacus describing the Roman empire. It could be written by any despairing teacher of the GERM movement.
“Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace”
However, as an ardent member of various neo-liberal cross-Atlantic bodies dedicated to furthering the interests of the corporate rich, he might prefer the more pithy quote from the Vietnam War, which rather sums up how the GERM movement themselves see education.
“It became necessary to destroy the town to save it”
The difference between the motive of these two quotes is telling. Calgacus is very clear that it is greed for riches and power which motivates his conquerors. The unnamed US officer, who was explaining the devastation of Bến Tre city, would doubtless argue that his motives were pure in that he really wanted to help Vietnamese civilians. The deaths were regrettable, but necessary. Perhaps he also called those who argued with him “enemies of promise”, but who can be sure ?
I’ve actually met a few people from both GERM camps during my career, so I can attest to the existence of both ideological vandals and self-interested looters. I think whether the Govian revolution belongs to the former or the latter group will determine how long it lasts.
GERM : Destroying Education in Order to Save It
There are idealists in the GERM movement. They are religious in their zeal for reform, and the Archbishop of GERM in this country is, without doubt, Michael Barber. I met and worked with Michael during my time at the DFE, and I liked him. At the time, I had never taught, so I didn’t have the same grounds to challenge the GERM shibboleths as I can now, but even then I was uneasy with some elements of what Barber was pushing.
Crucially, it became clear to me that Barber did not trust teachers. He believed that he knew what needed to be done to help children learn, and most teachers didn’t. Teachers who opposed his vision, as expressed through the literacy and numeracy strategies, were obstacles to progress. He denied that teachers needed to be independent decision-making professionals reacting to what was in front of them. Instead they needed to be more akin to “craftsmen”, doing the same thing again and again, as long as it was the right thing, ie the approved method. You can recognise the Govian tone here.
A further echo of Gove was that where evidence crashed up against his beliefs, Barber would always back his beliefs over the evidence. I once had a conversation with him about the Literacy & Numeracy Strategies, and pointed out that the Government had been elected on a promise of “evidence-based policy” and “doing what works”, yet there wasn’t any evidence to support the strategies he was about to force into every primary classroom in the country. He smiled (he, like Gove apparently, was immensely polite up close), and said “where the evidence doesn’t exist, sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith”. That statement stayed with me.
GERM isn’t a coherent set of evidence-based ideas. It’s a faith. Those who have attended gatherings of the GERM faithful will recognise similarities to charismatic churches, with tub-thumping speeches, endless professions of belief, plenty of mutual reinforcement that their mission is a holy crusade, and more than a few sideswipes at the Devil and his minions (that’s us teachers, folks!).
I used a quote from the Vietnam War, but the GERM ideologues perhaps have a closer parallel in the English Civil War, when a small minority, convinced of their own clear vision, welcomed “the World Turned Upside Down”, for it heralded the coming of the true godly society, in which their faith which would save the nation. Indeed for some, the opposition of the majority to their cause was seen as confirmation that they were right, for the devil was marshalling his troops against them. Just like those revolutionaries, GERM is more of a 17th Century non-conformist Protestantism, than a 21st Century Church of England variant. As with the Cromwellian “seekers”, the exponents of GERM find it easier to unite against what they don’t like – the existing establishment, “so-called experts”, some indefinable lack of righteous passion or fire in the bellies of their opponents – than to unite around what they do like. Consequently, GERM reformers often put forward a smorgasbord of different policies, many of which seem to be not just inconsistently unrelated, but diametrically opposed. Greater autonomy for schools, but more prescription in what they teach and how they teach it; more focus on disadvantaged students, but a “tougher”, narrower curriculum which more of them will fail; improving the quality of teachers, by reducing their pay and removing the need for professional qualifications.
This is bonkers, obviously, and one of the reasons why teachers become so angry with GERM-types like Gove is because of these contradictions. How can they not see the contradictions ? Why do they ignore evidence ? Yet we are not looking at this in the same way as them.
Teachers, for all their idealism or sense of mission, tend to be very pragmatic people – they have to be in order to do the job. They deal with the real, unpredictable world, every single day, and the world doesn’t get much more real and unpredictable than a classroom of children. We look for evidence, practical assistance and the flexibility to deal with the unique nature of each class.
Barber and his fellow GERM idealists have their eyes on the heavens. For them, there is but one true path – theirs – and any deviation is sinful. Anyone who has ever walked away from a GERM believer gnashing their teeth at the impractical, inconsistent madness of it all, should stop thinking about them as belonging to the evidence-based, post-enlightenment world. Think instead about the most religious person you know, someone really devout, and then imagine how successful you’d be in converting them to atheism by pointing out the contradictions and nonsense in their favoured holy book. Welcome to the world of true GERM believers. They have articles of faith, not always the same, but usually involving :
- teachers’ interests and students’ interests are opposed, not complementary;
- headteachers should be the Major-Generals who impose the GERM law upon the school;
- testing, testing, more testing;
- competition in all things inside and outside the classroom;
- the only input factor which affects student outcomes is student and teacher effort – factors such as poverty, culture, peers are simply excuses for lack of effort;
- those who have never taught have a better idea of how to teach than those who have taught.
Barber isn’t alone, by the way. I’d put Adonis in that camp too. In their own way, both Woodhead (First Commandment : Thou Shalt Teach Phonics; Second Commandment : Thou Shalt Provide “Educative Experiences” to Thine Attractive Students) and Wilshaw (Thou Shalt Lower Morale) belong to a small splinter sect of GERM. Not, as pointed out above, that they share a coherent philosophy of evidence-based practise. Not remotely. Rather that, like Barber and Adonis, they believe that they know what needs to be done, and anyone who does anything differently is mistaken. If those errant souls continue with their mistakes, they are wilful sinners, and must be purged. It’s a very narcissistic faith, but we all know who Wilshaw really thinks he is when he talks of how it is his moral purpose to lead the little children into the light, demanding that teachers obey his creed, and laying down his laws which must be followed. Gove sent schools a Bible he’d signed, didn’t he ?
I think you probably get my point by now.
If these ideologues were all we had to contend with, then I’d be siding with Warwick Mansell’s optimistic assessment, and would believe that this time would pass, just as Cromwell’s New Jerusalem quickly faded into the footnotes of history as the old order re-established itself. Like the puritans, GERM ideologues are a minority, as the Tories’ polling demonstrated to them. Even if there is a wider public sympathetic to the language, or fearful and hoodwinked by their propaganda, the fact is that most people, like teachers, live in the real world, and value stability, calm and order. They like the idea that their child attends a warm, caring environment at school, with only a few preferring a gradgrindian miserable bearpit into which the child is thrown, to emerge “ready for the world of work” only if she survives the endless rigorous competition of school to be weighed, measured and found wanting. Not many are comfortable in a state of permanent revolution.
Ideologically-based regimes tend not to last so long, in historical terms, because (a) most people don’t really care so much about ideology, but prefer just to have things work smoothly and predictably, and (b) there’s always another ideology around the corner with the next set of natural laws and unarguable truths. Many of those subtly different ideologues are currently fighting alongside you against the common foe, but don’t turn your back; a principle the two Michaels demonstrated so clearly earlier this year when it turned out that Wilshaw’s and Gove’s respective visions for the revolutionary future didn’t quite coincide.
Unfortunately, wherever there are ideologues, or revolutionaries, there are also those with an eye to the main chance. The GERM revolution is no exception.
GERM : The Rise and Rise of the Govan Empire
Whether Calgacus actually made his brave denunciation of the greed and hypocrisy of Imperial Rome, or whether Tacitus put the words into his mouth, he got it pretty much bang to rights. The Roman Empire was about money. Large empires always are. Sure, you might have some believers who think that the mission of the empire is to civilize the natives (or the NUT), build railways (Free Schools?) or spread the word of the true religion (Al Madinah – can I stop now ?), but they are gnats on the back of the real imperial elephant : cash.
A good rule of politics which I occasionally mention to my sixth-formers, is that if you want to work out why something is happening, look at who benefits. The true GERM beneficiaries in this country would very much like you to conclude that the people who benefit are the lovely children, entering a brave new world of wonderfully better education as a result of all those reforms.
The problem is that they don’t. Even the DFE was forced to admit recently in a forced academization court case that there is actually no evidence at all that becoming an academy results in better outcomes for children. None. As a result, we ended up with that pathetic Telegraph article in which favoured academy heads tried to claim that somehow academization creates better behaviour. Oh dear. I have no doubt that the next myth will soon follow : that academization results in children who do more charity work, or eat more of their vegetables.
There is in fact a glaring disconnect between what the GERM reformers claim the goals of their policies are, and what is actually happening.
Warwick Mansell again wrote a rather good blog on this :
I won’t repeat everything he says, except to say that it’s very hard to see how academization fits in with any of Gove’s and GERM’s stated policy goals of standards, teaching quality, autonomy, accountability, targeting disadvantage :
- There is no requirement for schools to be academies to impose a “tougher” curriculum or exams – indeed, academies are actually exempt from the national curriculum!
- There is no reason why academies will attract better teachers – indeed academies are allowed to employ unqualified teachers! Nor were academies alone required to introduce the pointless PRP – all schools have to introduce it.
- There is no reason why academies are more autonomous – schools have been largely autonomous since 1988 under the LMS system. The Education Select Committee, have pointed out that academies in chains have far less autonomy than they had as LEA-maintained schools.
- There is no reason why academies are more accountable – they have the same exam data published, and the same league tables as maintained schools. The only place where accountability is different is that academies are far less accountable to their local communities, and far less financially accountable to anyone !
- There is no reason why academies would target disadvantaged students better – the pupil premium applies in all schools, and the evidence suggests that academies use their lessened accountability to exclude disadvantaged children wherever possible – see my research on Harris, Mossbourne and West London Free School.
So here we have the oddity that the central plank, the overarching achievement, of the Gove years – mass academization – is either irrelevant to the core principles about which he is so “passionate”, or actively works against them. Bizarre.
One could, if one read the first section, simply dismiss this as one of those religious inconsistencies which bedevil the GERM ideologues. For many, it is. I have no doubt that someone like Adonis can say that academies further all those guiding principles, and he would mean it. But when Adonis’s head is being patted by the sort of avaricious sharks who circle the pool of money no matter which government is in charge (hello Philip Harris), you can see just how useful the GERM idiots have been to the real driving force behind the Govan Empire.
Follow the money
Mass academization is about money. It always has been. The Education budget was the last of the huge state budgets which was largely unavailable to private companies and greedy men. Nobody got paid more than a LEA Chief Executive, and while their salaries might be large by teacher standards, they’d be laughed at in the City. Private companies could earn a few bob here and there selling stationary and the odd training course, but nobody was getting rich from that, and in any case schools and LEAs employed irritatingly incorrupt public sector purchasing practises. The whole budget remained really irritatingly resistant to finding its way into the right pockets.
Academization, on the other hand, is very good at doing just that. Becoming an academy may not help with standards, autonomy, poor students and the rest, but it certainly helps to start shovelling that cash into the right hands. Bear with me, because I’m returning to my Roman analogy.
The really big money in the Roman Empire went to the chosen, well-connected few. Stitching up who got the richest provinces was the fundamental goal of politics. Get yourself the governorship of the right place, and watch the money roll in. Welcome, dear reader, to the large Academy Chains.
I don’t think people truly appreciate the scale we’re talking about here. Let’s take Harris, my least favourite chain. According to their website they currently have 17 secondary academies and 11 primaries. Let me put numbers on that. A decent-sized secondary will have a budget of £8-10m. Halve that for a primary. Now do the sums. Harris is probably in receipt of well over £200m of public money, and employs 3000-odd staff. That is £200m in guaranteed income every year, from the state. They don’t have to bid for it. Their customers can’t go elsewhere (one side-effect of Gove’s shortage of places disaster –in-the-making). It is guaranteed cash. That doesn’t take account, however, of assets. Those schools are sitting on land and premises mostly in and around London. The land values alone are worth hundreds of millions. If Harris were a private company – oh come on, it already is – then on capital valuation and income, it would be one of the largest in the country. Certainly there are many smaller companies listed on FTSE. And Harris isn’t actually the largest chain.
People say that there isn’t enough money available in education to graft, as around 80% of budgets go on salaries. Well yes. However, remember we were struggling to work out why so many GERM policies didn’t seem to have any connection with their stated aims ? Try looking at school-based training schemes, unqualified teachers, performance-related pay, easier sacking rules for older/expensive teachers (sorry, read : “underperforming” teachers), and if the scales are still in front of your eyes, you’re probably Andrew Adonis.
If you’ve a budget of £200m, you only need to scrape off a very small percentage to become very rich indeed. Once you’ve squeezed down that wage bill as low as you can through cheap unqualified teachers, cheap trainees, forcing out anyone expensive through the new PRP system, then you’ve still got tens of millions to play with. You can use a variety of methods :
When in Rome
- The Moynihan Method : Headteachers are often paid around 1% of the total school budget. Don’t be greedy, I’ll do it for less than half of that. 0.2%, you say ? Of £200m ? Well, I am SUCH a bargain.
- The South London Method : Your school lets out its desirable facilities to a private company which you and/or your friends own. That company makes a lovely profit, which goes to you, not the school. Oh, and you give yourself a huge salary as well. When you start establishing supply contracts with your wife’s companies for your whole academy chain, then that’s a lot of lovely cash.
- The Shuter Method : Nobody’s looking, and you’re a little God anyway, just take the cash.
- The final method will take a better accountant than I to unravel. Call it the City Model. An interesting fact is that you don’t need to take money from your budget to make money. In the fantasy world of hedges, offshore accounts, leveraged trades, spread-betting and so on, what you need to have access to is cash flow, liquidity, or the promise of assets. You can then borrow off this to invest. Assets like property and government funding streams are very safe financial assets which can attract cheap credit. That cheap credit can then be morphed, by way of City dealings, into large profits. Of course, I have no evidence of this – nobody will ever have evidence of this. I merely note in passing that quite a few large Academy Chain Directors are ex- or current City financiers. I also note that one of them, who sits on the DFE Board, David Ross, got into trouble previously for using his company’s assets as collateral for private financial dealings :
- I’ll step carefully here and say that I’m not making any accusations. However, let’s just say that there are ways in which knowledgeable, well-connected City types could turn control of large chain budgets into lots of personal wealth without having to employ The Shuter Method.
Controlling the plebs
This might explain the large chains, but why all the convertor academies? Most academies aren’t in large chains. They don’t have the huge budgets which the chains have. Their heads are never going to sit on the DFE Board – that same DFE which then “brokers” schools’s budgets into their control without any public consultation or competitive process. Only a chosen few get ennobled as a reward for being wheeled out as the nodding dogs of the DFE when the media needs an educationalist who’ll actually back government policy. What’s in it for the rest ?
How did the Roman Empire survive (or the British Empire, for that matter)? The people at the top were always very few in number, and the system which enriched them made the lives of millions a little less pleasant. Why did it take so long before the whole edifice came crashing down?
One answer is that the Romans didn’t do very much hands-on policing. Like all successful empires, they didn’t rely on troops from the centre to actively impose their day to day rule on the populations they were sucking dry. Why do that, when you can get the locals to police themselves ? The great genius of Rome (and later the British in India) was that the Romans rarely marched in and killed or enslaved everyone. They usually marched in, identified the locally ambitious careerists, offered them some muscle and prestige, and lo-and-behold, your previous hairy unimportant celtic minor tribal leader was suddenly a villa-dwelling, toga-wearing Roman loyalist and local bigwig. He was never going to sit in the Senate, but he had a good enough life, by comparison to the locals, that it was in his interest to fight to preserve the whole edifice which gave him that slightly bigger slice of the pie.
Welcome, my friends, to mass academization. This explains why Gove has always been so incredibly solicitous of heads, or “leaders” as we are now required to call them. While hammering teachers’ pay, he has enabled heads to pay themselves much more (to their credit, not all have filled their boots). While talking publicly of the importance of heads’ autonomy, he has made it clear to them via Ofsted that their careers, rewards and status is dependent upon delivering exactly what he wishes. Teachers are spoken of as lazy, untalented “craftsmen” who do not need qualifications. Heads are spoken of as the great leaders, responsible for all good things which happen to the children in their personal care. He is creating his local police force. The quote from John Cridland of the CBI which Warwick Mansell used is very revealing. Cridland said :
“It is worrying…that the coalition’s ambitious [education] programme is not landing as effectively as it needs to with school leaders, as the reaction of National Association of Head Teachers delegates earlier this month to the education secretary showed.
“We’re not talking about union firebrands here. To deliver lasting change Michael Gove needs to carry these people with him. While Whitehall may think it’s playing the right music, too few people are hitting the dancefloor.”
This is a direct criticism from the commanding heights of British business that Gove was failing to create sufficient junior enforcers of the new settlement. There was no attempt to pretend that the teachers should be brought on to Cridland’s dancefloor. Indeed, teachers (or “union firebrands” as we all are) are not expected to agree with the changes, simply to obey. But Cridland recognises that without the local “leaders”, the system beginning to direct large sums of money into private hands could not become self-sustaining.
The massed ranks of academies are intended to provide sufficient small winners with a stake in the system as to maintain the opportunities for the big players raking in the big money. A secondary purpose is to provide future recruits as necessary for the big chains : a standalone academy is rather more likely to fall over in the future than an LEA-maintained school, especially now LEAs are effectively non-existent in some areas. The cases have already begun to emerge, but there’ll be more to come. When that happens, they’ll be brokered into a chain with no fuss from pesky local politicians. However, I don’t think even Gove imagined a future of five or six colossal school providers hoovering up every school in the country. That’s too much exposure, and there aren’t enough winners with a stake in the system. The standalone academies exist to provide the local loyalists the empire needs.
Does this really Matter ?
At this point, some of my readers (has anyone made it this far?) will accuse me of pushing an analogy too far. Of course, this is an opinionated rant, not my previous number-crunching stuff. Classic internet conspiracy theory cobblers. But let me offer you an example of a policy which seems to clearly have no purpose other than to create local lieutenants with a stake in the bigger system : multi-academy trusts (MATs). The DFE is pushing these very hard. Standalone academies are being encouraged to join together in mini-chains of 2-3 schools. This is, apparently, the future. Why ?
There is nothing which a school can do in a multi-academy trust, which is related to the classroom, which it could not do as an LEA-maintained school, as a standalone academy, or in an umbrella trust. Nothing. Look at the Government’s propaganda publications offering case studies and justifications : nothing of substance at all. It’s as empty as Sally Coates’s claims that academies encourage better behaviour. Vacuous, meaningless, tripe.
- Want to co-operate with other schools ? Ok, go do it. Don’t need to be the same employer.
- Want to improve your transition arrangements ? Ok, go speak to your feeder schools. Don’t need to abolish your separate legal entities.
- Want to do joint CPD ? Ok, go do it. Don’t need to appoint an Executive Head.
In desperation, advocates of such mergers of schools (usually the SLTs of the schools in question) argue that it will save on back-office functions. Well if you wanted to pool resources for back-office functions, why did you abandon the LEA at the first opportunity, you great bleeding idiots ? They had LOTS of pooled back-office functions. But that’s not about the classroom, anyway, is it ? None of this is about the classroom. It’s about creating the small stakeholders – the local Imperial enforcers.
Veni, Vidi, Vici
Warwick Mansell suggests Gove’s GERM reforms may not stick around because of the democratic deficit. I think he may be right about the more ideological classroom-based ones. The new curriculum will one day be an old curriculum. The A-level exam reforms may not survive past next May. There will always be changes to the testing system, or the league table emphasis. Wilshaw can’t be around forever, so the next HMI may not be an egomaniacal headbanger with a God complex. Even unqualified teachers will prove to be a step too far. However, the structural reforms will be stickier.
The guys controlling the big money are very influential – politicians always tend to be heavily influenced by people with big pockets. But Gove also created a large number of local stakeholders in the system through the patronage of the mass academization. Expect large numbers of newly enriched executive heads and academy heads to resist any attempt to return significant local oversight to their schools or their budgets.
If I was being optimistic, I’d say that the sort of people who put their own ambitions and pay packet ahead of any sort of evidence-based approach to education are not the sort of people who will die in a ditch for any particular method of schooling. Many have taken Gove’s shilling to impose his policies on their schools, but they’ll equally take Hunt’s shilling to reverse those policies. A remarkable number of careerists in the mid seventeenth Century fought for Charles I, then held high office under Cromwell, then became ardent monarchists once again under Charles II. If Labour win, and reverse the A-level reforms, for example, I’d fully expect to see one of the usual suspects appearing to say that he or she fully supported this reversal of a policy they’d fully supported under Gove just months before.
However, I’m not at heart an optimist. I’m an idealist who is usually disappointed. And I note that while Hunt has already made different noises to some of the classroom GERM agenda in the UK (exam and curriculum reform), he has insisted that the GERM reforms which are unrelated to classroom outcomes, but heavily related to budgetary control, must remain in place (academy chains, MATs, PRP, no LEAs).
I fear this empire is here to stay awhile yet. Perhaps I should rename my blog “Disappointed Calgacus”.