TORY activists are a miserable bunch at the moment, and who can blame them? The polls suggest we are on course for a hung parliament, with their party struggling to land blows on a tired, unpopular government. And even if the Conservatives do emerge victorious, there is little in David Cameron’s policy cupboard for the party’s traditional base. Pledges to shield the NHS and international development budgets from looming spending cuts – implying huge reductions in defence and policing – are unlikely to cheer them up.
One thing is guaranteed to get them excited, however: Michael Gove’s radical plan to reform state education. If the Tories win the election, he will allow teachers, parents, faith groups, private firms, charities – pretty much anyone who passes a fit-and-proper-person test – to set up their own “free” schools. These will receive the same amount per pupil in government funding as existing state schools, giving millions of parents access to some of the choices until now only enjoyed by those who can afford private schools.
At the same time, he will let all existing state schools join up to the Labour party’s academy programme. Crucially, both types of school will operate independently of local authorities (LAs), bureaucratic bodies that critics argue promote waste and under-achievement. Head teachers – appointed by parents and governors – will be given almost complete autonomy.
The party faithful will be pleased to know that Margaret Thatcher’s decision to sell off council houses partly inspires Gove; he refers to the ex-Prime Minister’s flagship policy to explain why has no intention of forcing schools to adopt his reforms. “I think this is going to be emancipatory,” he tells me, glancing across at the London Eye and Waterloo bridge – both visible from the meeting room in Portcullis House. “When Thatcher said she was going to give people the right to buy their council houses, she hoped they’d take up that choice. She thought owner-occupation was a good thing, but she wasn’t forcing it upon anyone. In the same way, I think heads having more control is a good thing, but ultimately it must be for each school to decide.”
Gove’s special adviser, who joins us for the interview, adopts the language of an altogether different political pin up: Barack Obama. Using terms that were popularised in the President’s 2008 campaign, he explains that change in the education system must come from the “grass roots”, that it must be “bottom up”. If the Tories are to take on the LAs and win, he says, then parents and teachers need to be the ones leading the fight – not the government. “It would be brave politicians who stood in the way of parents who are determined to get a better education for their children,” adds Gove.
Such change will always come slowly, meaning that most schools will stay under LA control for the foreseeable future. But Gove thinks that by injecting even a small amount of competition into schooling, he can raise standards across the board. He points to Sweden, a country that provides much of the evidence for Tory arguments, having begun a similar process of deregulation in the 1990s. “We see in Sweden a situation where the greater the degree of freedom in a particular municipality, the more standards rise. The freedom of some schools to adapt and innovate has compelled others to raise their game.”
A common criticism of Gove’s plans is that middle class parents will jump at the chance to open their own schools, while disadvantaged pupils will be left in sink schools run by the LA. But he is adamant that the policy has been designed with poorer pupils in mind. “At the moment, we know that well-connected and middle class parents can navigate the system,” he says. “The people who can’t are working class mums and dads – we want to break open the system for them.”
Gove meets me the day after The Schools Revolution conference organised by The Spectator magazine. There he shared a platform with Mikael Sandström, the state secretary in the Prime Minister’s office in Sweden, where schools are free to turn a profit. That makes them more competitive and gives them an incentive to expand, he says. Gove doesn’t quite go that far. “It’s always a novel experience for any British Conservative to be outflanked on the right by people from Sweden,” he jokes. “But private sector organisations shouldn’t own schools within the state system. That’s where we draw the line.” However, while for-profit firms will not be allowed to own schools, they will be able to help run them.
Schools that opt to leave the LA umbrella will be free in virtually every other respect, says Gove. “They will not be bound by the national curriculum, they will be free to pay good teachers more, they will be free to hire their own architects and builders, free to choose their own IT, free to shape pay and conditions in interest of their staff.” But the government will continue to have control in one important respect: admissions. “They won’t be free to select by ability,” says Gove “They will have to be comprehensive.”
With most polls pointing at a hung parliament, Gove could struggle to get backing for his plans, but he is confident he can push them through if Cameron does a deal with the Lib Dems. “I’d like to think that the sheer sweet reason of everything we’re putting forward would mean that, whatever the party arithmetic, there’d be an overwhelming level of support for it,” he says. “Whatever happens in parliamentary terms, you’d have to be quite an arrogant politician to say to an idealistic teacher: ‘I’m terribly sorry. You’ve devoted your whole life to education and I’ve devoted mine to parliament. I’ll tell you that you can’t run your own school.’”
But if Brown hangs on, little will change, he says. Although Tory thinking builds on the policies of Tony Blair and Lord Adonis – the architects of academies – Gove says much of their work has been undone since Brown became Prime Minister. “Reform under Adonis and Blair wasn’t perfect, but at last education policy was moving in the right direction,” Gove concedes. “But all that was stopped by Brown and Ed Balls; they are old-Fabian centralisers who believe that the man in Whitehall knows best. The freedom of academies has been curtailed – they simply don’t believe in giving professionals a greater degree of control over what happens.”
Academy principals tend to agree; a leading one recently told me, “we need Gove after the next election – anything else would be a disaster”. With the Tories fighting for a prize that looks ever more elusive, such a disaster looks increasingly likely. They could certainly do with a bit more of Gove’s radicalism.