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If Gove reads this, I can see him shaking his head in characteristically polite disbelief. "We made it quite clear in our Programme for Government," he'll say. "We are going to ensure that all schools are held properly to account." To whom, though, Michael, are schools going to be accountable? And how is this to be achieved?

At the time of writing, we have no answers to these questions. We know that the Liberal Democrats believe that schools should be accountable to local authorities while the Conservatives want them to be free of all local authority control. The Lib Dems have thus far caved in. For how long? We know that Gove intends to "reform" Ofsted, but no details of what this reform will mean have been made public. We know that he wants, in response to union demands, to alter league tables so that schools are compared to schools serving similar communities, and parents are mystified. We know that he wants to keep some sort of test for 11-year-olds, but, again, no details of his plans have been made clear. We have, as yet, no idea how Gove is to deliver his promise that schools will be accountable.

It is an irritating thing to say, I know, but nonetheless I'm going to say it. Unlike Gove and his advisers, I have been there. I ran Ofsted for six years and I know how difficult it is to deliver a system of inspection that aims to tell parents what they want and need to know if they are to exercise a properly informed choice between different schools. Most of my inspectors did not have the slightest interest in parents. They saw themselves as professionals working with other professionals, consultants who "supported" teachers in "school improvement". I tried to change the mindset, but I failed. I have, as somebody once remarked, the scars on my back.

Suppose, though, Gove were to fulfil his promise to "ensure" accountability. Would this mean that a turbulent profession would be brought to political heel? Would the danger that teachers will teach in their own sweet way regardless of parental or political wish be averted? In theory, at least, it could be. Gove could strike lucky and find a Chief Inspector who succeeded where I failed. The more successful that Chief Inspector, however, the more obvious the fundamental inconsistency in the Tory education policy becomes.

Thus far, Gove has managed to have it both ways. He has surfed the wave of anti-statist feeling that has engulfed the country with considerable aplomb. He has, simultaneously, marched up and down the beach banging the statist drum, declaring, for example, that children must be taught to read using synthetic phonics, that school uniform is a good thing and that a Conservative government would expect secondary schools to stream their pupils.

In principle and in practice, this is an unsustainable position. A Secretary of State who believes that schools should be free cannot use inspection to enforce compliance with his version of the educational good. If he so wishes, he can try to ensure that Ofsted reports open the gates to the secret garden, but he has to let a thousand flowers bloom in that garden. He has to rediscover the courage of his Conservative convictions.

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June 29th, 2010
1:06 AM
This 'free schools' idea is a pointless waste of nonsense. What is needed is a return to the grammar school system and academic selection. It is not fair on the less able to lump them together with the very able, and vice versa. And to those claiming it is immoral to 'write a child off at 11,' you are implicity denigrating a very useful, practical form of education. Not everybody is geared for an academic education. The Chinese churn out millions of technicians, IT experts, plumbers, electricians etc. We should do the same.

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