By Suzannah.Brecknell

19 Aug 2010

Michael Gove’s flagship reform of the school system is well under way, but questions have been raised over the pace of change and the funding to back up long-standing policy pledges. Suzannah Brecknell reports.

The Academies Act, rushed through Parliament to become law before the recess, is just the beginning for secretary of state Michael Gove’s plans to allow more schools to become academies and to make it easier for parents, charities and other groups to set up new schools free from local authority control.
The hard work begins now for DfE officials, school staff and groups hoping to set up free schools – the first of which are due to open in September 2011. One question that remains to be answered is how the set-up costs of these schools will be funded.
Before the election, Gove said he would fund the costs through cuts to Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme. But in June a leaked document from the DfE said the Treasury was “unlikely to agree” to this, and the department has now allocated £50m, taken from a scrapped fund that supported investment in ICT, to cover set-up costs of the free schools to March next year.

The statement announcing this allocation said free school funding would be a “top priority” for the DfE in the spending review, but officials will also need to pin down funding for the key Lib Dem policy of creating a pupil premium to support underprivileged children. The department launched a consultation on school funding at the end of July, setting out plans to introduce the premium from September 2011 with money from “outside the schools budget” – but it’s not yet known what the premium will be set at per pupil, or where exactly the money will come from.

Although the department has changed its name to focus on education, families and children are not entirely off the agenda. Children and families minister Sarah Teather sits on a Ministerial Taskforce on Childhood and Families, chaired by the prime minister. The taskforce will be working on the policy proposals set out in this area in the Programme for Government. Of particular interest to the DfE will be plans to diversify nursery care providers; re-focus the Sure Start programme to support poorer families; and introduce 4,200 extra Sure Start health visitors, to be funded from the health budget.

Teather has also announced a green paper on supporting pupils with special educational needs and a commission, appointed jointly with the work and pensions secretary, into effective methods of early intervention to support children with multiple disadvantages. Meanwhile, the department will be carrying out a review of the national curriculum.

The ministerial team
Secretary of state Michael Gove is a close ally and friend of the PM, who is rumoured to have encouraged him to stand for election in 2005 and soon promoted him to the front bench. Gove’s reputation as an intellectual and a polished media performer suffered a knock in government as he began to appear “rattled” (according to a Financial Times reporter) while facing criticisms on the Today Programme, and he was forced to apologise to the Commons after a series of bungled announcements about school building programme cuts.

Signs for coalition working within the DfE are positive. Gove is said to have ensured Lib Dem children and families minister Sarah Teather has been closely involved with all plans on the Academies Bill. Teather also attended a meeting with schools minister Nick Gibb and Dan Rogerson, co-chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Group on Education, to address Liberal concerns over the bill. Rogerson describes this as a “really good and productive meeting. Everyone was honest about the fact that we come from different political parties but we have a shared agenda in delivering a programme for government.”

Gibb has worked in the shadow education team since 2005, and before that served on the education select committee for two years. He has been a vocal spokesperson for a return to traditional ‘grammar school’ values on discipline and curriculum issues.
Teather was elected to Parliament after a high-profile by-election campaign in 2003. At that time she was the youngest member in Parliament, and she’s risen rapidly. Rogerson, who helped Teather during the by-election campaign, describes her as “very open” and “very good at getting to grips with a brief”. Having joined her in meetings with both Lib Dems and Conservatives, he says: “I’ve seen that she’s been able to bring those two [points of view] together and keep the discussion a very constructive one.”

Tim Loughton, who acted as opposition spokesperson for children from 2003, is now parliamentary under-secretary of state; as is Lord Hill, a former special adviser to Ken Clarke, and member of the Number 10 Policy Unit under John Major. Hill also sat on the advisory board for centre-right think tank Reform.

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