The education secretary, Michael Gove, sees himself as Blairite school reformer. By expanding academies, maintaining minimum exam standards for schools and strongly embracing school standards, he is certainly echoing many of the themes that characterised New Labour's approach to ‘education, education, education'.But he has also downplayed Tony Blair's linking of investment to reform. And while this may be harder with fiscal restraint, the coalition can be challenged on its stated objectives. It is here - rather than in attacking its main policy planks - that Labour should focus its opposition.
Gove's education reforms have three main elements: structural reform with more academies, including new ‘free schools'; a drive on academic school standards; and a pupil premium - extra cash for pupils in receipt of free school meals - to fight poverty. Only the last was a key Liberal Democrat policy, but all were central to the Tories' manifesto. Gove is essentially implementing a programme developed for him in opposition by the Policy Exchange and Reform thinktanks.
Blair aimed for 400 academies by early this decade. But these were primarily replacing failing secondary schools or providing new opportunities in disadvantaged areas. Gove has allowed primary and special schools to become academies, and any school can apply for academy status, with those rated ‘outstanding' or ‘good with outstanding features' by Ofsted able to do so almost automatically without a sponsor. This, rather than an expansion of sponsor-led academies in deprived areas, supported by universities and educational charities like Ark and Harris, is what has led to an expansion from Labour's planned total of 272 academies in September 2010 to 629 in April 2011.
At the same time, Gove is promoting ‘free schools'- parent-promoted, faith-led or sponsor-led new academies - but has been hampered by the groundwork and funding. At most, a dozen seem set to open this year. So far the initiative has produced few radical new ideas: most planned schools could have opened under Labour and some are simply resisting local authority reorganisations.
Labour needs a careful, subtle response to those policies, perhaps employing a three-pronged approach. First, it should query the balance of government resources being used between sponsor-led academies in deprived areas and helping good schools convert. The really hard work lies in getting weaker schools to become academies with good sponsors. Only with the recent appointment of former academy leader Liz Sidwell as schools commissioner has Gove turned his mind to this tougher task.
Second, Gove has said that when outstanding schools become academies they should be required to work with a weaker school. Labour should press for strong partnerships, like those being promoted by the headteachers' and principals' organisation, the National Leaders of Education, but they should be a clear part of academy funding agreements.
And third, Labour should use the free school model, refocusing it on transforming curriculum choices for all and providing better schools in deprived areas. At present, as with academies, it has become too much of a numbers game.
Gove's approach to standards and the curriculum has been strongly academic. His promotion of a league table measure that he calls the ‘English Baccalaureate'- awarded to pupils gaining good GCSEs in English, maths, science, languages and history or geography - has shown that only 15 per cent of pupils nationally reach this standard. However, the proportion gaining good grades in English and maths has risen from a third in 1997 to 55 per cent thanks to Labour reforms. But rather than criticise efforts to toughen standards which parents support, Labour should champion a tough ‘technical Baccalaureate' as an alternative that rewards practical and vocational success alongside English, maths and science. Gove is surely right to acknowledge the need to improve standards faster to meet international competition; Labour should help develop consensus on what this means in practice, challenging the narrowness of the education secretary's measures but not his ambition for higher standards.
Finally to funding, where the coalition is weakest. Its much-trumpeted pupil premium is worth only £430 per pupil on free school meals this year, barely replacing other cuts in schools with large numbers of poorer pupils. Despite promises of no cuts for schools, shadow education secretary Andy Burnham has shown average per pupil cuts of 3.9 per cent over the next three or four years alone, with another National Association of Head Teachers survey showing as many losers as winners. Labour cannot easily promise to restore such revenue cuts, but it can reasonably question the government's approach to the pupil premium and schools capital.
Labour has failed to quantify the extra help it provided to pupils in poorer areas, and its impact -the reduction in schools with fewer than 30 per cent of pupils gaining five good GCSEs in English and maths from 1600 in 1997 to fewer than 100 today. The party should embrace the concept of the pupil premium but set higher expectations for its use. Schools should receive a higher premium where they successfully improve overall results and narrow gaps in achievement. Those that fail to do this should see their premium reduced.
With capital, nobody could oppose efficiency efforts, but Labour should criticise the demise of formula capital, as proposed by the recent James review. By providing a typical secondary school with £150,000 a year to spend on maintenance and smaller development projects, school independence and responsibility are enhanced. This year's cuts to on average £25,000 a year greatly reduce those freedoms. Labour should champion independence here while holding the coalition to account on its wider plans for school spending.
Burnham has successfully tackled key Gove failings, including the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance, where there has been a partial U-turn. But his tougher task will be building on New Labour's education reforms to show clever, strategic and forensic opposition to an education secretary whose stated ambitions may be Blairite, even if his execution is otherwise.