Matthew Green gets it right: “good old fashioned management” matters

by Stephen Tall on February 6, 2014

I’m not one of those Lib Dems who joins in the fashionable demonisation of Michael Gove. He has done some things I think are good – which is why 18 months ago I named him a Liberal Hero – and some things I disagree with. And (personal declaration) the charity I work for, the Education Endowment Foundation, probably wouldn’t exist but for him.

Not much of the education debate allows for this nuance, but instead takes place in this binary world where you must either love or loathe the man. So thank you,  Matthew Green, for this post, The remarkable political success of Michael Gove, which is an entirely sane critique, and far, far better informed than most of the newspaper punditry I’ve read this week.

It’s well worth reading the whole piece. I don’t agree with every word but I think most of it’s spot-on – and in particular the section lauding the transformation of London’s schools in the past decade (a feature I highlighted in my fifth table here yesterday):

… over the last two decades, the Blob has pulled off one of the most spectacular episodes in school improvement in the world: the transformation of London schools. This has given the lie to the standard line of the Left that the educational prospects of poor pupils will only be transformed once other social problems, like jobs and housing, have been fixed. The Borough of Tower Hamlets, one of the country’s poorest, regularly outperforms much wealthier districts outside London.

The transformation of London’s schools remains one of the last Labour government’s greatest achievements. But politically, it is problematic. It owes nothing to the various policies pushed by politicians and think tanks, such as creating semi-independent Academies. It was largely down to good old fashioned management: officials at national and council level holding school managements to account, and replacing heads of mediocre schools. As a result politicians are strangely reluctant to take the credit.

If you ask Labour politicians from the Blair/Brown years how they improved schools in their 13 years, they will focus on academies – yet not a single school in Tower Hamlets became an academy during its transformation to 2010. (The ‘London Challenge’ barely rates a mention, for example, in Andrew Adonis’s book Education, Education, Education, which focuses instead almost solely on the introduction of sponsored academies.)

What worked in Tower Hamlets – as Chris Husband highlights here and as Kevan Collins details in his chapter in The Tail – was the unglamorous grind of strong leadership, tight management, focused goals, rigorous accountability, and genuine collaboration within and between schools and their communities. Not glitzy buildings, not new structures: sheer hard work over which the Secretary of State had little direct control. No wonder you won’t find that prescription in many manifestos.