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Michael Gove – the case against

June 3rd, 2019

From a PBer teacher who remembers when Gove was EdSec

Michael Gove has many admirers – most notably, several on this forum, including a former Labour MP and a number of Conservative and UKIP voters. He is an experienced minister, having held office for nine years (one of them outside the cabinet). He is able, articulate, polite, and from a very modest background. He is well connected in the media, has a remarkable imagination and drive, and stands out, frankly, for all those reasons among the dross the Tories have for reasons best known to themselves put forward as leadership contenders.

Yet he still should not be Conservative leader and by extension PM. Here’s why.

The background.

In 2010 I voted Conservative for good, positive reasons. I wanted to see Brown removed for his chronic economic mismanagement. I wanted to see New Labour, a party unfit for government, ejected from office. But I also wanted to see Michael Gove become education secretary.

That may come as a shock to many people. But my reasoning was based on what he said. He said he wanted to get rid of local authority control. He was fully committed to the education brief – under Labour, that could only be said of Estelle Morris and to a lesser extent Alan Johnson.

The others were all ambitious careerists, many not very good, who did what would get them a good headline in the Mail. He said he wanted teachers to be free to teach. He said he wanted intelligent people to be teachers (it may come as a shock to some on these boards that intellectuals are intensely disliked in the teaching profession, something that has caused me much trouble over the years).

He promised an overhaul of the exam system, which was tired and based to a great degree on Marxist shibboleths from the 1970s. And he promised reform in school finances which hinted he would finally get rid of the odious PFI.

All of this was good. If followed through on, it would be very good. But here’s the snag. I judge people by what they do, not what they say. And Gove’s delivery fell far short of his rhetoric. For brevity’s sake, I will confine myself to two examples.

Multi-Academy trusts.

Get rid of the dead hand of LEAs by all means. I never liked them or rated them. But the cure was worse than the disease. For instead of making schools answerable to parents through boards of governors – as he should have done – Gove instead dreamed up the horror of MATs.

The idea was that these would be schools coming together under sponsorship from an outside agency or a top-quality school to improve. So far, so good. Nobody who had worked in Bristol under the old system, which was essentially a sinecure for failed bureaucrats rather than a system devoted to educating children, could deny it needed a decent burial.

But MATs are worse by far than LEAs were. Essentially, an organisation comes in. They come in to a situation where OFSTED give a school a 4. Then they sack the Head. They then run a failing school, and pocket large sums of money for doing so. They make no changes and appoint only young, very cheap staff, preferably NQTs, to replace the capable staff who leave in an enormous hurry when they see what’s coming. They then announce they can’t help any more, and disappear, leaving some other poor sod to clear up the mess.

One school of my acquaintance has been through this process a staggering five times. You will be amazed to hear it hasn’t improved. I could (but for legal reasons won’t) name two other trusts – one in Bristol and one in the West Midlands – which have quite blatantly robbed schools blind and then left them to rot.

What did MATs achieve? The answer is a nice gravy train for Gove’s friends. One school in southern Staffordshire (not mine) became an MAT six months ago. It is an MAT of one (bizarrely) but the Head decided to rebrand himself the Chief Executive and double his salary to just under £250k. That pay rise would pay for five teachers. Imagine all schools are doing this (and many of them are).

Does this explain why funding per pupil has halved in the last nine years even as overall education spending has risen? Not wholly – rising pupil numbers are an issue too – but it doesn’t exactly help. And, of course, it means failing schools are not actually being sorted out so much as asset stripped.

Exam reform.

This was the killer punch of Gove’s reforms. To be blunt, there was a serious need to make changes to GCSEs and A-levels. As I note above they were stale and based on discredited ideas. Gove rightly identified them as not rigorous enough, and that far too much teaching to the test was going on. But having identified the problem his solution was worse.

Because, out of fear his reforms would be reversed, he brought them in too fast and ignoring all advice from teachers and academics as to how to proceed. One friend of mine (a professor at a university in Wales) advising on the History curriculum resigned from the advisory board in a fury and threatened to sue if her name was ever mentioned in connection with the changes, because her advice was persistently ignored in favour of Gove’s and Cummings’ pet projects.

Ultimately, in most subjects the content was improved – dramatically so in my fields of History and RS, merely noticeably so in others like Music. But the grading criteria, created by OFQUAL, was a disaster that we are still unraveling. Particularly egregious was the mistake that saw them get the History criteria backwards, meaning it had to be reissued after the exams had been written rendering all History GCSE grades last year effectively meaningless.

But I was bewildered by the Music grades. A 6 required creativity, a 7 imagination, and an 8 flair. Arguably, those could be synonyms. In a-levels, the results have been far more serious. It is now so difficult to do mathematics that very few are doing it. I cannot understand the point of a qualification so hard that nobody attempts it. Surely it is better to have an easier course with a decent and rigorous spread of marking to show how well individuals have done?

In History, by contrast, content has been reduced and there is a much greater emphasis on blind source work. This is based on the misguided belief this is exactly what Historians do when sitting in the National Archives or the German Bundesarchiv. It isn’t, but the plea for straightforward analytical essays was ignored. This is why my friend resigned. Even coursework (and for geography, fieldwork) would have been abandoned had Cambridge not threatened to disregard A-levels and rely wholly on their own exams if Gove went down that path. The whole exercise was rendered pointless anyway by the decision to keep pass marks approximately similar, meaning the new grades were no more demanding than the old.

Why?

To this I have no easy answers, but such answers as I can give explain my view in the header. Gove said he would take on the vested interests holding back education. He identified these basically as teachers, as most people who are ignorant of education (yes, Richard Tyndall, I’m thinking of you there) tend to do. Certainly he drove through his changes with zero input from the sector. Indeed, Amanda Spielmann, at whose door many of the failures of the exam system must be laid, held it to be a badge of honour that she drove these changes through ‘in the teeth of sector opposition.’

But the much bigger vested interest in education are civil servants and quangocrats (Spielmann herself being an especially grim example). And here Gove absolutely sold out. He claims otherwise, meaning he is either very stupid and was completely fooled, or very dishonest and pretending he wasn’t house trained by some of the most useless failures in the land. Essentially, education is now more centralised in Whitehall than it has ever been.

MATs answer only to the DfE, who have in every teachers’ view far too cosy a relationship with them. OFSTED – which in Gove’s time, led by Wilshaw, was  a bastion of independence while being far from a champion of teachers – has fallen into the hands of these bureaucrats.

I have no hesitation in characterising Spielmann as the worst of them, and I still wonder what Nicky Morgan was thinking when in the face of all reason she appointed this total failure to lead such an important organisation with the predictable result that OFSTED is now as discredited as OFQUAL. Moreover, he did it in such a way as to infuriate, humiliate and alienate those who would otherwise have been his staunchest supporters – teachers.

Conclusion

For his failures as education secretary – and I could have listed a dozen – Gove should have been quietly dropped from public office. Indeed, his demotion in 2014, which marked my return to PB after a three year absence, was probably to try and detoxify education as an issue (which failed spectacularly when the even more useless Nicky Morgan was appointed instead).

But I am concerned here with what it reveals. Gove, for all his strengths, has tunnel vision, a reluctance to listen to experts who have the temerity to disagree with him and an over-reliance on ill-informed and low-grade civil servants who clearly run rings round him, possibly without him realising. This incidentally explains why he did OK at Justice and hasn’t bombed at environment – the quality of the workforce is a whole lot better in those departments than at Education.

His education reforms were not merely failures – they actually had pretty much the opposite effect of what was intended. Instead of parents being in charge of schools, civil servants and even shadier characters are. Instead of rigorous exams showing who is able and who isn’t we have disastrous guesswork, courses in vital subjects that nobody attempts and criteria drawn up in the teeth of expert advice.

And that, ultimately is why he should not be Prime Minister. We need a healer, somebody who will consider all views sensibly and come to a reasoned judgement. Gove is a dogmatist who will do what he wants regardless of the facts. Even allowing for my disappointment and disillusion, and for the weakness of the field, he should be a lay.

Yet the ultimate irony is, in the selectorate for this contest, his reforms are seen as a success, because the average age of Tory members means too many see these disasters only at one or two removes and hear only his incorrect soundbites. So his very failure may be a reason for him to be seen as a possible PM – and a possible catastrophe in a general election even against Jezbollah.

Y Doethur

Y Doethur is Head of History at a school in South Staffordshire and workplace rep for the NASUWT. He has worked in four schools in England and Wales as well as lecturing in two universities and published extensively on twentieth century British history. All views expressed are his own, but in this case are common to most teachers.