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Nicky Morgan: Now to curb Ofsted's powers (photo: Department for Education)

Prior to his removal as Education Secretary in July 2014, Michael Gove took to teasing his more obdurate opponents by prefacing meetings with the statement, “Now that I am approaching my halfway point as Education Secretary . . .” Now Gove has a new and equally arduous task as Justice Secretary in the new parliament. Instead, it falls to the significantly more emollient figure of Nicky Morgan to bed in the last five years of education reforms.

Since 2010, we have seen a genuine revolution in state education. Gove took the nascent Labour reform of City Academies, which produced 204 state schools independent of local authority control, and rolled it out nationwide. Five years later, 60 per cent of all English secondary schools and 14 per cent of primary schools are academies — around 4,500 in total. Combined with cuts to their budgets, academisation is sounding the final death knell of local authorities’ control of schools. A journey towards a public sector market of autonomous schools and chains of schools is well under way.

When it comes to teacher training, the coalition reforms have promoted school-based teacher training to challenge the previous dominance of university education departments. Last year, more than a third of new teachers trained through either Teach First or Schools Direct. As such, two of the big beasts of the education establishment, university-based educationists and local authority employees, are on the wane. Schools today have unprecedented freedom to train their own staff; pay them as they see fit; design their own curricula and assessment systems; take over neighbouring schools; and establish new schools from scratch. Such liberalising reforms will be sustained with a momentum of their own, as schools embrace their new freedoms to innovate, collaborate and expand. From this perspective, it could be argued that Gove’s reforms are only just beginning.

A less pugnacious and single-minded figure than Gove could never have achieved such radical change in such a short space of time. However, as is so often the case, his attributes may also have been his undoing. Even some of Gove’s strongest supporters concede that he did not carry enough of the teaching profession with him in support of his reforms.

Among my colleagues who are outspoken Gove loathers, one article which he wrote two years ago for the Daily Mail is repeatedly cited as justification. In it Gove branded opponents to his reforms “enemies of promise”, and never really heard the end of it.

It is safe to say no such bellicose rhetoric will be coming from Nicky Morgan. The best-case scenario is that she will continue the spirit of Gove’s reforms, but allow for some healing to occur between the profession and the government. Before the election, Morgan made much of her concern for teacher workload — a well-judged campaign to indicate to the profession that she is on their side.

The worst-case scenario would be that Morgan presides over a rerun of the last three years of John Major’s government. After a period of energetic education reform during the early 1990s, Gillian Shephard, a former teacher, was made Education Secretary with a similar mission to heal wounds. Education as a political issue was kicked into the long grass, reform went cold, and schools experienced three years of benign neglect from Westminster. In 1997 Major ran for re-election on the rather desperate promise of “a grammar school in every town”. 

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