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Michael Gove: The liberator of our school system (illustration by Michael Daley)

In the 19th and early 20th centuries Britain's paternalistic elites thought that the uneducated masses at home and the black and brown people in the colonies were not able to cope with the responsibilities of full citizenship. They were simply not capable of mature reflection or understanding. Like children, they were driven by their emotions and therefore incapable of properly using the democratic franchise (for the working class) or handling national independence (for the colonial people). The elites did not consider themselves to be bigoted. They sincerely believed they were helping those who were less fortunate than themselves by ensuring they were not allowed to bite off more than they could chew. 

In most respects those days are long gone, but in the world of education some of that paternalistic spirit lives on. What is often called the bigotry of low expectations is alive and well in our staffrooms, our media and our daily assumptions. 

But just as in the late 19th century, there are people who have had the courage to stand against the current orthodoxy. The most vocal of these people in our time has been, until recently, the Education Secretary Michael Gove. 

I used to think that the problem with our education in Britain was simply the system: change that, and we would create a decent start for all our children. But then along came Gove and he did change the system, yet many teachers, including head teachers, insisted he was taking us back to the "dark ages". I was baffled because it seemed clear to me that Gove, more than any other recent education secretary, was supporting teachers and enabling them to get on with the job of actually teaching in orderly classrooms. 

Remember this: before Gove, ordinary teachers were not legally allowed to search a child's bag, even when they thought they were carrying a weapon. Teachers had to give 24 hours' notice in order to hand out a detention, destroying the crucial immediacy necessary for detention to have a correctional effect on behaviour. When given a detention children would often chant "24 hours" in teachers' faces in order to taunt them. How quickly we forget.

Before 2010, heads would exclude serious troublemakers who made the lives of other children in the school miserable, only for appeal panels to overturn the decision and humiliate the head by returning the child to school, causing chaos in the classroom and instilling fear in both staff and pupils. 

More generally, heads had no option but to follow local authority guidance on teaching, leadership and governance. With the option of academy status, heads can now reclaim their freedom and autonomy and do what they believe is right for their school. 

Free schools are much talked about, but there are only 331 of them (open or approved) in the country out of over 20,000 state-funded schools. But academies are a different story: 56 per cent of our secondary schools and 11 per cent of primaries have now chosen academy status have. While not all heads wanted that freedom, many of them clearly did. 

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August 29th, 2014
10:08 PM
Michael Gove's effect was much like advertising. We know some of his work led to great outcomes, but 50% was pure waste. For example, his disregard for professional advice, his cancellation of the BSF fund, his demonizing of LEAs were notorious and unfair!

August 29th, 2014
7:08 AM
Absolutely and 100% agree. I thought that the voices of agreement with change were drowned by the more vocal dissent group. Hopefully some will come in this year with a new perspective on their purpose.

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