The Great Reformer

Michael Gove was the most dynamic education secretary Britain ever had

Three months after Michael Gove became Secretary of State for Education I applied to become a teacher. Four years later, England’s education landscape has been transformed, unreservedly for the better. There was a sense of hopelessness in the schools I visited during my training. So many people I encountered seemed resigned to the idea that in England rubbish schools, like rubbish weather, were a depressing but inevitable feature of national life. This resignation had only been strengthened by the failure of New Labour’s programme of reform.  To appreciate the reforms enacted by Michael Gove (who sits on ‘s advisory board), one must look back to the state of English schools before 2010. New Labour’s failure was not through want of trying. Total public expenditure on education rose from £39 billion in 1998 to £89 billion in 2010. The money was spent on a bewildering array of initiatives and strategies, whose Panglossian slogans now mock their total lack of impact: “excellence in cities”, “fresh start”, “building brighter futures”, “every child a reader”, “excellence and enjoyment”, “achievement for all” and so on.  As Schools Minister, David Miliband promised that children of the Blair years would be “the best educated generation in our nation’s history”. Nine years later, an OECD survey found that England was the only country in the developed world where literacy and numeracy levels among 16-24 year-olds were no better than among 55-65 year-olds. If you want a picture of English schools after thirteen years of Labour reforms, read Katharine Birbalsingh’s To Miss with Love (2011), or Charlie Caroll’s On The Edge (2010). In the latter account, Carroll travelled England for a year as a supply teacher in inner city schools. He witnessed school arsonists in Birmingham, a playground drug dealer in the Peak District, IT lessons used to browse pornography in Sheffield, and a 13 year old boy in rural Yorkshire who, with indemnity from the senior staff, bullied Carroll so badly that he dared not return to the school.  At the end of his account, Carroll wrote: “The year I travelled England and its toughest schools, the year of this book, came at the tail-end of Labour’s time in power. What I saw, and what you have read, is the consequence of Blair’s drive for education, education, education.” In essence, New Labour’s education reforms did not succeed because they were directed through the existing education establishment. No Labour minister was willing confront the possibility that it was the education establishment itself which was holding back England’s schools. In addition, no Labour Education Secretary after David Blunkett had the time to become sufficiently knowledgeable or resilient to take such a stance. From 2001, there was a revolving door to the Department for Education, with five Labour Secretaries coming and going, averaging less than two years in the post. How different things have been under Gove. Where New Labour indulged the retrograde ideas of the education establishment, Gove challenged them. Where New Labour tolerated widespread grade inflation, dumbing down of examinations, and a flight from academic subjects in order to create an illusory rise in standards, Gove put an end to cynical manipulation. Where New Labour aimed to raise results by demanding less of children and schools, Gove demanded more.  His detractors often characterised Gove as an ill-informed ideologue, led by half-baked prejudices based upon his own school experience. Nothing could be further from the truth. On the occasions when Gove challenged the education establishment, he did so with a wide and deep understanding of the available evidence.  The Guardian‘s education editor Richard Adams, not a natural ally of a Conservative Education Secretary, conceded in his valediction for Gove: “He was a minister utterly on top of his brief, with an extraordinary knowledge of educational research and statistics.” Adams recalls how, at an international education conference in Boston where Gove was set to deliver the keynote speech, he spotted the Secretary of State at 8am sitting in at the back of a breakfast seminar on early years’ reading programmes, making notes.  This dedicated understanding of educational issues was clear in Gove’s speeches, which were reliably entertaining, challenging and erudite. In a speech at the University of Cambridge in November 2011, Gove ranged from Gladstone’s Midlothian address to the 1983 film Educating Rita, via Jade Goody and the English Literature GCSE. His speeches were informed by research at the forefront of the education debate, such as that of the cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham, the curriculum specialist E. D. Hirsch, and Professor John Hattie of the University of Melbourne.  Far from hating teachers and schools, Gove’s speeches never failed to mention those that Gove knew and admired. Within the strange twilight world of social media, his time in office has coincided with an effervescence of teacher-bloggers who track the discredited dogmas that Gove has been so keen to reform. Gove’s speeches showed a keen awareness of this work at the coalface, and were littered with references to such twittersphere luminaries as Andrew Old, Joe Kirby, Daisy Christodoulou, Tom Bennett and John Blake (more than one of whom are Labour party members – so much for partisanship). Gove entered head first into the debates about curriculum content and teaching methods. This won him few friends amongst teachers, many of whom were never able to get past a basic indignation that a politician had the gumption to form an opinion on how and what they should teach. However, such a situation was far preferable to that of some previous education secretaries, who were ill-informed and thus beholden to the whims and fancies of a discredited education establishment.  However, to critique an education system is only a first step. Transforming such a critique into new institutions, secured in bricks and mortar, is a far greater challenge. That is why Gove’s greatest legacy will be the free schools established during his time in power. Establishments such as Trinity Dixons Academy in Bradford, Bedford Free School, the London Academy of Excellence, Reach Academy Feltham, Woodpecker Hall Primary School and West London Free School embody the more challenging, more ambitious, and more rigorous education for which Gove has been calling.  As the numerous King Edward VI schools across the country still stand as a testament to the English Reformation, so may these schools be an enduring testament to Gove’s reforms. The sheer number of free schools established should not be underestimated. When Kenneth Baker attempted a similar policy in the late Eighties with his City Technology Colleges, he founded 15 such schools. There are currently 174 established free schools, with 156 more set to open in the coming years. Such schools are still in their infancy, but when their examination successes proves their worth (as I am confident they will), their approach to teaching and school organisation has the potential to spur widespread changes across the sector.  More numerous still are academies. They now make up well over half of all secondary schools and an increasing number of primary schools. Freeing such schools from local authority control has injected a new dynamism into school governance. Successful academy chains such as Harris and Ark are able to expand, and less successful chains such as E-Act can be dealt with quickly. Such mechanisms allow good ideas to crowd out bad at a pace never before possible in state schooling.  In addition, the academies reform has freed schools from a cabal of ideologically aligned local bureaucrats, and allowed charitable groups and philanthropists to enter the fold of English education. From hedge fund managers to Hindu charities, multinational businesses to medieval guilds, the governance of schools has been placed back into the hands of civil society.  Gove has made numerous less flashy, but nonetheless vital, interventions. Reforms have made it easier for schools to set detentions and restrain unruly pupils; ended the two-tier A-level; cut back on dubious controlled assessment modules; incentivised schools to offer more academic GCSEs; allowed new teachers to train exclusively in the classroom; improved the professional esteem of vocational qualifications; and vastly improved the way in which schools are held to account.  Behind the headlines, Gove has made wise appointments, breaking the monopoly of trendy progressives within the education bureaucracy. Leading the National Curriculum Review, Ofsted, the National College for Teaching and Leadership, and Ofqual, are like-minded figures who will ensure that the changes Gove has set in motion continue long after his departure. A thoroughgoing reformation of England’s schools could never be the work of just one man, and countless others must take responsibility for ensuring that Gove’s reforms bed in across the country.  What was angering about the coverage of the cabinet reshuffle last week was the implication, in many reports, that Gove’s “sacking” indicated that he had failed in office. The exact opposite is the case: Gove is without doubt the most dynamic education secretary this country has ever seen.  Ultimately, he has been a victim of his own success. For decades, education was seen as a bum role in politics. One of Gove’s predecessors was said to have spoken “24th in a Cabinet of 23”. Another was seen as so irrelevant that he was regularly depicted on Spitting Image with a paper bag on his head.  Gove, on the other hand, has made education the most exciting area of domestic reform. According to The Economist, last year Gove generated more newspaper articles than any other cabinet minister, aside from the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Chancellor.  This courting of press attention, and an enthusiasm for public spats, may ultimately have been Gove’s downfall. However, a less pugnacious and single-minded figure could never have achieved so much in just four years. There are few politicians with the same combination of intelligence, industry, and moral purpose necessary to drive through such an ambitious programme of reform.  Much of what he has achieved will be extremely difficult to reverse. Gove may be gone, but the Gove era is far from over.    

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