The Man Who Tried to Teach us all a Lesson

Michael Gove was hated because people prefer the bigotry of low expectations to fixing Britain’s education system. But he was right

Education Features
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. 

Rather than command and control from the top, Gove liberated the system, giving teachers, parents and others a way to set up schools needed in their communities. The idea that Gove was a centralising tyrant is the opposite of the truth. The irony is that most free schools do not adhere to Gove’s view of what makes for a good school at all. Many believe in the child-centred, progressive teaching methods that Gove (rightly) thinks have blighted the education system since the 1970s. I am one of Gove’s biggest fans but I don’t agree with him on everything. Indeed, as I explained in Standpoint, I vehemently disagree with him on the effectiveness of performance-related pay in schools. 

In recent decades most education secretaries have considered it part of their job description to spread upbeat fairytales about how marvelously everyone in the school system was doing while overseeing widespread grade inflation and the dumbing-down of exams. 

But Gove dared to say what is obvious to most teachers — that standards and behaviour in schools were not good enough. Bizarrely, on behaviour issues the teaching unions, who are meant to represent teachers’ interests, claimed in response that our schools had no problems, despite the inundation of complaints on online teacher forums and the fact that one-third of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years, citing behaviour as the number one cause. Suddenly, because Gove was agreeing with the teachers, the unions turned against their own members, insisting that all was well in our classrooms. 

The pupil premium gives schools an extra £935 a year for every poor child. It was introduced by Gove, and helps schools to give these children much-needed extra support. Since Gove’s reforms, there are 250,000 fewer children in failing schools. 

So why do so many teachers and heads hate Gove? Good question. Ask any teacher, or indeed anyone at all who really hates him, for the three main reasons why they do so. Most of them won’t know why: they are simply subject to anti-Gove groupthink. But if you press them for an answer, I guarantee that somewhere in there you’ll hear something about “elitism”. They will talk about the demanding private school education Gove himself enjoyed as a child not being right for all children, about the fact that not all children can or should learn “academic” subjects, and that the content of the curriculum, whether it is traditional history, English or science, only suits a certain kind of child. 

Remember that 19th-century paternalism towards the “lesser breeds”? Only certain children, those of the elites, who can afford private school fees or expensive houses close to good state schools, are thought to be capable of interpreting the metaphors in Dickens or understanding the depth of Shakespeare, of absorbing the best of their cultural inheritance. Others should be given lessons that are relevant to their culturally impoverished lives — that means weaving popular culture into lessons and more “well-rounded” GCSEs and A-levels that are less academic and knowledge-based, because, well, it suits them, it engages them. Just why American rap music should be relevant to the British boys of Pakistani heritage in Bradford is beyond me, but there you go. No one questions this blatant prejudice. It is a form of acceptable bigotry in the 21st century that brings great shame on us, something that will surely be noticed when history looks back to judge us. 

When history does judge us, however, it will forgive most of us for being “people of our time”; it will be said that we could not have known better, we could not have seen how offensive our assumptions were, just as the men and women of 19th-century Britain could not have known how fiercely we would reject their belief in the hierarchies of class and race. 

Except that history will also record that someone did know better — that Michael Gove did try to change things and how all too many people fought him every step of the way.

There is an odd political reversal here. A century ago it was broadly the Left attacking the Victorian and Edwardian hierarchies and arguing for the essential equality of all human beings. Yet today it is a teaching profession with an overwhelmingly centre-left bias which has been busily re-erecting those hierarchies and deeming some classes of children capable of enlightenment and others not. And it has been a Conservative Secretary of State who has insisted that, on the contrary, all children can learn great poetry by heart, write grammatical sentences, know their national history and understand the natural world — that all children, whatever their class and colour, have the ability and the right to do anything a boy at Eton can do. 

Then the Conservative party ousted the one man who was fixing the broken system. I blamed David Cameron. But then the statistics and opinion data rolled in, claiming that Gove was a liability, the most unpopular minister in the government, not just among teachers but among parents and the public. 

I couldn’t understand it. Gove had introduced new accountability measures for schools so that they couldn’t game the exam system to fool parents. He had made league tables more transparent so that parents could better judge a school. And behind the scenes he was breaking the monopoly of the child-centred ideology that has dominated Ofsted and the teacher-training institutions. Thanks to Gove, teachers who have not been brainwashed by those institutions into believing that group work and never giving children the right answer is the way to be a good teacher are now once again able to work in our state schools, just as they have always been able to work in private schools.

Last month’s exam results provided measurable proof that Gove’s efforts to encourage pupils to take more academic subjects, such as the English Baccalaureate, are working.

So their children were better off, but still people didn’t back the reforms. Why? Because “humankind cannot bear very much reality”. Perhaps one thing Gove had not sufficiently accounted for is how confronting the stark truth of how poor the education system is would, in the short and medium term, bring a psychological cost: it would make everyone — teachers, pupils and parents — feel worse. 

Labour’s upbeat fairytales made everyone feel good about themselves. Thanks to this collective ideological deception our children felt good about their higher grades, most teachers believed they were doing a good job and parents thought their children were becoming better educated. Gove took all that away. We don’t want harder GCSEs. We don’t want a new national curriculum with a minimum, knowledge-based core. We all benefit from the regular dumbing-down of exams and that Kool-Aid is too addictive to put down. Better to put Gove down instead. Cameron was only doing what the country wanted. He was doing what Labour had done for 13 years: he put presentation, polls and feelings before real change.

Perhaps that is what politicians are meant to do: just do what the people want. But what happens when what the people want is wrong? Had politicians always just done what the people wanted, we would never have legalised homosexuality or abolished capital punishment. Politicians must reflect public opinion but also lead it, and as values change we can judge the past with new eyes and see things our ancestors could not see. 

The other day, I walked past a police line near my new free school, Michaela Community School in Brent, north London, with sirens wailing every few minutes. I was looking for the home of one of my future pupils. Eventually I found it and was shown into the front room, where there were four bunk beds, grandparents sitting cross-legged on the fraying carpet held together with electric tape, and so many children running around I lost count. They had no idea what bus to take to our school, let alone what a free school is. 

As we struggled to understand each other through their broken English, I thought about how Gove fought for these people, the poor, the voiceless and the weak. And I thought about how one day our grandchildren will clearly see the prejudice that deems such families incapable of educational achievement. History will judge us all.