Will we have life in Gove-land or a Russian winter?

Ivan Godfrey's picture
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In his address to Cambridge academics in November 2011 Michael Gove lauded Gladstone for referring to Pericles, Virgil and Dryden during a speech to landless agricultural workers and coal miners in Midlothian. It is hard not to be intrigued by the romantic idealism of his vision of these workers as 'familiar with or, at the very least, curious about' such classical references ... somehow I find myself thinking of Marie Antoinette and her coterie playing at being shepherdesses in their recreated rustic village in the grounds of Versailles.

There are no references to the intellectual challenges of the modern world in his speech, plenty of side-swipes at the dumbing-down of opposition politicians and a single paean of praise to the ordinary person when Jade Goody is lauded for her infinite wisdom in setting up a trust fund for her children to go to a traditional public school as 'she wanted them to be educated, to have their minds enriched'. The deep tragedy for our schools and students is that he went on to use Gladstone's example and Jade's decision as reasons to build an intellectual basis for his wholescale personal restructuring of our nation's education policy.

And this has to be seen as his personal mission, informed and driven on by his own experience in education. The fact that generations of educators and politicians have sought ways to advance the complex task of educating the whole nation's children and that they have, sometimes slowly, sometimes more quickly, moved the education process forwards can be ignored. There is in his mind no complexity to solving all the challenges of education in today's world - instinctively he has, so he seems to think, the answers and they are simple and self-evident. He believes that the general public, after all, usually respond positively to simple ideas and can be relied on not to want to think more deeply. Throw out a few key words such as 'rigour', 'world-class' and 'standards' and repeat them often enough and 'they' will believe you are on their side. Rely on a basically compliant press and you will have no problems.

In Gove-land if there is any evidence to suggest some of his solutions are wrong it must be ignored and those who have produced the evidence must be denigrated. In Gove-land select only statistics that, if sufficiently manipulated, can appear to back up your arguments and assume that the compliant media is too lazy to delve deeper in to those statistics. In Gove-land if there is an overall body for the teaching profession that might raise objections (GTC?) scrap it ... and if there is a cost-effective and challenging way for schools to assess their work thoroughly and for a body like OfSTED to then judge their ability to do that (the self-assessment process) scrap that as well. In Gove-land if almost all are agreed that the starting point to raise children's chances in life starts with the early years then strangle the funding for Sure Start and put all your efforts in to changing the exam system for 16-year olds. Above all in Gove-land listen only to those voices that agree with you, select only the odd paragraph of essentially critical reports that might support some of the things you are doing ... and should you face mounting opposition to your plans (EBaccs) disarm and dilute the opposition by bringing forward a whole new set of reforms (A-levels).

Maybe, however, Gove should return to his beloved history and look at Napoleon's Russian campaign and its example. In his desire to be master of all Napoleon overstretched and lost all. Hopefully today's critical Education Select Committee report on his EBacc plans marks the start of Gove's Russian winter. As individual MPs receive more and more messages of concern, as educational and public opposition to this plans mount and, most importantly, as the electoral reality of coalition politics has a chance to make a rare impact (it's above all the LibDem MPs together with the growing number of sceptical Tory MPs who need to be contacted) Gove's tenure of the Education portfolio will surely come under pressure. Moreover, the normally compliant press likes nothing better than a taste of blood and can suddenly turn quickly and surprisingly on a former 'golden boy' even if he was originally one of their own.

With all the other problems facing David Cameron he may not be able to hold on to a seriously wounded Education Secretary for too long.
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