Was Michael Gove a great education secretary?
What makes a great politician? Definitions of greatness are going to vary widely, and some might argue that no politician can be great. I would like to posit some values which could be construed as being components of greatness if one was to look to someone like Mandela as a great politician.
Effectiveness Gove's big legacy is structural change: his academies and free school programme was his big policy. But was it needed? The statistics suggest not. It was not a cost effective programme; billions was spent getting local authority (LA) schools to convert to academy status. Yet, research carried by LSN and others suggest that academisation does not necessarily raise standards. Similarly, the free school programme has not delivered. Many of them have been set up in areas where they are not needed, many have not been educationally effective, and significant minority have been classified as failing. Problems engendered by a rising roll in many areas have not been addressed by the opening of free schools. The sidelining of LAs in the addressing of this problem has led to the ridiculous situation of Whitehall trying to address the shortage of school places in far flung northern cities. Bureaucratic madness. There is a staff recruitment crisis, which has not been addressed by Gove's reforms to teacher training. His decision to funnel trainees through schools rather than universities has resulted in administrative chaos and recruitment problems. Another big plank of his reforming agenda was performance-related pay, and yet the very organisation he set up to look into evidence-based teaching, the Educational Endowment Foundation, has shown it does not work; it’s not a cost-effective programme for raising standards. Other strategies like encouraging collaborative learning are far more effective. Changes to the school curriculum has resulted in real confusion about what should be taught and an overall diminution in standards as well as real demoralization of the profession who have struggled to cope or understand the pace of change.
Forward-thinking Gove is a politician trapped in ideas of the past; his slavish devotion to neo-liberal ideas makes his work tiresomely predictable. He is, like the Tory government generally, a neo-liberal puppet, a person who has a misplaced faith in marketisation and capitalist economics. And yet we know that unbridled markets don’t work; marketization has been shown to have destructive effects in education in many ways. When learning becomes a commodity to be profited from you get all sorts of perverse and unwanted effects: corruption, short-termism, social segregation. Furthermore, Gove was – and still is – part of a government with a vicious social agenda against poor people; the cuts to working tax credits are the latest in a long line of cuts which have disproportionately affected people. This will inevitably affect children’s achievement at school. The one hard statistic we have about education is the correlation between parental income and pupil performance. Gove is not forward-thinking in terms of the curriculum or assessment. He has a misplaced faith in exams, not realizing that the backwash created from the exam system is very harmful to students’ education. It means that there is constant teaching to the test; I’ve witnessed the ridiculous situation of teachers in Year 7 giving out GCSE exam papers to prepare students for a test which is five years away! The exams he has set up are Victorian; he does not believe in making learn relevant or accessible to young people. Nor does he trust teachers to find more appropriate methods of assessment.
Being a unifying figure Gove did not bring the teaching profession together. He was a very divisive figure, demonising many teachers as the Blob, the enemies of promise, when they were trying their best. The pressure he put on schools has caused a climate of fear to infect our classrooms, where both teachers and students are motivated by anxiety that they will be punished and will fail. He redoubled efforts to set up a false competition between schools, pitting them against each other when we know the best practice is when schools collaborate. He made never fought for teachers; during his tenure teachers saw their conditions of service and their pay and pensions significantly reduced in real terms. As a result, many teachers struggle to make ends meet. He was -- and still is -- hated by the vast majority of students, teachers and parents; this was why he was sacked, because he was seen as such a toxic figure. Can someone as incompetent, divisive and extreme as him ever be called great? I think not.
Some further thoughts I gave this talk at the Michaela Community School, the free school set up by Katherine Birbalsingh, and was arguing against Jonny Porter, a Humanities teacher at the school. He gave a spirited speech which argued that Gove was great because he set high expectations for students and teachers, and he was innovative. I lost the debate in terms of the voting, with the audience being overwhelmingly supportive of what Jonny said and Gove's policies. They appeared to like him most because he introduced a knowledge curriculum and re-instated old fashioned pen and paper exams, sweeping away many vocational qualifications. I said that Gove needed to give teachers the freedom to teach what they felt was appropriate for their children and it was absurd for a politician in Whitehall to dictate what should be taught and how it should be taught -- which Gove effectively did. No one talked about the larger picture; the attack on the poor that Gove and every Tory in the cabinet has supported. The debate was decontextualised from its social setting. However, Jonny and many people in the audience agreed that Gove was highly divisive and was not liked by many students, teachers or parents. Jonny invoked the name of Bevan when talking about Gove; Gove attacked the teaching profession in the same way that Bevan took on the BMA to establish the NHS. Mnnnn. Not sure about that one. Bevan and the Atlee government had a massive mandate from the electorate; everyone, the public at large, had voted for the NHS.
Gove was part of a Coalition government and had no real mandate to privatise and attack the teaching profession. Gove was hated by far more people than Bevan who had the public on his side. Gove was sacked because ultimately parents did not like what he was doing -- it wasn't only the teachers he alienated. Furthermore, Gove's agenda was one of dismantling local democratic institutions (the LAs), whereas Bevan was intent upon introducing universal health care. Gove wanted to dismantle structures that enabled the teaching profession to collaborate, whereas Bevan pushed a fragmented medical profession together under the umbrella of the NHS. Jonny's point is interesting though because it's emblematic of the way the neo-liberals have appropriated and twisted the language of the left.
I think the video of it will go up soon on the MCS website; someone tweeted that at one point I looked sad -- which I did. It saddened me that there was such hostility to what I was saying: at one point, a member of the audience up and said that it was disgraceful that I had mentioned the headteacher who committed suicide after a bad Ofsted inspection (an addition I made to the above speech, which was written a few days ago). I had talked about this incident as being indicative of the fear that Gove and his minions created (it continues) in schools, where there is such ridiculous pressure to get good results that some professionals feel so desperate that it causes serious mental illness. This, obviously, isn't Gove's fault; it's the system that he presided over that creates this climate of fear, which is not a healthy or productive thing. A great politician would have addressed this.