Gove's "Blob" is really growing! Are we witnessing the birth of a new educational establishment?

Francis Gilbert's picture
 Gove's educational blob 

A full sized version of the picture can be found by clicking on the picture below:

the composite blob picture 10

Michael Gove is reputed to have compared the educational establishment to a Blob that he has to fight against; a monstrous jelly-like monster which has its blobby fingers on every pupil in UK's schools. It's not difficult to guess what the Blob consists of for Gove. He has consistently identified who he sees as his enemies; the unions, lefty teachers, child-centred educational theorists, people who blog for websites like this one!

But it's interesting to take stock of the new "Blob" that Gove himself is forming; to my mind, it's more powerful and far more insidious than the old "Blob". The people in Gove's "Blob" have real money behind them and now are in key positions in government or various other organisations. They have Gove's ear, and it's their agenda that's being implemented on the ground.

I've knocked together a little diagram which illustrates the new "Blob". In no particular order, here are my explanations of the people in the picture:

Michael Wilshaw and Sally Morgan are key players at Ofsted. For me, the Schools Inspectorate is the voice that schools are most frightened of and listen to the most; rarely a day goes by when I don't hear the words "But what would Ofsted think?". The Schools' Inspectorate are now going to be drafting in regional directors to identify failing local authorities, and no doubt force schools to become academies. This amounts to a major centralisation of power, something which Simon Jenkins powerfully critiqued in the Guardian today.

Lucy Heller at ARK and Lord Harris of the Harris Academies represent possibly two most powerful academy chains at the moment in terms of political influence, although I could have easily added Bruce Liddington at E-Act.

The Sutton Trust, founded by Sir Peter Lampl, produces and commissions research into social mobility. Lampl has spoken positively about academic selection and suggested giving more money to private schools to cream off able students from poorer backgrounds might be a good thing. He calls this "democratising selection" -- whatever that means. Anyway, Gove's policies have meant that academic selection at 11 has greatly increased throughout the country.

Rachel Wolf at the New Schools Network, Sam Freedman at the DfE, and Liz Sidwell, the Schools Commissioner, are all part and parcel of the machinery of "Gove's" government, helping to implement his free schools and academies programme. Wolf is moving to New York to work with Joel Klein, but will remain connected to the NSN, and possibly her power will increase as she assists Gove with tapping into the "global" free schools programme, of which Klein is a notable "champion".

In terms of the curriculum, Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment is the undoubted man in power; in a response to an inquiry from Michael Rosen, Oates wrote "It is a category error to see the National Curriculum as ‘exciting and motivating’" This might explain why the new National Curriculum looks so uninspiring.

The world of the media is increasingly part of the educational landscape with the prolific blogger and free schools founder Toby Young wielding considerable clout in print and in the media generally. He writes regularly for the Spectator, which used to be edited by Boris Johnson, the London Mayor; Gove has close links with the Spectator, which often hosts events that champion his educational policies. Johnson and Gove are both part of the Notting Hill set; Johnson is trying as London Mayor to encourage the setting up of free schools to attempt to solve the shortage of school places (this small but expensive programme has no chance of doing that!)

Gove also set up Policy Exchange with other right-wing politicians; this think-tank is very influential in shaping policy, and has argued forcibly for free schools. Sam Freedman used to work for the unit. The rising star there is James O'Shaughnessy, who also has links with Birmingham University (which has just set up a free school); Shaughnessy is arguing for for-profit schools. If the Tories get a majority next term, Shaughnessy will probably be involved with trying to set up for-profit schools.

In terms of the private sector, headteacher Anthony Seldon has been Gove's biggest champion, making Gove the centre piece of his Festival of Education, which he runs in conjunction with the Sunday Times. Wellington, Seldon's school, sponsors an academy, and it appears that Seldon has considerable sway in the upper echelons of power.

Glenys Stacey at Ofqual appears to be very much "on-message" with her criticisms of English teachers who over-inflated GCSE grades; Ofqual's agenda seems to be very much in tune with Gove's; to end what they pejoratively call "grade inflation", to stop the "race to the bottom". Or to do their best to downgrade the achievements of state school pupils -- if you look at it another way?

Whatever way you look at it, within two years Gove has put in place a new educational establishment which is there to push his agenda first and foremost.
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 28/11/2012 - 22:38

Hilarious picture Francis! Wasn't Michael Wilshaw involved with ARK, and also the chair of Ofqual?

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 29/11/2012 - 08:09

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 28/11/2012 - 23:18

Time for a new set of 'Top' Trumps?

Melissa Benn's picture
Thu, 29/11/2012 - 09:18

Absolutely. It would work perfectly as a Top Trumps pack.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 29/11/2012 - 13:04

Here are the original Trumps. Of course Zoffis should have been in there too.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Fri, 30/11/2012 - 12:57

Thanks for this Rebecca, I've joined this group now! It seems you've been on to them for ages!

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 02/12/2012 - 20:46

Blobs/bubbles are a keen interest of mine. They are a human thing. This excellent book gives some insight
but I also have the advantage of having worked in management consultancy and the city as a young grad and having experienced it all first hand.

It's a human thing to generate blobs/bubbles. Here are some tips on how to avoid being part of one:
1. Nurture your links with people with masses of experience and no particular ideology when you've no power at all. Listen to them always. If they tell you you're wrong stop.
2. Understand Hawkins' scale of consciousness. If you can't then work with 'If' instead: Beware of those at the lower end - who tend the think in very narrow and short term ways and to demonise and resort to pyschological projection when they feel attacked (which they often do).
3. Understand that real change takes a long time to establish and the policy should sit in the background rather than being the driver of it. The mandate for change needs to be established through credible argument over time with all key participants in it. If it can't be established then you need to go deeper into your objectives and motives and this takes time. Anyone who's actually achieved something substantial through a large network of people understands this. Doing an MBA or similar helps.

The people in Gove's blob all seem to rate very lowly on all these things.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 28/11/2012 - 23:21

I don't know about anyone else but I could immediately come up with lots more.

Some of the original blog have been arrested now of course.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 28/11/2012 - 23:21

I don't know about anyone else but I could immediately come up with lots more.

Some of the original blob have been arrested now of course.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 29/11/2012 - 13:23

You should add in the self styled 'professor' Burkard - expert at the Centre for Policy Studies whose expertise appears to be based on not having taught or having any qualifications beyond an ordinary degree and having paid to be an expert and get his own stuff published. But please do contradict me if there's any evidence to the contrary.
His only 'qualification' seems to have been being praised to the hilt by Michael Gove at the St. Stephen's Club.

Then of course there's Dale Bassett- Reform's equivalent to James O'Shaughnessy.

The two of them turn up at education events looking and sounding like work experience boys - absolutely and completely out of their depth and failing to grasp anything. Then they go away and write duff stuff with posh words and circulate it to people who don't understand education and either aren't up to seeing that it's complete bunkum or don't care.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Fri, 30/11/2012 - 12:49

Yes, I've encountered Burkard. He got quite cross with me for suggesting that soldiers might not always make the best teachers...

Richard's picture
Wed, 28/11/2012 - 23:46

Gove and Toby Young were also contemporaries at Oxford.

John Wadsworth's picture
Thu, 29/11/2012 - 09:13

Tim Oates is a statistician which goes a long way towards explaining the narrow, instrumental new National Curriculum

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 29/11/2012 - 13:24

He's someone who commands no respect from anyone with any credible experience in curriculum planning and is expert only in telling politicians what they want to hear.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 29/11/2012 - 09:15

Blobs are spawning. A recent documentary, “740 Park Avenue” on BBC4 by Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney, looked at inequality in the US by focusing on the two Park Avenues in New York. He argued that the extreme wealth of a few has been used to impose their ideas on the rest of the US and he raised questions about the influence of CEOs in Washington in return for tax policies favouring the ultra-rich.

Gibney highlighted how billionaires, like the Koch Family, pump millions into presidential elections, think tanks, universities and foundations to promote their “small state, low taxes” agenda all in the name of “freedom”.

These Foundations, think tanks et al form an interconnected web. Stephen Ball, Professor of Sociology of Education at the IoE, has mapped the interconnectedness of many of these*. His diagram shows how the Atlas Economic Research Foundation is at the centre of a complicated web which links, among others, the Koch Family Foundation, the libertarian Cato Institute, KIPP and the Institute of Economic Affairs. James Tooley, Newscastle University, is part of this web. He promotes the school choice agenda, for-profit schools and the removal of the state in providing education.

*p20, Ball, Stephen J, “Global Education Inc.”, Routledge, Oxon, 2012.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 29/11/2012 - 13:15

Janet I'd recommend you be cautious about how you quote what James is doing.

Essential his work is based on the idea that in developing countries the best way to rapidly spread high quality education is not to try to replicated the infrastructures of state education we have here which tend to centralise responsibility but instead to keep responsibility local.

James was appointed to his job by my dad who set up the E.G. West Centre. E.G. West was our family friend who worked with dad and he left his estate to set up this centre. It's always been the case that the policies of free markets, which are closely linked to local responsibility, were very relevant in emerging markets and much less relevant in an established system of education.

I'm more than aware of the extent to which Michael Gove has misquoted the work of E.G. West and James as being supportive of his ideas. Are you absolutely sure that James has been out actively promoting what Michael Gove is doing? If so please do give me the evidence and I will chase him although it's often hard to get hold of him as he spends most of his time in the developing world.

If you really want to understand these issues I suspect you start with James' key book which is 'The Beautiful Tree'
Until you've read a book like this they you are not really in a position to comment on James' views and work.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 29/11/2012 - 15:10

Rebecca - in Tooley's own words (from "Rethinking Education" 1999):

"I still want to put forward the case for markets in education... Each of these features is necessary... to define a market, and are worth highlighting: 1 No state provision 2 No state funding (except perhaps for targeted indirect funding for the poor) 3 Relatively minimal regulation 4 Relatively easy entry four new suppliers 5 a price mechanism."

"Only when all these features are present together can we say there is a market in education."

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 29/11/2012 - 16:28

This should be someone putting forward that case and James Tooley is an appropriate person to be that person.

But just because something is proposed doesn't mean it should happen. It's like Melissa wanting to shut down all grammar schools. Just because she wants it doesn't mean it should happen. She should be challenged to define the benefits she expects and to map out the practicalities of how it will be done and assess the costs. Critics who are concerned that her policies will not meet her objectives and those who suggest those objective can be met in other ways should also be heard. This is normal and healthy politics.
Nobody expected Gove to shut down all consultation.

Free markets bring some benefits which should not be neglected. Most importantly they can be a tool for ensuring that there are people taking personal responsibility for the efficient functioning of areas of society. They can be tools by which systems which have become archaic and which no-one can get a proper grip on and which are therefore oppressive can become reconnected to their purpose. The main problem we've had in sink secondary schools for years is that they haven't had the community oversight and governance that schools in middle class areas have had. The main intended benefit of academies and free market thinking in this context is that it was intended to give capable and committed people real ownership of and professional freedom in these very difficult situations. But it wasn't needed in most areas because lots of schools didn't have these issues. Other methods, such as a city challenge, were also positive ways forward.

Underpinning the issues of free markets we have the issue of professional freedom in education. Archaic and over complex systems were the main barrier to professional freedom in the UK when E.G.West was around, because the systems of state were far more oppressive (there was no general freedom to move between state schools in the 1980s for example) and we didn't have Ofsted then. Free market thinking is of limited value for addressing professional freedom in education at present because those old systems have gone and because it doesn't address Ofsted.

Free markets are not evil. Self interested people can benefit from all sorts of system. But free markets in education can become hugely damaging and ludicrously expensive if they are implemented without proper consultation or planning as is happening under Gove.

A blob/bubble is a group of people with no credible experience in an area who communicate effectively only with others who also have no credible experience and who fail to engage with those who have credible experience.

A healthy group contains a people with all sorts of relevant experience and expertise and a few idealists with plenty of wider life experience who stimulate deep and interesting discussion.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 29/11/2012 - 17:10

1999 is 11 year BG

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 29/11/2012 - 17:48

Rebecca - see 2002 review below of a book by Tooley republished in 2010 :

"James Tooley makes a powerful case as to why the state has no business in education. He deals point by point with the arguments against the private provision of education and finds them wanting, backing up his points with a great deal of scholarship. His conclusions amount to an incremental increase in private provision in private sector education as a first step to a large scale replacement of state schools...Tooley also acclaims the last Conservative administration's decentralising moves towards the state school sector but roundly condems the nationalised curriculum."

It's interesting that a book first published in 1996 should be considered topical enough to be republished and sold in the States.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 29/11/2012 - 17:59

Do you have a criticism of the outcomes of this thinking Janet?

James Blythe's picture
Thu, 29/11/2012 - 20:26

Bravely said!

'The men who had hated [the book], and had not particularly loved Helvétius, flocked round him now.

Voltaire forgave him all injuries, intentional or unintentional.

'What a fuss about an omelette!' he had exclaimed when he heard of the burning.

How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that!

'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,' was his attitude now.'

Evelyn Beatrice Hall

'A paraphrase of Voltaire's words in the Essay on Tolerance — "Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too."

Extremely topical, post Leveson.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 05/12/2012 - 17:44

Rebecca - the quote was from "Reclaiming Education" not "Rethinking Education". Apologies. And you're right - anyone can put forward a case. It's equally true that anyone can also put the case against.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 06/12/2012 - 00:12

Thanks Janet.

Essentially, deep down, a coherent 'Tory' agenda focuses on the custodianship and management of education - ensuring there is custodianship and that managers are free to manage. Through proper consultation the Labour academies program was kept in check to be this because it focused on sink schools which needed it, both because they lacked custodianship and because schools in the most challenging areas need different strategies to other schools and managers have to be free to puzzle them out. Because the academies program was limited to small numbers it was meant to provide that without challenging the status quo for other schools which didn't need it. Only it did challenge that status quo because it dominated all government policy and other schools got ignored. That was the intention any way. City challenge and so on were other ways of addressing the same issue. Both methods were rational, neither were sufficient.

Meanwhile a traditional socialist agenda focuses more on social cohesion and opportunities for all. Melissa focuses on abolishing grammar schools to achieve this and here claims have some relevant basis. But there are other ways of achieving these aims and abolishing grammar schools won't do it on its own and will have negative consequences, the extent of which varies from area to area.

The Lib Dem agenda seems to be much duller and more pragmatic which suits me. But I'm happy with any agenda so long as it's properly consulted until we know what the intended outcomes are, costs and practicalities of implementation are established and
alternatives for achieving the intended outcomes have been considered. It's really not rocket science for anyone with any credible level of experience of managing or understanding decent quality changes which involve lots of people.

Melissa Benn's picture
Thu, 29/11/2012 - 09:17

Love it Francis! I wonder if we could do a movie version of it ie click the head and you get a clip of a seminal or notorious speech? Anyway, an extra bit of information/query. I think I am right in saying James O Shaughnessy, who went to Wellington school himself, is now working closely with Antony Seldon at Wellington on furthering the private school/sponsored academy programme?

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 29/11/2012 - 11:07

Melissa: O’Shaughnessy is Director of Mayforth Consulting which, according to Policy Exchange website, “leads several projects aimed at reforming publicly-funded schooling in the UK.” In order to do this, of course, UK schooling needs to be portrayed as “failing”. This is achieved by constant negative reporting in the media hyped up by Gove, misrepresentation by Gove et al of PISA data and by Sir Michael Wilshaw who used the flawed PISA data in a recent speech, downplayed contradictory international evidence in the 2012 Ofsted Annual Report, and redefined “satisfactory” as “requires improvement”. This in turn is taken to mean “failing” and is retrospectively applied to schools judged “satisfactory” (ie satisfying the criteria) under the old Ofsted regime thereby increasing the number of failing schools from 3% (inadequate) to 31%. No wonder LAs are angry.

O’Shaughnessy is an ex-Wellingtonian and works with Wellington College to create an academy chain. He was Director of Policy for Cameron (2010/11) and co-authored the Coalition’s Programme for Government. He was also Director of the Conservative Research Department (2007-10) and wrote the Tory Party’s election manifesto.

The Telegraph put him an 89th place in “The Right’s 100 Most Influential” list in 2009.
The DT described him as “formerly a leading light at Policy Exchange, the right's most influential think tank”.

The Policy Exchange pops up quite a lot in Francis’s blob – Gove, Rachel Wolf, O’Shaughnessy.

I critiqued O’Shaughnessy’s latest Policy Exchange report on three LSN threads in October.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Fri, 30/11/2012 - 12:52

Yes, I'll have a go at this Melissa, I'm aware the resolution of the picture isn't that great online (it's OK on my computer) and it takes a bit of peering at on Flickr!

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 29/11/2012 - 13:28

I remember one consultation I was at where he decided to start exploring the idea of having KS2 SATS in the September off the top of his had - ruminating on this thoughts in public.

It was just excruciating. Everyone there was fluent in all the relevant issues but him and his comments demonstrated his blinding ignorance of education, children, life and everything really. Everyone was either squirming or had totally switched off because, as I say, it was like having and indulged 15-year-old work experience kid there.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.