It’s the Blob Wot Won It

Francis Gilbert's picture

Did the Blob get Michael Gove the sack? The mainstream media seems to think so. The Sun’s editorial said: “The Left-wing hate campaign against Michael Gove was hysterical, absurd and undeserved. Sadly, it worked. The teachers’ unions established the Tory Education Secretary as a wicked pantomime villain hell-bent on the destruction of a system which they reckoned was ticking along just fine. Most of Britain swallowed it.” (The Sun, Wed 16th July, 2014, p. 6)

Other commentators explicitly named the ‘Blob’ as being the cause for Gove’s dismissal. There are varying accounts as to who coined the term and what the Blob actually is. In the Daily Mail, Richard Littlejohn described the educational establishment as the ‘Blob’ that “have debased standards and betrayed generations of schoolchildren since the Sixties. Social engineering and ‘self-esteem come before actually teaching children to read and write” (The Daily Mail, Friday 18th July 2014, p. 19). In the Evening Standard on 16th July 2014 Matthew D’Ancona had a different perspective on the Blob: "As Education Secretary, he was unapologetically on the side of the pupil against the remarkably robust vested interests in the schools system that, borrowing US jargon, he called 'the Blob'…  Whether or not it was Lynton Crosby, Cameron’s election strategist, who wielded the cosh — as many of Gove’s supporters believe — polling data revealing hostility towards him certainly played its part in the move. This is the most depressing aspect of the whole saga. Imagine if Margaret Thatcher’s privatisations had required the green light of opinion polls — our utilities would still be nationalised."

In the TES, teacher-blogger Tom Bennett claims Toby Young invented the term: "Despite his pantomime villain status, Gove was one of the most effective ministers in my lifetime, and certainly the most effective education minister, by several barometers…One of Gove's most accurate assessments of the landscape was that a reactionary hegemony existed in education (which Toby Young defiantly characterised as The Blob – he would never use a toothpick where a toffee hammer would do), which had established both an orthodoxy of discourse and ideology, and a method to replicate itself indefinitely. His utter, damn-your-eyes disregard for popularity and kow-towing to the gatekeepers of convention made him a revolutionary much in the mould of his Bolshevik inspirations…"

For Toby Young, the Blob is the “anti-reform” brigade who include LSN founders Melissa Benn, Fiona Millar as well as the Socialist Workers’ Party, the Anti-Academies Alliance, and the NUT. According to Conservative Home, I’m a member of the Blob, although I’ve been lukewarm at times in my support of the unions, helped my son’s school to achieve academy status, and I’m not a teacher-trainer. My crime? For daring to say that free schools will fuel social segregation. Gove himself fingered the Blob as the teacher-trainers in the universities who are supposedly motivated by Marxist ideology. Gove in turn took his cue from cue the former inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, who shared Gove’s dislike of academics who espoused “trendy teaching methods”.

I think it’s worth quoting these pundits in some depth for a few reasons. First, it shows that Gove did not lack friends in the media: just about every newspaper, including the leading magazine for teachers the TES, were strongly supportive of his policies. Second, they all share Gove’s central narrative which was that the education system was broken and it needed Gove’s radical surgery to cure it. Many, like Tony Parsons in the Sun today, are claiming Britain’s students will now be lost without Gove’s guiding hand. And finally, all of these blame the “Blob” for Gove’s removal.

But was it “the Blob wot won it”, to re-coin the famous phrase the Sun used after Neil Kinnock was defeated by the Tories in the 1992 election? There are a few points to unpick here to answer this question fully.

We’ll probably not know the full reasons why Gove was asked to go, but a number of newspapers, including the Guardian, reported that it was the private polling carried out by Cameron’s election strategist, Lynton Crosby, which finished him off, showing him to be toxic amongst voters. Were these voters all influenced by the Blob, their minds poisoned against the brilliance of Gove by evil trade unionists, Marxist academics and damnable trendy teachers?

The saga of Gove’s downfall is fascinating because it’s a real-life parable about politics, media, education and the general public. If you had been consuming the media in the past few years, you could be excused for thinking that Michael Gove was tremendously popular because the overwhelming majority of commentators in the press presented him as the saviour of our schools. Possibly this slavish devotion made Gove and the government think that while there may be a few grumbles, everything was going along swimmingly.

But it wasn’t. There were serious problems with Gove’s approach on personal, political and operational levels. First, there was Gove’s arrogant demeanour with colleagues. The most notable of these was Gove’s spat with the Home Secretary, Theresa May, which resulted in her writing a public letter to him in which she asked him if it was true that no one acted over earlier warnings about the putative Islamification of certain Birmingham state schools. The Trojan horse saga hurt Gove badly because it not only revealed he wasn’t “operationally” on top of things, but that his policy of academisation of schools, where schools are made totally independent of local authority control, inevitably led to some schools being hijacked by specific religious and cultural agendas. His free schools policy was particularly guilty of this, with many free schools being sponsored by religious or special interest groups such as the  Steiner-Waldorf Schools Fellowship. It appears that his off-hand approach meant that he never listened to people’s queries about this within government; behind his polite veneer was someone who never listened.

Second, there was how his policies played out “on the ground”. With Gove at the helm, education became the flagship policy for the Tories: legislation to encourage more academies and free schools, as well as numerous other reforms, was pushed through Parliament at break-neck speed in 2010 and Gove became the “front-line” minister for the Coalition in the media. There was rarely a time when he was Secretary of State that he wasn’t in the news. Having been himself a right-wing columnist, he was manna from heaven for the commentators. He’d make an announcement about there being a Berlin wall between the private and state sector, the need to get rid of school holidays and have 10-hour school days, the importance of free schools, the introduction of new tests for six-year-olds, the necessity for changes to GCSEs and A Levels and so on, and a legion of critics would be in the press the next day trumpeting their support.

He gave important patronage to his supporters, putting his “yes people” in many corners of the educational establishment. He formed his own “Blob”, which I illustrated in a humorous diagram here. He created what one might call “Gove’s blob”: the “Glob”. He put his favourite “Globbites” put in vital positions in the DfE, in Ofsted, in the leading Academy/free school chains, in the exam boards and in Ofqual. Unlike the shadowy amorphous Blob he vilified, these were real people in real positions of power who devised key aspects of policy. Put together, they were the ones that said yea or nay to the creation of new schools, the funding of current schools, the shaping of new exams and curricula.

But the problem was this played badly with parents, teachers and the general public at large.

Many parents hated key policy initiatives like the scrapping of coursework for GCSE and A Level, the cutting of school sports programmes, the side-lining of Arts and creative subjects and the forced academisation of schools. They didn’t recognise Gove’s characterisation of the teaching establishment as a militant “Blob” but saw teachers working their socks off to do the best for their students.

Gove became very unpopular with teachers. A YouGov reported this year that, where the Conservatives had been one point ahead of Labour in 2010 with teachers, under Gove's watch they had fallen 41 points behind.

Why was this? First and foremost, pay became a big issue: under Gove the vast majority of teachers lost out: pay rises were capped at 1%. The NUT claims that teachers have faced a 15% pay cut because their pay hasn’t kept with inflation and rising living costs. But while most teachers were suffering pay cuts, certain favoured people, like the heads of academy schools and chains, were enjoying eye-wateringly high salaries. There’s a veil of secrecy over how much academy chain bosses are paid but it’s not unreasonable to think that all of them enjoy salaries well in excess of 100K. The Guardian also reported earlier this year that millions are being poured into private firms because of the academies programme.

This was as a direct result of Gove’s policies which gave huge power to a favoured elite. This was and is a true hegemony, not the mythical one suggested by Tom Bennett/ Richard Littlejohn et al: this is a hegemony where you can visibly see that certain people are tremendously powerful and really don’t have teachers’ interests at heart but are far more interested in their own pay packets. Gove’s introduction of performance-related pay seems set to make things even worse: it won’t raise standards, won’t motivate teachers and it will favour a sycophantic elite.

What teachers want is fair pay, not a divisive system which gives far too much power to one or two people, usually headteachers or human resources departments, to decide who gets paid what. Added to which, teacher pensions were cut. Furthermore, the academisation of many schools has meant that our working conditions have worsened: I’ve heard too many teachers now talk about the appalling way they’ve been treated in certain academies. They would like to complain but know they can’t. Perhaps it’s not surprising then with such a demotivated workforce that educational standards in academies are no better than those in local authority schools overall.

Gove clobbered the teaching profession and it’s meant we’re now facing a teacher-recruitment crisis. Who would want to go into teaching after Gove has messed around with it so egregiously? He’s turned it into a profession where we’re endlessly teaching to the test, where the creative subjects and creative thinking generally has been severely downgraded, and is poorly paid. He’s made conditions of service for teachers far worse than they were before he came to power.

The truth is that Gove was an unmitigated disaster as an Education Secretary, in my view the worst in living memory. He chucked billions at his pet projects of free schools and academies, cut teachers’ pay and pensions, downgraded creative subjects, tyrannised teachers and students with criticisms, dictats and new exams, and didn’t raise standards at all. Finally, his boss woke up to the fact that none of his policies were popular with the public, and were, in fact, toxic. Sadly, it wasn’t the Blob “what won it”, but the fact that ordinary people got wise to Michael Gove’s chronic mismanagement of education.
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Disappointed Idealist's picture
Sun, 20/07/2014 - 15:44

This is an excellent piece, Francis. I agree with most of it, although I fear I'm even less forgiving of Gove than you are. I don't have a blog, I just rant BTL on the Guardian and on twitter, but my thoughts on Gove are BTL on the linked article.

Fundamentally, I read another journalist in another allegedly centre-left newspaper, praising Gove for policies which have no evidence behind them, and snapped. Hence the ranty tone.

I am so pleased this wrecking-ball-disaster of a man has gone. Hopefully after 2015 he and his fellow travellers in the "glob" (like it!) will be unable to damage our education system further.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 20/07/2014 - 16:11

Thanks for your kind words. I've read your comments on the Guardian blog now, which are really incisive. I think you're right about the media and Westminster bubble Gove existed in. It's interesting to see how mystified right-wing commentators are about his dismissal: they just don't get it, and I think they find it troubling because they have to come to the conclusion that no one was persuaded of their arguments about the marvels of Gove. I think this makes it a parable because it shows just how out of touch they are. Someone like Tom Bennett is supposed to the voice of "common-sense" teachers in the TES and yet I've yet to find another teacher in the state sector (as opposed to virtual catfish ones) that has a good word to say about Gove. And quite rightly, he cut our pay, pensions and seriously eroded our working conditions.

Disappointed Idealist's picture
Sun, 20/07/2014 - 17:58

The fight now, I think, is not about Morgan. She's clearly been sent in with an electoral brief, basically a few nods to the Tory heartlands on possible new grammar schools, and just not being Michael Gove to try and bring ex-Tory teachers (yes, there were some) back into the fold before 2015.

The problem is that Hunt, and most of the Labour education team, belong in that same bubble. They are still enslaved by Gove's diagnoses and prescriptions, and still use the same tired and irrelevant clichés about "freedom from LEA control", "driving up standards", and of course endless reinforcement of the incredibly damaging Cult Of The Leader in our schools.

I think what I find particularly frustrating, is that they are so deep into the glob, that they cannot even look beyond it. Policies such as local accountability for schools are overwhelmingly popular, and academy chains rightly viewed with great suspicion. Yet Hunt insists there can be no return to local accountability. Why ? Because it has become universally accepted in the glob that LEAs are bad, and academy chains are good. They will not listen to the profession or the practitioners, but remain isolated in that Westminster echo chamber, the ignorant privately educated politicians and the ignorant privately educated media reinforcing each others' prejudices, like a Montanan religious cult worshipping Guru Adonis.

The fight is to bring reason, evidence and sanity back to Labour education policy. Somehow, we have to turn it from being entirely designed to please other members of the glob, to being entirely designed to serve the best interests of students.

I haven't a clue how, but a good start I guess would be for us all to continually remind Hunt that the reason teachers and parents loathed Gove was not just because he was a disreputable weasel, but because he was WRONG. Otherwise, he will slip out of the picture, and some less catastrophically confrontational globulites will simply slide in and continue to pull apart our state education system .

Arthur Harada's picture
Sun, 20/07/2014 - 19:15

For similar reasons concerning the loss of potential votes in the GE 2015, I believe Dave moved Elizabeth Truss out of the DfE 'cos she wouldn't listen to sensible and well balanced arguments put forward by early years practitioners and researchers in child development plus stay at home parents who did not wish neonates taken from the birthing table and immediately placed in 24/7 for the questionable benefits of "pass the parcel child care" as they saw this provision. Clegg agreed

Organic cheeseboard's picture
Sun, 20/07/2014 - 20:02

Both this and the DisillusionedLurker comments are excellent. For me Gove is the best example of the disconnect between the media and the rest of the country. Anyone outside the london media bubble could see just how repellent Gove is in person (I.e. In print and on tv and radio) and how unpopular his ideas have been, nearly from the beginning, with not just teachers but parents as well, yet until very recently the unequivocal media view on him was "the politest man in Westminster, genuinely committed to improvements in education,veto etc". This despite his actions from day one being a series of PR stunts with almost no overall guiding principles and nothing adding up at all (the best example of this being his personally -and it obviously was him - rewriting the curriculum in many subjects while also allowing every school he liked to bypass the curriculum entirely - if nothing else a ridiculous waste of resources). Also remember his cack handed attempts to cut costs, selling off playing fields and cancelling buildings. At the time the media praised this, but from the start that was a serious miscalculation, especially because he didn't actually manage the due budget well at all (e.g. spending 9mil on a building for Toby Young).

He loudly proclaimed his Blairism (which got thick Blairite journos onside) but learned nothing from Blair's actual career, only from his autobiography (Blair generally picked fights he could win, and pushed through reforms that were usually popular - Gove, on the other hand, picked fights with everyone regardless of whether he could win or even cared about the issue, and pushed through reforms which even early on were not very popular. Nobody actually wanted free schools and the insistence on unqualified teachers might be part of some weird point about independent schools, but sounds awful to yer average voter.

And can we now please put the "polite" thing to bed? Being polite to journalists seems the easiest way to convince them you are something other than hateful, but his statements and actions were the absolute opposite of polite. In the House after the Syria vote he was calling his opponents Nazis. He is not polite.

The problem with him is that he isn't actually very clever or talented. He managed to convince nobody of the value of his ideas because when push came to shove, he couldn't debate or make a convincing case - all he can do is call people names,and the only people he listened to about education were the same (Cummings). That's because he is an opinion journo, for which the only requirements are a thick skin and a colossal sense of ones own brilliance. And those are the only two real "strengths" he has.

Rupert Higham's picture
Sun, 20/07/2014 - 21:43

A fantastic article, Francis. This whole grim episode has revealed even more clearly the extent to which the media set the frame of our entire public discourse. Dissent only happens among the little people now; at least years-long cries of collective horror still occasionally have an effect.

jennyquestions's picture
Sun, 20/07/2014 - 22:32

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky (1988):
"Most biased choices in the media arise from the pre-selection of right-thinking people, internalized preconceptions, and the adaptation of personnel to the constraints of ownership, organization, market, and political power. Censorship is largely self-censorship, by reporters and commentators who adjust to the realities of source and media organizational requirements, and by people at higher levels within media organizations who are chosen to implement, and have usually internalized, the constraints imposed by proprietary and other market and governmental centers of power." (xii)
"The organization and self-education of groups in the community and workplace, and their networking and activism, continue to be the fundamental elements in steps toward the democratization of our social life and any meaningful social change. Only to the extent that such developments succeed can we hope to see media that are free and independent." (307)

sjl's picture
Sun, 20/07/2014 - 22:58

Will Mr Gove and the conservative party take it on the chin when his sponsored academies see a dramatic drop in GCSE outcomes this year, due to his removal of early entry and belief that only end of two year course exams is the way forward?

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 21/07/2014 - 08:26

All absolutely right.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 21/07/2014 - 09:32

I don't think anyone's won anything. We may not know much about the new SoS but we know plenty about Nick Gibb.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 21/07/2014 - 10:13

I'm also reminded of our conversations here in 2012 where I was advising Ricky that Michael Gove would make a good whip. I can find traces of that on google search (search e.g. for localschoolsnetwork gove whip Rebecca ricky and go down a few results) but can't find any of the actual conversations. I'd be amused if anyone can find them!

… been a good week for the Blob, which is nothing but a good …

agov's picture
Mon, 21/07/2014 - 11:13

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 21/07/2014 - 11:29

That's the one - thanks, agov. Rebecca's comment is dated 27/8/12 at 7.17.

I also thought he would make a good whip - reminded me rather too much of the outwardly charming but inwardly ruthless Francis Urguhart from House of Cards (except that Urquhart would not have picked such public fights). Urquhart was an expert at leaking adverse comments about his opponents, using the media, in short doing what it took to further his political career. And he had a wife willing to support her husband no matter what.

But that was until he got stuck in the loo - and the wrong loo at that - on his first day. And Mrs U would never, ever have made excruciatingly, toe-curling revelations about her husband in a broadsheet, never mind a tabloid.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 21/07/2014 - 15:31

Thanks for your help agov and Janet. I'd found that discussion but I couldn't see my comment for looking!

Not that Ricky would ever have any contact with Michael :-)

Rebecca Moss's picture
Tue, 22/07/2014 - 20:01

Thank you for these sensible words. I have no hopes for N Morgan as ed sec, but I suppose it is a small victory.

Paul Hopkins's picture
Wed, 23/07/2014 - 21:17

Thanks Francis for the article. I only take dispute I think with the phrase "Mainstream media" - like many I have lost any sense of identity with the 'politicos' at this time living as you say in that bubble. The media also (as you also do say) live in the same bubble so do not feel that they are mainstream and they are overwhelmingly right wing. You only touch on teacher recruitment but this is another area where Gove's policies have been (and will be) disastrous. Teach First is a stunt, Schools Direct only works because it is being propped up by the universities - but for how long and we are facing a massive shortage of trained teachers.

I agree fully with the end part of the article that the real worry now is TH. I mailed him and got the reply, "Should Labour come into power in 2015 we will inherit a very fractured landscape caused by Michael Gove’s relentless ideologically driven overhaul of the schools system. However, I do not believe that undoing every single reform will help teacher or students as it will cause more disruption" - I would like to hear him articulate what reforms they will undo.

Barry Wise's picture
Thu, 24/07/2014 - 10:42

Teach First has become too big and successful to be written off as a stunt IMHO. It's now the biggest employer of fresh graduates in the country.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 26/07/2014 - 06:45

Barry - Teach First may be "the biggest employer of fresh graduates in the country" (presumably you mean England) but quantity doesn't necessarily mean quality. They may be "fresh" but how many drop out either during training or shortly after the mandatory two years? And how many future "fresh" graduates will choose Teach First if the economy picks up and there are more lucrative jobs available?

Durham Uni has evaluated Teach First but the evaluation has not been published. This suggests it found Teach First wasn't as successful as is claimed.

Barry Wise's picture
Sat, 26/07/2014 - 09:40

Janet - Joe Kirby did a presentation at ResearchEd last year that showed Teach First outperformed PGCE both in terms of drop-outs and those still in teaching one year post-QTS.

Figures here:

It also showed that with 7 applicants per place, TF was able to recruit the highest quality grads.

In its 2011 inspection Ofsted graded Teach First as Outstanding in every one of the 44 criteria assessed.

I can't see why you want to knock TF, frankly.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 26/07/2014 - 10:41

Barry - then why hasn't the Durham evaluation been published? It appears Teach First gets preferential treatment and is more expensive (see here). Teach First was last inspected in 2011 but the regime has now been tightened up.

I actually have no opinion on its effectiveness BUT I get a little suspicious of anything which receives acres of positive publicity while other methods don't. The Institute of London, for example, was found Outstanding for its initial teacher training but I don't recall the same praise being heaped on the university as is heaped on Teach First.

And then, as I keep saying, there's the unpublished evaluation.

… I’ve pointed out before Bennett is, by and large, a fan of Michael Gove’s reforms and advocates what one might …

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