Keep the Prime Minister and his deputy out of the loop – the less they know the better. That appears to have been the Department of Education’s attitude when Michael Gove was Secretary of State. 'If we tell them, they always fuck it up’, said Gove’s special adviser, Dominic Cummings, according to David Laws, former schools minister, in his book, Coalition.
Gove's DfE became almost a ‘semi-autonomous arm of government’, Laws says. And the DfE was run by a man who wanted his own way: compromise was for wimps.
Michael Gove had a ‘glittering start’: feted by the media. He was always ‘amusing, intellectually impressive, thoughtful and never, ever, dull’. But ‘not terribly good with numbers’.
Gove was, however, good enough with numbers to siphon £400m from Basic Needs Funding, money to help local authorities create school places, to the free schools programme, Laws reveals.
In 2013, three LAs failed to provide a school place for every child. ‘Only a few of us knew how serious the situation was becoming’, Laws says, seemingly ignorant of the March 2013 National Audit Office report which found the increase in primary school places was not matching actual need. But numbers were ‘small’, Laws says, ‘…probably the children of immigrants or asylum seekers, rather than of the vocal middle-classes.’ No problem, then, until middle-class parents can’t find a school place.
In any case, Gove was ‘fixated’ on increasing the number of academies, Laws claims, and interfered too much in the new national curriculum.
Gove, according to Laws, mixed determination to enforce grand policies with nit-picking meddling. He preached school ‘autonomy’ but was very prescriptive about what should be taught.
Laws describes Gove’s pet hates: local authorities (of course), but also careers advice, sex education and cross-department cooperation. Laws muses that Gove may have had an unfortunate encounter with a careers adviser while at school. He says nothing, however, about what might have caused Gove’s aversion to sex education.
Almost as much time was spent in thinking of names for initiatives as in discussing policy content, Laws says. Deciding the name of new 16+ exams, for example, took an inordinate amount of effort. Laws describes these debates as ‘something out of a political comedy sketch’ with various suggestions being rejected as ‘Waffley’, ‘Too foreign’, ‘Too waffley and foreign’.
Exam reform was supposed to bring English examinations up to world-class standards. Perhaps if the brains behind the initiative had spent less time on nomenclature and more on considering that few countries have numerous exams at age 16, they might have realised these should be reduced in favour of graduation at 18.
A strange omission from Laws’ book is any reference to PISA tests. This is odd because it was Gove’s promotion of the myth that UK students had plummeted down PISA league tables in ten years that underpinned his reform programme. However, there are murmurs of disquiet about the DfE’s handling of data. Figures on free schools sent to the Treasury and the Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) were deliberately inconsistent, Laws says, so these departments heard what they wanted to hear. Schools minister Liz Truss refused to accept international evidence presented to her if it didn’t agree with her views.
Laws seems torn between genuine admiration of Gove and the necessity to record the rows, the micromanagement, the malicious, inaccurate press briefings by some of Gove’s advisers which led the DPM’s press people to say, ‘The DfE advisers are lying, going rogue, being hostile and talking bollocks’.
In the end admiration wins. Gove writes with such elegance and understated humour that content, however misleading, can be forgiven, Laws implies. David Cameron said ‘Michael is basically a bit of a Maoist – he believes that the world makes progress through a process of creative destruction.’ Nevertheless, Laws told The Times Gove could be the next Tory leader despite the character flaws he describes. It’s a bit like praising Nero for fiddling while Rome burned on the grounds he played his violin so sweetly.
However much we argued we always laughed in the end, Laws writes. But many of us don’t find this at all funny.