Environment secretary does U-turn on taking time out of school

Janet Downs's picture

When environment secretary Michael Gove was secretary of state for education, he presented himself as an iconoclast taking on the ‘Blob’, his collective term for anyone who disagreed with him. Now it appears he's reinvented himself as saviour of the planet.

One of Gove's many actions as education secretary was to tighten up rules about parents taking children out of school for any reason that was not ‘exceptional’.  The Department for Education (DfE) has since pushed the line that ‘every extra day of school missed can affect a pupil’s chances of achieving good GCSEs, which has a lasting effect on their life chance.’

He also advocated tough steps against teachers working to rule by writing to heads saying they could dock teachers’ pay.   This, he said, was ‘robust action’ against ‘irresponsible unions’ who were damaging pupils’ education.

It would be expected, then, that Gove would send a message to the hundreds of children leaving school to protest about climate change that there were better ways to fight rising global temperatures than missing lessons.

But he didn’t.  Instead, he appeared in a Conservative Environment Network video saying ‘collective action’ of the kind they were championing (ie striking) was to be applauded. 

But collective action wasn't commendable when teachers worked to rule.   Gove said it was irresponsible.

And the man who slated parents for removing their children during term time now says missing lessons on Fridays is heroic.

To a background of tinkling music, several Tory MPs joined Gove in encouraging young people to write to them, engage with them and contact their MPs.  ‘Together,’ they said, ‘we can beat climate change’.

More like a party-political broadcast than a meaningful attempt to tackle the issue.  Sound bites rather than serious commentary.

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John Mountford's picture
Mon, 18/03/2019 - 16:20

I'm not sure that Gove could ever be thought of as the saviour of anything other than his own, to me, deeply flawed reputation. Clearly, anyone who really believes, as does the DfE, that "every extra day of school missed can affect a pupil’s chances of achieving good GCSEs, which has a lasting effect on their life chance.’ has a flawed perspective on what really matters in life. Amid growing support for abandoning GCSEs altogether their value is being called into question. Even if one did not support such a conclusion, the very idea that even 'one extra' day lost to their study damages a student's life chances is frankly silly. It would not be at all difficult to identify many experiences taken up by students outside school during school hours, for which a naughty mark might be awarded, that might offer a lasting benefit, of real significance, to a young person's future. To argue against this seems pointless.

That said, for once I beg to disagree with you, Janet. Gove has done what those in power, especially the pathetic bunch in our current parliament are capable of, namely changing their minds. He is quite right to say about the young absentees in question, " ‘collective action’ of the kind they were championing (ie striking) was to be applauded. "

You may have a point, Janet, we could choose to dismiss his about face on the matter of obsessing over attendance in the past in his deeply flawed dealings with teachers. He was wrong to behave as he did in calling for ‘robust action’ against ‘irresponsible unions’ who were damaging pupils’ education." He was wrong because he had no long-term perspective and wanted to bully and shame the profession to deliver his flawed agenda.

Your comment about his intervention over the protests of the young people taking direct action to make us all more conscious of the threats of global warming misses the point. We cloud dismiss his intervention as "More like a party-political broadcast than a meaningful attempt to tackle the issue. Sound bites rather than serious commentary." But in doing so we miss something important. It may be no more than a pitch aimed at impressing young voters, with his own political future in mind. If it is he will reap as he sows. This generation of young people, joined increasingly as they are by world citizens of every age, nationality and political persuasion will NEVER let him off the hook. His head is now well clear of the parapet. He will have to deliver different leadership as is being called for, or suffer a long and deserved political death.

I believe what is at stake is so important and that world leaders of the present and of the recent past have criminally failed to consider the future needs of our one world and the young people coming forth to enjoy its bounty who deserve better. They deserve the best and if Gove's intervention helps in even the smallest way to tip the balance in favour of the future, for once he gets my support.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 19/03/2019 - 08:38

John - I agree that politicians can change their minds.  They should do so if debate convinces them their previous convictions were wrong.  But I've an uneasy feeling that Gove will do what it takes to get him into number Ten.  He was an iconaclastic 'reformer' at the DfE pleasing the Tory right wing, US Republicans and the Daily Mail.  He played second fiddle to Boris in the Referendum campaign and then shafted him.  Now he's saviour of the environment.  

Platitudes from MPs ring hollow when so few MPs attended the first debate to address climate change in two years at the end of February.  It was triggered in part by the school children's actions.  The energy minister Claire Perry, who appeared to be standing in for Gove, rightly said the issue was ‘incredibly important' but the Commons was nearly empty.   

You're right that the issue is extremely serious.  Only this morning there was a warning about future water shortages in the UK by 2050 caused by increasing population and climate change.  It's too serious to be used as a political bandwagon.  And to the young people I would say, 'Protesting might raise the profile but permanent changes in behaviour, mine and yours, are more effective.'



Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 19/03/2019 - 09:11

John - I searched Hansard for Gove's use of the words 'climate change'.  There were seven mentions.  My analysis is unfair, of course, he could have obliquely referred to climate change when discussing, say, carbon emissions.    And he made a powerful speech about climate change in September although his conclusion, that the 'answers lie in support for greater scientific investment and innovation'  falls far short of the permanent changes, both individual and collective, needed.

My search found a humerous aside by the Speaker, John Bercow, during Topical Questions on 12 July.  Gove had been asked if he would  persuade Trump about the seriousness of climate change.  Gove replied that he didn't think his 'diplomatic skills' were up to it.  Bercow intervened:

'The Secretary of State should not undersell himself: he really should not.  Do not break the habit of a lifetime.'



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