Was Michael Gove a great education secretary?

Francis Gilbert's picture

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.

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Guest's picture
Wed, 25/11/2015 - 19:10

I find it is no less "surreal" that you completely ignore the abundance of evidence available within the public domain and persist with a focused attack on one contributor whose factual evidence you ignore while being highly selective in what you decide is relevant. I note that the latter could indicate that you are in fact projecting your issues onto others to the point of being self-delusional, which is interesting in relation to your reaction to being challenged. I wonder, might this because it doesn't happen to you very often?

Andrew Old's picture
Wed, 25/11/2015 - 19:31

At the risk of encouraging a troll, evidence for what?

What I find fascinating here is that nobody seems to care about evidence for or against the "greatness" of what Gove *did* as education secretary. Actions, it seems, are less important than words.

Does that not fascinate you? Can you imagine discussing Bevan as health secretary by talking only about what his long term agenda was, how he fell out with the B.M.A., which claims he made are debatable and who he was rude about and missing out the whole NHS thing? It's an odd ideological lens to view things through, in which all that matters in education is the clash of ideologies, not who gets taught what.

Guest's picture
Wed, 25/11/2015 - 19:40

Classic sign of projecting. My contributions have not used any words attributed to Gove. Rather I have cited actions that happened. I belief people call it reality. You may also benefit from reviewing the litany of personal slights aimed at the contributor called Janet. If you want to find a troll I suggest you look in a mirror.

Andrew Old's picture
Wed, 25/11/2015 - 20:22

How am I meant to know what you have or haven't said? "Guest" is what people are usually called if they are unidentified. I have no idea which of the guests above are you or not.

But, you know, if you want to keep making personal attacks on me, while describing criticisms I make of other people's arguments as "personal attacks". You clearly have no interest in the point I was making.

Guest's picture
Wed, 25/11/2015 - 21:01

Thus far all the Guest contributions are mine.

Please refrain from misquoting me by dint of conflating two separate comments. That is to say:

At 7.10 pm I said, "focused attack"
At 7.40 pm I said, "personal slights".

What is clear is that I did not say "personal attacks". You may also wish to look up the definition of 'slight', which is not interchangeable with 'attack'.

Jenny Questions's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 00:09

"But look at all the evidence."
"I don't care about evidence."
What a wearying but somehow refreshing exchange. Refreshing because 'Guest' and Janet Downs have so successfully exposed Andrew Old's persistent unwillingness to engage with the evidence that is clearly stated numerous times. I had a similar exchange with Andrew Old, in response to a piece I wrote about 'progressive' education, here:
I'm reminded of a couple of panels from Daryl Cunningham's graphic novel 'Supercrash' * : "...liberals are often shocked to find that their well-reasoned and factually supported arguments are simply dismissed or even viciously attacked by the political right. Conservatives seem to have a gift for blocking out facts that threaten their world view." p.174
* it's about the origins of the 2008 financial crash; lots of information about Ayn Rand, her number one fan Alan Greenspan, the greed that was allowed to go unchecked etc etc
The entire discussion above, with all the factual evidence put forward by 'Guest' and Janet Downs, is dismissed by Old on his Twitter account with a sarcastic "...if you can call this debate".

Guest's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 07:54

Jenny - I note with interest your interaction with Mr Old and the marked similarities in his superficial approach to the discussion here. For me, however, what was even more telling / insightful was your reference to him resorting to his Twitter account to effectively try and stab Janet and I in the back. Rather than feel any irritation at this I do so hope that it prompts those receiving his (t)witterings to visit the thread and read for themselves, which they may find more enlightening than he would wish.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 08:43

Jenny and Guest - I always find these exchanges with Andrew illuminating. There's rarely any reasoned critique - just generalised put downs such as 'weak', 'misleading', 'unpersuasive' etc.

In the exchange above Andrew differentiates between what Gove 'said' and what he 'did'. But this ignores the fact that what Gove did grew from what he said. Gove's words weren't empty rhetoric but statements of intent.

Take the infamous press release of December 2010 when he deliberately ignored a warning from the OECD not to use their PISA results for the UK for 2000 because they'd been found to be flawed. But this statement, which gave rise to the 'plummeting down league tables in a decade' myth, was used to underpin his entire education programme. The words accompanied actions which include: academization by force if necessary; increasing the reliance on tests; rewriting the national curriculum (after two advisers resigned)' introducing hasty exam reforms with no time for trialling or evaluation...

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 08:53

Jenny - your comment about 'well-reasoned and factually supported arguments' being 'simply dismissed' reminded me of a Times article by Matthew Parrish about a training session he attended. It was intended to give practice about in cross-examining any opposition. Parrish was to play the part of a dictator whose breaches of human rights were well-documented and evidenced. His interrogator had all the facts to hand.

Parrish (as dictator) just denied everything. The accusations were not true, he repeated. The interrogator was eventually left speechless.

Simple denial - no need to mount a counter-argument, just deny or dismiss the argument with 'weak', 'misleading' etc.

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 09:00

I know I pointed this out to Janet, but I'll do the same to you. People who agree with you are not "evidence". We use the word "evidence" to describe the incontestable facts that might help support an argument. The reason this debate hasn't come down to any evidence is because there is not much of an argument. The reason I am sarcastic about whether this is actual debate is for the same reason. Given that anyone not already signed up to the dominant ideology on this forum is going to judge Gove by what he did, is there any point to a discussion of what he believed or said? In fact, who is that debate even aimed at? Who is it that is meant to say "well, I don't care what Gove did, if Janet Downs takes issue with his use of statistics then his 4 years in office don't matter"?

Barry Wise's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 09:12


It does seem a bit surreal talking about Andrew Old in the same breath as 'the political right', 'Conservatives' and even Ayn Rand.

Andrew Old is the editor of Labour Teachers!


I also think Andrew Old has a point when he says that rather too much of the discussion is focused on what Gove (may have) meant to do, rather than what he actually did do. Once people start talking about neo-liberal privatisation plots they do begin to come across a bit swivel-eyed New World Orderish.

Oddly (perhaps even ironically) I think Gove will be remembered as the SoS who tamed Ofsted. A Headteacher showed me his school's pre-Gove SEF the other day, laying next to the slip, 18 pages of A4 current version. The contrast was astonishing.
Although the new framework didn't come in 'til Gove had gone, it was Gove who told Ofsted to cut back on their areas of inspection and stop foisting their own ideas of model-lessons on everyone.

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 09:06

Yes, but even if you find something wrong in what somebody says, it does not actually tell us their policies were wrong.

Tell you what, Janet, if I find that you have said something that is factually incorrect, would you concede that everything else you argued is wrong?

I'm betting you wouldn't. I'm betting that on this, like every other argument you use, you only care about the conclusion, not the validity of the argument.

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 09:16

I denied nothing but the *relevance* of your points. Obviously, I could be wrong to deny this, but I did it only on the basis of the obvious point that we should judge politicians, after they leave office, by what they actually did in office. Now you might disagree with this, but let's not pretend I am engaging in some outrageous level of denial. I can't prove it, but I suspect most people would say the same. Certainly none of you seem to want to deny the same principle in the case of Bevan as health secretary. None of you have actually dared say "I don't care if Bevan founded the NHS, let's argue over his beliefs, statements and rudeness".

On the other hand, the three of you could continue to have a conversation between yourselves about how terrible it is that I have disagreed with you on this fundamental principle, instead of having an evidence-based, but irrelevant, discussion that assumes the very point I'm disputing.

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 09:22

Yep, but to acknowledge that I am not debating as some right-winger would also be to acknowledge that I haven't actually argued for Gove's greatness, only for debate that concentrates on what he did.

I am of the view that Gove failed to achieve great reform. But I am also of the view that challenging vested interests, and starting a debate, were the best part of what he did, not, as people seem to be arguing, proof that he was bad at his job.

Michael Pyke's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 09:40

Andrew, having come somewhat late to this thread, I should be grateful if you would set out concisely

1. What exactly is the argument which you have been advancing (as opposed to pointing out the fallacious ideas of other people)?

2. What are the "incontestable facts" that "might help support" this argument (whatever it is)?

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 09:49

I have argued that we judge politicians greatness in office by what they did in office.

I think this is self-evidently a sensible way to approach things, but if you need supporting facts, then the fact that those who are disagreeing with this principle in the case of Michael Gove, won't disagree with it in the case of Nye Bevan, is evidence that the principle I'm putting forward is not absurd or unfair.

Guest's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 07:56

Oophs, the penultimate sentence should of course read "stab Janet and me in the back." not "Janet and I". Apologies for the careless grammar.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 09:41

So - if one thing is factually wrong then that would invalidate everything. Funny kind of reasoning. If something is factually wrong then I would put that one thing right as I do when I discover errors in my posts - they are swiftly corrected.

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 09:50

If it's a funny kind of reasoning, that you wouldn't apply to yourself, why are you applying that reasoning to Gove?

Guest's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 09:44

Andrew - This like listening to a stuck record. I refer you to my earlier contributions that do not rely on what Gove did or did not say or mean or intend. What I did was to draw on his actions and place in a basic chronological order. This then is not opinion or interpretation or an unwillingness to debate arising from being challenged. Rather it is statement of evidence freely available in the public domain.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 09:51

Barry - I have listed several times what Gove did as well as what he said. I find it odd that Gove's misuse of a statistic (ie the OECD PISA 2000 data) is dismissed as just a four-year old blip. (Actually, Morgan used the same discredited stat a few weeks ago in a speech to explain why reforms were necessary). It matters because t demonstrates a deliberate and calculated deception.

I'm unconvinced Gove 'tamed' Ofsted. Sir Michael Wilshaw has reminded inspectors there are no 'model-lessons' and he has been frustrated by constant suggestions there were. That's not to say there weren't inspectors who just looked for certain things - hopefully this will stop now that outsourced inspections are no more.

I disagree that inspections are now better. They are too short and rely too much on stats and swift observations of a few lessons. Early Ofsted inspections took a week and commented on every subject. I would like to see that returned.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 09:54

Barry - just to make it clear - I wasn't saying you suggested Gove's misuse of a statistic four years ago didn't matter - I was commenting on what Andrew had said because you mentioned him in your reply.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 10:27

Barry - it would be easy to dismiss concerns about increased private involvement in education in England as 'neo-liberal privatisation plots' from those who 'do begin to come across a bit swivel-eyed New World Orderish' but for these facts:

1 Give said he would allow Serco to run schools. Now I know Andrew would dismiss that as something he said which didn't happen but when IES was allowed to run Breckland Free school Fraser Nelson, writing in the Telegraph, praised Gove for bringing in profit-making schools 'unobtrusively'.
2 The Public Accounts Committee expressed concern about related party transactions between academy trustees and companies linked to them (actually the NAO had made the same point before 2010 - some academies felt under pressure to purchase services from companies run by sponsors). The EFA has told trustees any services should be provided at cost, but Margaret Hodge, ex-PAC chair, said all they'd need to do would be to increase the cost. In other words, academization, heavily promoted by Gove, has allowed some trustees to profit by bunging contracts to connected companies.
3 Gove is close to Murdoch whose News Corp employed Joel Klein to lead News Corp's 'aggressive push into the education market' via a company called Amplify which recruited Rachel Wolf, one-time Gove assistant who was put in charge of the New Schools Network which promotes free schools. In the end Amplify proved a failure but Wolf is back and is now in Number 10's Policy Unit.
4 Gove sat on the board of Atlantic Bridge, the charity which was removed from the Charities Commission register after a critical report in 2007. Atlantic Bridge had signed a special partnership with the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) whose motto is “Limited government, free markets, federalism.” News Corp was a member of Alec. See here for more info.

Barry Wise's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 12:23


Gove said he would allow Serco to run schools.

And the previous Labour government allowed Serco to run all the schools in Bradford on at ten-year £350m + contract.

Did that mean that Labour were also part of a long term conspiracy too?

I really do think you are - unusually - crossing the line into conspiracy territory here.
Gove is close to Murdoch. Well yes, he did used to work for Murdoch at the Times. And Mrs Gove was a Times writer too. But there is nothing sinister about the Times. If you saw someone reading the Times on the train you wouldn't think better follow him to see where he got it.

As for Alec's motto: Limited government, free markets, federalism
- llose the federalism and that could be the motto of the Conservative party. Come to think of it, keep the federalism and it could be the motto of some of the Orange Book Lib Dems!

I remember dimly reading a story saying that Murdoch did once show interest in having an academy or a free school but Gove told him to apply in the usual way along with everyone else.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 13:11

Barry - yes I know Serco was allowed to run Bradford education (it's now back in house after some controversy). And it was unwise of Labour to do so just as it was wrong to start the academies programme and involve businesses in the actual running of schools.

It does not follow that in criticising Murdoch I'm criticising the Times as a newspaper (although I have sometimes criticised what was written in the Times on this site). But Gove's closeness to Murdoch goes beyond he and his wife writing for the Times. Gove poured effusive praise over Murdoch when he defended his frequent meetings with News Corp while he was SoS. These meetings and Gove's connection with News Corp's Joel Klein are listed in depth here. The article also described a meeting with Gove, Murdoch, his entourage and Rebekah Brookes on the site of Murdoch's proposed academy. The Guardian suggests this was 'quietly abandoned' after the hacking scandal broke shortly afterwards.

ALEC does more than lobby for less government, free markets and federalism. It drafts model state legislation including statues which encourage online schooling, the privatization of public education and the removal of collective bargaining. The Wall Street Journal and Fox News, both owned by News Corp have defended ALEC from criticism.

ALEC lost much support from businesses after it was accused of supporting African-American voter suppression and the 'Stand Your Ground' law.

Guest's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 10:35

Barry - I think you'll find that the first major changes to the inspection regime was rolled out in summer 2012 for use from September 2012 and it has changed year on year since. The restructuring involving not renewing the inspection service provider contracts (CfBT, Serco and Tribal) was announced in 2014. The subsequent move from Additional Inspectors sub contracted to Ofsted via the former ISPs to Ofsted Inspectors contracted directly by Ofsted went live September this year.

What is unlikely to be known (revealed) is how much of the Ofsted changes since 2010 have been down to SMW and how much was down to MG (directly or through arm twisting).

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 10:44

Big, big difference, Andrew. I presume you're referring to Gove's misuse four year's ago of OECD redacted data (and which was repeated by Morgan a few weeks' ago).

The big difference is that Gove's use of the flawed data was deliberate. And before you ask how do I know, I'll explain. The press release which contained the faulty data and the claim the UK had plummeted down league tables in the preceding decade contained an item (paragraph 76) from the UK briefing sheet. But paragraph 2 said:

'Trend comparisons, which are a feature of the PISA 2009 reporting are not reported here because' or the United Kingdom it is only possible to compare 2006 and 2009 data. As the PISA 2000 and PISA'2003 samples for the United Kingdom did not meet the PISA response-rate standards, no trend comparisons are possible with these years.'

There was also a footnote explaining why.

Funny how this was missed when it was in such a prominent position.

Gove and other politicians (except Morgan) stopped using the 2000 PISA data after the US Statistics Watchdog expressed concern.

But if I make an error I'll correct it and apologise as quickly as possible as in this post here.

Michael Pyke's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 10:53

Thank you. If that is your argument, I have to say that you are absolutely right (give or take your somewhat tendentious distinction between "doing" and "saying", since what politicians say has consequences and they know it) but, surely, the point is so obvious as to be not worth making? Would you also agree that whether or not someone may be described as "great" is entirely a matter of judgement and that, for this reason, it is usual to defer such judgements until sufficient time has passed for a distanced consensus to emerge among historians and other people deemed to have expertise? If you would, then, surely, we should leave it to future generations to determine whether or not Gove should be in the Pantheon of Education Secretaries? Also, would you agree that sometimes a politician may take some time to find his ideal position? For example, Andrew Adonis (aka Tony Zoffis), may have struck many people as a mere inventor of wheezes when at the DFE (or whatever it was then called) and yet he appeared to shine when moved to Transport. Do you think it possible that Michael Gove, having been despised by many (although not you) as a well-meaning but utterly incompetent Education Secretary and having been an extremely unloved Chief Whip, has finally found a job that ideally suits the combination of Arnoldian passion (as he would see it) and desperation to be noticed that seems to characterise him? Maybe he will turn out to be a great Justice Secretary?

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 11:01

"Big, big difference, Andrew. I presume you’re referring to Gove’s misuse four year’s ago of OECD redacted data (and which was repeated by Morgan a few weeks’ ago)."

The big difference here seems to be one of intention. You think that the way Gove used those statistics shows not just error, but an intention to mislead. And on his part, rather than say the civil servants whose job it is to keep ministers informed. Whereas things you get wrong are just accidental error.

Can you see why this sort of things, as I said before, seems so thin?

By the way, the researchers who told the education department years before Gove took office that they should use the 2000 PISA figures (but not the 2003) ones, were they dishonest, sincerely mistaken, or neither?

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 11:04

Sorry, I may have got that wrong. They may have actually accepted the 2003 scores too, even though there was more of a consensus that those were unreliable.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 11:35

Andrew - the OECD never published the 2003 data for the UK because the UK didn't meet response requirements. It was this that made them look again at the 2000 data which they had initially accepted. They found these too didn't meet requirements and redacted them.

Unfortunately, they were already in the public domain and could be used by those who chose to ignore the prominent warning not to do so.

So now you're blaming civil servants for not keeping Gove properly informed. I don't accept Gove never read the UK briefing paper. But let's accept our argument that he did not know. But five days later, FullFact wrote about the DfE's use of the data and asked the DfE for an explanation.

I wrote to my MP (also a minister straddling the DfE and BIS) at the time. This resulted in a long discussion. It is highly unlikely that Gove was not told.

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 12:17

You seem to have ignored my question. Let me put it as simply as possible:

Is everyone who used the 2000 PISA figures about the UK, after the OECD stopped using them, including researchers and civil servants guilty of misrepresentation? Or is it just the politicians?

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 12:44

Andrew - thank you for simplifying your question. It wasn't obvious before. In answer, anyone who used the data knowing it was wrong is guilty of misrepresentation. That includes media, special advisers, civil servants and politicians.

Just had another look at the infamous press release of 7 December 2010. It begins with:

'Michael Gove comments on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study of schools systems from around the world.'

The release contains direct quotes from the man himself.

Are you still seriously suggesting he didn't know the OECD had warned against using the PISA 2000 data for the UK when he seems to have had detailed knowledge of what was in the UK Briefing Sheet?

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 11:20

"Thank you. If that is your argument, I have to say that you are absolutely right (give or take your somewhat tendentious distinction between “doing” and “saying”, since what politicians say has consequences and they know it) but, surely, the point is so obvious as to be not worth making?"

You appear to have simultaneously called the point "tendentious" and "so obvious as to be not worth making". Which is it?

And bear in mind, I was being repeatedly criticised for considering the point to be obvious rather than providing evidence of some sort.

"Would you also agree that whether or not someone may be described as “great” is entirely a matter of judgement and that, for this reason, it is usual to defer such judgements until sufficient time has passed for a distanced consensus to emerge among historians and other people deemed to have expertise?"

I suspect so, though no reason people can't make provisional judgements earlier if they want to. As I said, I wouldn't judge Gove to have been a great education secretary, I just felt the case against his greatness missed the point spectacularly by not attempting to evaluate achievements.

"Also, would you agree that sometimes a politician may take some time to find his ideal position?"

Entirely possible, but the debate was about Gove as education secretary.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 12:01

Andrew - it might have helped if you'd given his achievements instead of dismissing criticisms with 'thin', 'weak' etc etc.

I thought the point of debates if to argue for or against the motion. I didn't think it was necessary for both protagonists to make each other's points for them.

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 12:20

Are you suggesting Jonny didn't give what he thought were Gove's achievements during the debate? Or are you asking me why I haven't personally reconstructed that side of the debate in the comments here?

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 12:31

Andrew - I wasn't at the debate so have no idea what was said apart from Francis's account above. In any case, I was speaking about debating in general - a motion is proposed, one person speaks for, one against. If there are seconders, they speak as well - for or against the motion.

Apart from Bevan, where you appear to be claiming that because Bevan insulted his opponents then it was OK for Gove to do the same, you haven't referred to what was said in the debate. You haven't mentioned any Gove achievements (apologies if I missed them among the generalised dismissals) although I cited one: his reduction of the value of equivalent exams. Although I didn't mention it above, I also agreed with his stance on grammar schools and his concern that top jobs were dominated by privately-educated people (or should I not have mentioned those because they were things he 'said' and not 'did'?).

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 11:23

Michael - I hope that Gove shows a less cavalier attitude towards evidence at the Ministry of Justice than he showed at the DfE. I wonder if, say, he would ignore a judge who said evidence was flawed in the same way he brushed aside the OECD warning that PISA data for 2000 should not be used as evidence.

You're right that it should be for history to decide whether or not a politician was 'great'. It is only after a period of time that the consequences of policies are known. But in politics, greatness comes to very few. As Enoch Powell said:

'All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.'

There will come a day in the life of any politician when the electorate turns - think of the drubbing the LibDems got in the last election. Or landslide victories in the last 36 years eg 1979 (Tories) 1997 (Labour) and remember Thatcher's tearful exit from Number 10 and how Chilcot hangs over Tony Blair (when it's eventually published).

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 12:08

Andrew - I understood Michael's point to refer to your statement 'that we judge politicians greatness in office by what they did in office.' I concluded this was what Michael was describing as a being 'so obvious as to be not worth making'.

I understood the word 'tendentious' referred not to above statement but for your 'distinction between "doing" and "saying".

If my understanding is correct, Michael was not calling the same point both 'tendentious' and 'obvious'.

I may be wrong, of course, and I'm sure Michael could clarify.

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 12:23

The two points are one and the same. We cannot evaluate him by what he did, if we refuse to accept the distinction between evaluating what he did and evaluating what he said.

agov's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 12:46

"Andrew Old is the editor of Labour Teachers!

Many people who should never have been members joined or came to prominence during the terrible Blair years. Hopefully some of them may soon be pursuing their fortunes in more suitable homes.

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 13:10


"Andrew – thank you for simplifying your question. It wasn’t obvious before. In answer, anyone who used the data knowing it was wrong is guilty of misrepresentation. That includes media, special advisers, civil servants and politicians."

That's evading the question. The question is how we judge whether people thought it was wrong, and still said it. If we say that anyone who had heard the objections *knew* it was wrong, then we have a real problem. The objections were known early and rejected by the department. So is that error or misrepresentation?

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 13:17

Right, so you accept that it is not up to me to start the debate on what Gove did?

Can you also acknowledge that it is a shame that those arguing against Gove's greatness, did not seem to focus on that in the debate?

And let's be clear on the point about Bevan. The point is not to justify anything Gove did, but to check that people are not applying an inconsistent standard. If somebody finds Gove too rude to be great, but thinks Bevan was great despite being even ruder, we know that their argument is not even convincing to them, let alone to anyone else.

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 13:19

I joined when John Smith was leader.

agov's picture
Sun, 29/11/2015 - 11:06

When did you start your website - the one that apparently led Michael (would-be heir to Blair) Gove to praise you?

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 13:22

So the DfE and Gove set themselves up as knowing better than the OECD who had originally produced the 2000 data, found it to be flawed and warned against its use? Rather arrogant, wouldn't you agree? And Gove and other politicians continued to use it despite letters from FullFact, a campaign by FullFact supported on this site, my correspondence and meeting with a minister, until the UK Statistics Watchdog expressed 'concern' (a polite way of saying the data was misused).

If it was just an 'error', it was one that went on far longer than it should have done. And if it was an 'error' then Gove should have stopped repeating the error after FullFact wrote to the DfE. But he didn't.

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 13:41

So is the complaint now arrogance, not misrepresentation?

Of course, if disagreeing with the OECD is arrogance and, therefore, wrong, then we are back to the same problem of you taking any agreement with you to be evidence, but disagreement with you to be wrong.

Michael Pyke's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 14:27

Andrew, this post is entirely without meaning! Unless I have completely misunderstood, the debate is supposed to be about Gove's record as Education Secretary. In an earlier post you praised Gove for "challenging vested interests and starting a debate" but nowhere (unless I have missed it) have you developed this line of thought. All you ever seem to want to do is characterise, in various unpleasant ways, the opinions of other posters. So please indulge my ignorance and explain two things:

1. Which previously unchallenged "vested interests" did Gove challenge? How did he do it and what improvements resulted?

2. Was there no educational debate taking place before Gove? If there was, what fresh perspectives did he bring to the debate? How did he shape the debate in a way that differentiated his approach from that of his various New Labour predecessors?

It would be genuinely interesting to know what you think about these matters.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 16:28

No, Andrew, it's misrepresentation. Here's Gove, 7 February 2011, speaking after FullFact had written to the DfE about the OECD warning not to use the 2000 PISA data for the UK. And Gove is explaining what he actually did so it can't be dismissed as it only being what he said:

'The research and evidence that I undertook was to look at what the highest performing education jurisdictions do. When the OECD published its table on how our country had been doing in education over the past 10 years, I was struck to see that under Labour's stewardship we had slipped in the international league tables for English, for mathematics and for science.'

It appears from this answer that he did his own research and having done his research he still used flawed data. Unless you're going to suggest that a man of Gove's intelligence who undertook his own research somehow missed a prominent warning and explanatory footnote.

Michael Pyke's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 13:34

Apologies for not making myself clear. What I meant was that it is obvious that people in office should be judged on their record but that I wouldn't make much distinction between "doing" and "saying" in assessing that record. For example, Gove's regular dismissal of education academics etc as "the blob" may be construed as "doing" as much as "saying" because it deliberately played to a deep seated British cultural prejudice that knowledge and expertise are to be distrusted...(the point hardly needs developing).

Secondly, I don't think we can evaluate Gove's achievements (if any), even provisionally, without a much greater length of time having elapsed. Politicians don't like this, of course, but it can't be helped.

Thirdly, my point about Gove as Justice Secretary is not completely irrelevant. I do believe that Gove takes extremely seriously his commitment to Arnoldian values but that the particular circumstances of his social background, upbringing, schooling and higher education made it almost impossible for him to approach the role of Education Secretary with the detachment necessary for success in high office. I think that as Justice Secretary (so far) he is looking much more statesmanlike.


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