Gove's reputation is built on a myth

Why the Education Secretary isn't the saviour of England's schools.

Back in 2010, a bunch of councils took Michael Gove to court for his decision to snatch away money they'd been promised to rebuild their schools. He lost. The court couldn’t order the government to re-fund those projects (judicial reviews carry no such power). But Mr Justice Holman described the process as "so unfair as to amount to an abuse of power", and demanded Gove reconsider.

To give you a hint of the gulf that’s grown up between Gove’s press and objective reality, here's how the Spectator headlined the news: "Overall, a win for Gove."

So beloved has Gove become in certain right-wing circles that he was being hailed as the greatest education secretary we’ve had in decades, before he even took the job. Two years on, the Tory papers still hang on his every word, and there are growing mutterings that he's a serious candidate for party’s next leader.

Dig beneath the headlines, though, and his record is a lot less revolutionary than his friends would have you believe. Some of his reforms are merely cosmetic; others simply ill-thought through. But in the main arguments you hear from Gove's acolytes, there's remarkably little to justify his oft-claimed status as the saviour of England’s schools. Let’s consider four.

Proposition #1: Michael Gove is bringing rigour back to our qualifications system

Following last week's revelation that Gove wants us to study like it's 1979, this one is all the rage, and it's one of his boosters’ better arguments. A more rigorous curriculum, higher quality vocational qualifications, greater use of the best academic evidence – you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who wouldn't support all this. If Gove does change the world, this is how he'll do it.

There are questions, though, about delivery. There's a sneaking suspicion that academic rigour is being defined as ‘what Gove already thinks’: the first tranche of the new primary curriculum has already been slammed by some of the experts who were meant to have designed the thing. And even if you think resurrecting O-levels and (gasp) CSEs is a good idea, the proposed introduction date of 2014 must give pause for thought. Will better qualifications really be ready for teaching within two years? Or will it just end up being a high profile re-branding exercise?

There are already gaps, in other words, between rhetoric and reality. This is a theme we'll be coming back to.

Proposition #2: Gove is putting power in the hands of parents

Many of Gove's reforms were pitched as taking power away from uncaring and incompetent councils, and putting it in the hands of parents. Hard to argue with that.

Except this, it turns out, was only half true. The centrepiece of the Tories' reform agenda was parents' right to set up new free schools, but the majority of such proposals have been rejected by the Department for Education (DfE). And the saga of Downhills Primary School suggest that, if parents' wishes clash with those of the secretary of state, they will be ignored.

Actually, the main beneficiary of the changing power dynamics in state education has been Whitehall. The growth in academies has effectively made the DfE the largest Local Education Authority in England, responsible for thousands of schools. The 2010 education bill massively increased the number of powers education secretary has over the rest.

This may or may not be a good thing. But what it certainly isn't is a parent-based revolution.

Proposition #3: With academies, Gove is raising standards in all state schools

This is the biggie. Academies, the DfE tells us, are "publicly-funded independent schools that provide a first-class education". For months, the Department churned out regular updates on the number of schools converting to the new status. Five hundred! A thousand! Two thousand! (These have mysteriously stopped of late, as the numbers have stalled. By my calculation, in fact, at current rates of conversion, the last primary school won’t become an academy until Christmas 2081.)

The problem is – there's surprisingly little evidence that academies en masse are actually any better than other schools. Some are clearly spectacular: Mossbourne, the Harris Federation schools, those run by Ark. But what all these schools have in common is charismatic leadership, and no one's worked out how to generate enough of that to run 30,000 of the things.

These leaders also share a willingness to overhaul every aspect of their schools. By contrast, most of the converting academies are exactly the same as they were before, with a new sign above the door. Research suggests that school autonomy is A Good Thing, so many will no doubt thrive with less involvement from their local authority. But others will struggle without that support. And, with the DfE now directly responsible for keeping an eye on several thousand schools, it's just a matter of time before an outstanding school goes off the rails and nobody notices.

In other words, the academies policy will probably work in some cases, probably not in others, and we won’t know for sure for another five years. But this kind of nuance doesn’t play well with Gove’s fans, so instead, we get headlines like this.

Proposition #4: Gove put an end to Labour's white elephants

There’s an argument you hear from right-leaning education types that Labour focused too much on shiny buildings and computers, and not enough on standards. In this worldview, the £45 billion Building Schools for the Future programme was the palest of white elephants: over-complex, over-priced and with remarkably few schools actually popping out at the end.

It's easy to support the lofty ambitions of BSF; rather harder to defend the bloated reality. Gove must have felt he was on to a winner, then, when he accepted a 60% cut in his department's capital budget over this parliament, and spiked the lot.

The problems with this approach were three-fold. Firstly, it ignored the fact that a large chunk of England's schools estate is falling to bits: just because Labour failed to fix it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t need fixing.

Secondly, new schools need new buildings. The paucity of funding available is a key reason why the coalition has created just a handful of the free schools we were once told would change everything.

Most importantly, though, a baby boom means that England is now facing a massive shortfall in the number of school places on offer – half a million by 2018, by some estimates – and nobody knows how to pay for it. The result of all this is that the top story on the education pages will increasingly be along the lines of "I can't find a school for my child". Gove's failure to address this problem could start to overshadow everything else he tries to do.

Oh, and...

Against all that, Gove has made one rather big strategic mistake. All the international evidence suggests that those jurisdictions where schools are best – Finland, Singapore – really value teaching, treating it as a high-status professions on a par with medicine. To replicate that here, the government has raised the qualifications you need to get public money for teacher training.

But it's also leant on teachers’ pay and conditions, repeatedly slammed them in the press, and employed a chief inspector of schools who delights in giving them a kicking. Leave aside whether any of this is justified (some of it is). Ask yourself – is all this more likely to raise or lower the social status of teachers?

None of this is to say Gove is acting in bad faith. Readers no doubt have their own views, but I’m agnostic about most of his reforms. Some may work. Some may not. Time will tell.

But the volume with which Gove’s acolytes are touting his achievements is vastly disproportionate to the reality of what those achievements actually are. They’re declaring victory because they think they’ve found a war.

Gove’s actual legacy – the reality on the ground, rather than in DfE press releases and Telegraph comments – threatens to be the same schools, in the same crumbling buildings, filled with the same angry teachers. If that's enough to make him the saviour of state education, then I'm a kumquat.

Michael Gove's record is "a lot less revolutionary than his friends would have you believe". Photograph: Getty Images.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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Tim Farron: We must not let racists hijack the EU referendum result

The Liberal Democrat leader says in an IPPR speech that "Britain is better" than "Farage, Le Pen and their ilk". 

Like so many people, I felt shocked and emotional about the result of the vote on 23 June.
 
I know many people who wept at the news.
 
I can understand that.​
 
Not because I love the specific institutions of the European Union, but because I feel European.
 
I also feel British. And English.
 
And northern.  And I don’t feel any conflict between those identities, in fact they reinforce each other.
 
But the result seemed to throw this balance into doubt.
 
And yes, I also felt angry.
 
I still feel angry now, but perhaps for a different reason.
 
Because never in recent history have we, in the political classes, let down the people of this country so disastrously.
 
And I make no distinction here between those who voted to Remain and those who voted to Leave.
 
They were battered with dodgy statistics. From both sides.
 
They were lied to.
 
On both sides too – though it is the NHS and the £350 million that particularly sticks in the throat.
 
And worse than that.
 
They were misled by lackadaisical politicians, playing games, who had campaigned for years to leave the EU – but hadn’t bothered to come up with a plan about what to do if it happened.
 
We, the political classes, have left a country bitterly divided as a result.
 
Between parents and children, families, neighbours.
 
Between the nations of our own union, who have worked and fought together for centuries.
 
Between us and our continental neighbours.
 
And now the biggest danger of them all.
 
That because of those divisions, we are in danger of letting malevolent forces hijack the result.
 
Plenty of my mates voted leave and I can tell you that the overwhelming majority of those who did vote leave are utterly appalled that Farage, Le Pen and their ilk now seek to claim the result as a victory for their hateful brand of intolerance, racism and insularity.  Britain is better than that.
 
But I’m not so blinded by those emotions that I don’t see the new divisions that are opening up between us.
 
New political boundaries which chop the old certainties of Tory and Labour into little pieces.
 
Because there’s a new battle emerging.
 
Between the forces of tolerant liberalism and intolerant, closed-minded nationalism.
 
And, of course, you know that, as leader of the Liberal Democrats, which side I’m on.
 
But I also know what side most people in this country are on too.
 
In the 48 per cent and also in the 52 per cent.
 
So let’s be clear about this.
 
I am absolutely committed to the cause of an open-minded, open-hearted United Kingdom.
 
United in every sense of the word.
 
Because, as Jo Cox said, we have more in common with each other in this country than what divides us. 
 
And, yes, I campaigned my heart out to stay a member of the European Union. And would do again given the chance.
 
But a nation divided against itself can’t stand.
 
Nor can it hammer out a way forward from the current impasse.
 
And our combined history cries out for some more inspiring political leadership.
 
Which can say that, in or out, we remain an open-minded, outward-looking nation.
 
Which can say, in or out, we will be European and British and from our own towns, villages and cities.
 
And be proud of all of them.
 
Which can say to those from other countries who have committed their lives alongside us in the UK: we will stand by you, no matter what.
 
Let me just say that again.
 
We will stand by you.
 
As we stood by each other across Europe in the Second World War.
 
We will stand by you, who have chosen British communities to live in.
 
Not only that but we need you.
 
If the tens of thousands of people who make it possible to run our schools and health service were to worry about our commitment to them...
 
So much so that it threatens their commitment to us...
 
It would seriously undermine services that are used by some of the most vulnerable people in this country.
 
The Conservative and Labour parties may have so forgotten themselves that they’ve missed this urgent consideration.
 
But we haven’t.
 
So I make this absolute promise.
 
To use what power we can muster, to make sure that those who have committed their lives and families to this country will be protected.
 
That no kneejerk populism will be allowed to threaten them or uproot them.
 
And I ask now all the many candidates for high positions in Westminster to join me in this undertaking.
 
I don’t just say this as the leader of a political party.
 
I don’t just commit my own party to this.
 
I speak as a Member of Parliament in one of the most open-hearted nations on earth.
 
I speak as a proud citizen of this country.
 
We will not stand by to let Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen dictate our policy, our direction, or our morality.
 
So, yes, I campaigned to remain.  I’ll carry on campaigning to remain.
 
But we have gone beyond June’s referendum now.
 
There are more fundamental, more urgent issues that we must face today.
 
Existential issues about our nation.
 
About what they’re saying about us in the rest of the planet.
 
The newspapers.
 
The investors.
 
About protecting neighbours and friends born in other countries from hate.
 
So, yes, I recognise and understand the motivations of many of those who voted the other way to me.
 
I’m a white, working class, middle aged, northern male.  By voting remain, I pretty much confounded the predicted behaviour my demographic might suggest!  And for once it put me at odds with lots of the people I grew up with. 
 
Who are as proud as I am about the same things I’m proud of in our country.
 
I understand their fears for their own communities.
 
I completely get why being talked down to by Cameron and Osborne, threatened with a ‘punishment budget’ might push even the most internationalist person to vote leave! 
 
And nobody ever said the European Union was perfect. Least of all me.
 
Its aspiration of peace and co-operation in Europe is vitally important.
 
It still is.
 
But I’m aware that the reality of the EU can often be inflexible.
 
I understand that people’s liberal commitment to local communities, which I absolutely share, sometimes led them to vote differently to me.
 
I understand those who voted for Brexit and their frustration about the way that the big banks were allowed to torpedo the economy.
 
And torpedo so many people’s lives.
 
Without sanction. Without even a loss of bonuses.
 
While those who have tried to make a more tangible contribution their whole lives, have been sidelined, bullied and left behind.
 
I understand that, possibly better than any other leader.  Because whilst South Lakeland voted remain, it was the only place in Lancashire or Cumbria that did.  And I grew up in and I belong to the very part of British society that most heavily voted leave. 
 
And yes I understand their fears that their communities have been changed. Maybe even overwhelmed.
 
Not so much to satisfy Brussels, but specifically to reduce the wages of the big food manufacturers. 
 
Or the cleaning contractors.
 
Or the care homes.
 
Because what June’s vote did reveal, above everything else, is how angry people have become.
 
And though we might argue about the reasons for it, their anger is justified.
 
We have banking institutions that have let them down, suffocating their businesses.
 
We have an economic policy that favours the rich over everyone else, middle class, working class alike.
 
We have a housing crisis that’s consuming our children.
 
We have a Treasury so cut off from reality that they urged people not to vote for Brexit – because it might mean property prices would rise more slowly.
 
As if people weren’t struggling now to get a foot on the housing ladder.
 
To help their children scrape enough together to rent a place of their own.
 
We have people treated like cattle with zero-hour contracts.
 
We have those who worked as pillars of their community all their lives...
 
Running small businesses.
 
Managing farms...
 
Making a difference...
 
Only to see themselves gazumped by salaries ten or a hundred times as much by cash-hungry bankers in their twenties.  The devastation of our communities n the Lakes overwhelmed by excessive second home ownership is a case in point.
 
In short, we have an underlying, aching discomfort which goes to the heart of the reasons for the immediate crisis.
 
More than a discomfort.
 
It is a great and abiding fear, gnawing away at the heart of our society.
 
And we have a political class, which I don’t particularly like having to accept I’m a member of, which has abandoned people disastrously to their fate.
 
I believe that, in the national interest, we remainers and brexiters can most of us understand the motivations of voters on the other side to us.
 
We’re able to see beyond the stereotypes.
 
And to say together.
 
This open-minded nation will survive.
 
It will survive because these Liberal values are shared by so many of us. 
 
The right to say ‘this is who I am’. ‘This is who we are’.
 
And the enterprising commitment to challenge the big bureaucracies and the big businesses from below.
 
That’s why we will defend people wherever they came from originally.
 
Those who were born and bred here who are locked out of success by boneheaded cuts in adult education.
 
But also the Polish families who have work three jobs just to pay the rent, but who still help to run the school fete.
 
And the refugees who provide lynchpins to hospital after hospital from one side of the country to the other.
 
Right across the nation, and woven together, from Cornwall to Caithness.
 
Again, I say this not just as a party leader.
 
I don’t just say this to commit my party to it.
 
I say it as a proud citizen of this country.
 
With a shared history that’s always been outward-looking.
 
Connected through trade to other corners of the world in a way that no nation ever was before.
 
We provided the international language of the world.
 
We led the world in industrial development, moral development and scientific development.
 
And we stood up against tyranny even when it didn’t threaten us directly.
 
When all over Europe, those suffering under occupation, risked their lives to huddle around their wirelesses to listen to broadcasts from London.
 
There never was a moment in our history when we pulled up the drawbridge.
 
There never will be.
 
It just isn’t true that Britain voted to do that.
 
So that’s also my commitment as leader of the Liberal Democrats.
 
To listen to that fear and take it seriously. 
 
And then to hammer out and enact a more humane, more successful, more effective way of doing economics.
 
More challenging, more enterprising and more ambitious.
 
Which shares the rewards of success so that the state doesn’t have to step in so much.
 
To take on the real vested interests that hold us back as a nation.
 
The zero hour contractors.
 
The speculators.
 
The monopolists.
 
Those who would hijack people’s anger for their own racist agenda.
 
So that we can shape a fairer nation.
 
But also keep those outward-looking British values of tolerance and mutual respect that we all believe in.
 
Because there are going to be difficult, maybe dark, times ahead.
 
We’ve been made a laughing stock abroad.
 
We’ve had to watch the shaming pictures of Nigel Farage sneering on our behalf in the European Parliament.
 
We have to find a solution when both the biggest national parties have preferred to unravel than to take a lead.
 
But I’m a Liberal.
 
I believe in people.
 
And I especially believe in our people.
 
In their sense and their humanity, whether they voted to stay or to go.
 
People have been let down for decades by short-termist politicians who put the needs of one part of society above the rest.
 
Now, in the wake of the Brexit vote those divisions are more exposed than ever before.
 
With our country facing huge challenges…
 
– from inequality and injustice to an NHS in crisis and an economy in jeopardy –
 
…we are left with a reckless, divisive and uncaring Conservative Government and Labour fighting among themselves with no plan for the economy or the country.
 
That’s why the Liberal Democrats are needed more than ever.
 
We are the real voice of opposition to the Conservative Brexit Government and the only party fighting to keep Britain open, tolerant and united.
 
Britain is the most sophisticated and welcoming and innovative nation in the world and, in or out, we will stay that.
 
And we Liberal Democrats will do whatever we can, in Parliament and outside.
 
To reshape the way the nation works, to bring it back together.
 
To stay civilised. 
 
To stay united.
 
Because, wherever we were born, we love our country.​
 

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.