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 edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Labour is condemned to watch helplessly as Theresa May consolidates power

The Zombie Party is too weak to win and too strong to die. 

Labour’s defeat to the Tories in the Copeland by-election in Cumbria, which the party had held for more than 80 years, is a humiliation for Jeremy Corbyn and his moribund party. This is the first time a governing party had gained a seat in a by-election since Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives won Mitchum and Morden in 1982. 
 
The victorious candidate Trudy Harrison, who increased the Tories’ share of the vote in this former Labour “stronghold" by more than 8 percentage points, hailed the victory as “truly historic”, while Labour MP John Woodcock called it a “disaster”, and even the shadow chancellor and Corbyn ally, John McDonnell, conceded it was a “profound disappointment”. 
 
At a time in the electoral cycle when a credible opposition should be winning by-elections and riding high in the polls, Labour is in disarray: rejected, humiliated, ridiculed. It has all but collapsed in Scotland, where the Tory leader Ruth Davidson has emerged as the popular, unapologetic leader of Unionism. And in England the danger now is not that it will lose seats to Ukip — whose leader Paul Nuttall was rejected yesterday in the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election, which Labour held on a low turn-out after a dispiriting campaign — but to Theresa May’s Conservatives. 
 
The Copeland result was a vindication for Theresa May. When recently I interviewed her in Downing Street she had a simple message for Labour: we are coming after your voters – and she is. 
 
Because of its embrace of the radical left and internal divisions, May accused Labour of abandoning many of its traditional supporters. The party was not responding to their concerns on issues such as “the impact of immigration on lower income levels”.
 
True enough: Corbyn favours mass immigration and open borders yet is an economic protectionist – a classic Marxist position but electoral suicide in our new emerging post-liberal era in which populist movements are rising across Europe and an America First nationalist is in the White House.
 
“I hope there are Labour voters,” Theresa May told me, “out there who will now look at us afresh and say, ‘Labour hasn’t responded to our concerns, it hasn’t recognised what matters to us, but the Conservatives have seen that and are responding to it. I want our greater prosperity not to be confined to particular groups of people or a single part of the country.”
 
The polls suggest that more than simply disaffected Labour voters are looking at the Tories afresh, as we embark on the epic challenge of negotiating the Brexit settlement.
  
May believes that Brexit was not only a vote to leave the European Union but a demand for change from those people – many of them in places such as Copeland - who felt ignored and excluded from prosperity and greater opportunity.
 
Her vision is for a “Great Meritocracy” (whereas Corbyn’s is for a socialist republic) combining greater social justice with enhanced social mobility. It’s an intellectually fascinating and ambitious project and, if successful (and many doubt her, not least her own right wing), it has the potential to condemn Labour to electoral oblivion.
    
The collapse of the Labour party as a stable and credible political force is dismaying. Many of the party’s problems precede Corbyn, who is sincere and determined but is not a national leader. But then neither was Ed Miliband, who misunderstood the financial crisis, which he believed had created a “social democratic moment”, and misread the country he sought to govern. Miliband treated politics like an elevated Oxbridge PPE seminar and introduced the new rules by which the party elected its leader, disempowering MPs.
 
The distinguished Cambridge historian Robert Tombs has called the European Union a system of “managed discontents”. Something similar could be said of Corbyn’s Labour, except that its discontents are scarcely managed at all.

Most Labour MPs despise or are embarrassed by their leader. The MPs are divided and demoralised, with some pondering whether to follow Tristram Hunt and Jamie Reed (whose resignations created respectively the Stoke Central and Copeland by-elections) out of politics. The Corbynites are breaking up into factions (one hears talk of “hard” and “soft” Corbynites), and Corbyn himself is incapable of appealing to those who do not share his ideological convictions.
 
For now, the Labour leader retains the support of activists and members and, crucially, of Unite, Britain’s biggest union and the party’s paymaster. But even his friends must accept that he is leading the party in only one direction – into the abyss.
 
On the eve of the two by-elections, Corbyn posted a message on Facebook: “Whatever the results, the Labour Party – and our mass membership – must go further to break the failed political consensus, and win power to rebuild and transform Britain.”
 
The statement was received with derision on social media. The idea that Labour can win power any time soon (notwithstanding some black swan event) is magical thinking. Corbyn’s personal ratings among traditional working class semi-skilled and unskilled Labour voters are catastrophically poor. He appeals to students, affluent metropolitans with degrees, and minority groups. As for the majority of the electorate, forget it.
 
MPs are reluctant to challenge Jeremy Corbyn because they know any leadership contest would revitalize his leadership, as happened last summer when the Welsh MP Owen Smith mounted an ill-considered and doomed “coup”. Nor is there a pre-eminent candidate waiting in the shadows to strike, as Michael Heseltine was in the last years of the Thatcher administration.
 
So Labour will continue to be the Zombie Party: too weak to win but too strong to die. Its founding mission was to defend the labour interest and to create a fairer, more ethical society. But Labour has lost its role, its confidence and sense of purpose. Obsessed by identity liberalism, bewildered by Brexit and led by a radical socialist, Labour can only look on helplessly as the Tories start to win seats in its former heartlands and hunker down for another decade or more in power.

This column was originally published in the London Evening Standard.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.