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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Leicester City's ascent shows how being a good loser can make you a great winner.

Claudio Ranieri wasn't expected to take a team to the top of Premier League. But dignity can earn you second chances.

Dignity isn’t so dated after all. Claudio Ranieri, champion; José Mourinho, unemployed. Dignity, it turns out, earns you second chances. It’s the Machiavels who run out of time.

The story of Leicester City’s Premier League triumph – one of sport’s finest – ended at Stamford Bridge on 2 May when Tottenham, Leicester’s nearest challengers, only managed a draw against Chelsea. In some respects, it also began there. Superficially, Ranieri “failed” during his stint as Chelsea’s manager from 2000 to 2004. Yet he never lost his dignity in one of football’s craziest jobs. He was courteous and amused to the end: the same qualities that helped to make him a winner at Leicester.

People remembered, both inside football and beyond. Ranieri’s sense of perspective and lightness of touch, evident during those hard times at Chelsea, brought him well-wishers in his better days at Leicester. His dignity as a loser has been recast as a benevolent and advanced form of strategy. Let’s hope that it is widely copied.

There is a danger of reading too much into Leicester’s splendid success. A small industry is already specialising in undercutting and puncturing overblown editorialising on “the meaning of Leicester”. Fine. Let scepticism have its moment, too.

But can we agree on a compromise? The romantics must concede that Leicester have a darker side, too. It wasn’t all charm and self-sacrificial teamwork. There was also a good measure of sports science, data analytics and street smarts. The Premier League has not become a laboratory of sporting social justice overnight. Leicester, it is true, also benefit from foreign capital. And the big guns – with their even bigger bank balances – will surely be back, sooner rather than later. History may yet record Leicester’s time at the top as a surprising interregnum in a war between giant dynasties.

Yes, I concede all of that. But will the cynics at least acknowledge some happier truths? First, a central defect of the Prem­iership has been its lack of competitive equipoise. It’s a great show but it always flirted with dangerous predictability.

Even its magical moments, such as Manchester City’s last-minute triumph in 2012, were unlikely only in the manner in which the story unfolded. Goliath beat David – on the day and over the course of the whole season – but it just took him a long time to finish the job. Yet we hailed the story, even though the favourites won, as evidence of redemptive uncertainty. Now, by contrast, we have the real thing with Leicester City’s win: genuine surprise, sport’s most precious currency.

Second, it’s time to wave goodbye to the lazy assumption, increasingly common in modern sport, that there is something intrinsically advanced about nastiness in players or managers. This meme continually creeps into the way we think about success. A manager’s rant is explained away as: “He really hates losing.” A scarcely veiled personal attack on a rival is justified as: “Real winners are all a bit like that.” Sneering contempt is whitewashed away, accepted as a burning hunger to win.

It all adds up, logically and unavoidably, not only to a lame justification of unpleasantness but also an implicit attack on behaving decently. If we say that John McEnroe’s racket-smashing is what makes him a winner, we are subtly belittling his opponent for keeping his cool.

In sport’s professional era, “good loser” has turned from one of the highest compliments into a patronising put-down. Being a good loser used to refer to behaviour when the ball was no longer in play, a virtue unconnected with winning or losing out on the pitch. Garry Sobers, Bobby Jones and Stefan Edberg were good losers. They were pretty good winners, too.

Somehow the notion of being a good loser turned 180 degrees, especially in English sport, which suffers from self-hating guilt about amateur values. It came to describe someone who is literally adept at losing – comfortable with defeat, adjusted to living that way. This accusation was levelled at Ranieri at the end of his term at Chelsea, as he suffered the humiliation of a public search for a replacement. José Mourinho, the chosen one, turned the knife when he was asked why Chelsea were sacking Ranieri. “I was told they wanted to win,” he scoffed. Mourinho voiced a widely held view: in place of a good loser would come a serial winner.

And now? The good loser is still with us, now a great winner, smiling and deflecting the credit. Ranieri almost missed the match that secured Leicester City’s victory on Monday night, because he had flown to Rome to have lunch with his 96-year-old mother. A little too stage-managed? If this is PR, let’s have more of it.

What of the bad loser who knew only victory? Mourinho is casting around hopefully, looking for another chance to mould a dressing room in his image. Yet it’s a risk, isn’t it, to give power to bad losers? And his prospective patrons are feeling risk-averse. The catastrophes of Real Madrid and his second stint at Chelsea, in which Mourinho lost the team, are hard to forget. Bad losers, contrary to the myth, are risky propositions because the earth is scorched when things don’t go according to plan.

Ranieri left Chelsea in good shape, having signed or identified most of the players who would go on to become the core of the team’s glory years. Mourinho, by contrast, left Chelsea in despair, the players seemingly mutinous and losing matches almost by design. Talent is powerful and Mourinho may be back. But it’s time to de-correlate winning and unpleasantness.

Machiavelli had the best aphorisms but he wasn’t always right. Leicester are champions and a good loser wears the crown. How much more can sport do?

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred