Trying to understand why nothing bloody works

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Michael Gove: my part in his downfall

Seven habits of highly unpopular people.

Michael Gove searches the heavens for more enemies of promise. Image: Getty.
Michael Gove searches the heavens for more enemies of promise. Image: Getty.

Michael Gove does not hate children. Michael Gove does not hate teachers. Michael Gove does not hate state schools. That these three statements should be in any way controversial is a mark of quite how badly the former education secretary failed in his four years in the job.

For most of those years, I was the editor of a monthly business magazine called EducationInvestor. Whatever my own views, it would have been, shall we say, commercially convenient if the education secretary had been plotting to sell state schools to the highest bidder.

But – he wasn't. Not even secretly; not even behind closed doors. And the way that I know this is that the more fundamentalist end of our readership, who believed that having any motivation other than profit was tantamount to radical socialism, would complain constantly about Gove's timidity and lack of ambition.

What Michael Gove truly wanted, in fact, was the opposite of privatisation. The real goal of all his reforms – free schools, academisation, endless changes to the curriculum – was a state school system so good that the private sector would just wither and die. (Private school head teachers spent four years whinging constantly about quite how unappreciated they were.)

The young staffers who surrounded him all had affluent backgrounds and Oxbridge degrees, yes. But they were also all quite ludicrously passionate about state education, and about spreading their good fortune and privilege as far as it would go. I'm not exaggerating when I say that some of the most inspiring people I've ever met worked for Michael Gove. Just by being there, they made me feel terrible about my own self-serving life choices. In a world in which most ministers care less about their brief than they do about taking the next step on the ladder, Michael Gove really cared.

And yet there he is, the most hated man in Britain. Go figure.

As with everything else that ever happens in education policy, the left and the right have competing explanations for why this should be – or rather, they have competing interpretations of a single set of facts. To his enemies, Gove is the man who cut pay and conditions, cancelled school building schemes, added to teacher workloads, and snatched away local authority support. He’s made teachers’ daily lives worse: the profession hated Gove because, well, duh.

His supporters, however, give exactly the same reason for his unpopularity, with the vital difference that they think it's a good thing. Unpopularity is an inevitable side-effect of his crusade to take on the vested interests and enemies of promise that make up the education establishment. Unpopularity is a sign the medicine works.

And this, I think, is the real reason why nothing Gove touched ever quite seemed to go the plan: so ready was he for reform to become a fight to the death that he started to believe this nonsense himself. Angry teaching unions? Endless attacks in the papers? Being booed at conferences again? Got ‘em rattled. Carry on.

But there’s a downside to seeing unpopularity as a strength: you no longer have any mechanism to tell you when things are going wrong. Being hated for making hard choices looks exactly the same as being hated because you've screwed up. Gove and his acolytes long ago lost track of the ability to tell which is which. As a result, they were slow to notice their own mistakes, and deeply reluctant to change course. Wherever possible, they’d shoot the messenger before heeding the message, and Gove’s private office became a machine for turning critical friends into mortal enemies.

Despite the occasional narrowness of his ideas, Michael Gove was passionate about education. I’m sure he still is. But this passion, this determination to make things better whatever the cost, ended up blinding him to the possibility that, sometimes, he was making things worse.

The former education secretary has long been fond of referring to the education establishment (unions, bureaucrats, academics et al) as The Blob, after the 1958 film in which an alien amoeba crashes to earth and starts eating the townspeople. But perhaps a different B movie would be a more appropriate analogy for his career. By the end of The Thing, it's no longer possible to tell who is alien, and who is human. The longer you battle it, the harder it is to tell who your enemy really is – and the greater the chance that it's you.