Michael Gove searches the heavens for more enemies of promise. Image: Getty.
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Michael Gove: my part in his downfall

Seven habits of highly unpopular people.

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.

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.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.