Why is Whirlwind Gove acting so fast?

By dismantling educational infrastructure at such a speed, Gove is ensuring that his successors as Education Secretary will struggle to reverse what he's done.

You have to admire Michael Gove, well, you don’t have to, but there’s no doubting he’s canny. Politicians are often criticised for how slow, sometimes painful the pace of change can be. Gove, on the other hand is a whirlwind. Change cannot happen quickly enough. Nothing will stop him. His Free School policy is enforced regardless of any or all local opposition. Even the law cannot stop a Free School from coming into existence. When planning permission was refused for a new one in Bedford, not once, but twice, Gove overruled the council, granting planning permission. Yet when it comes to a major injustice carried out against thousands of children, he failed to act. The English GCSE debacle this summer was a clear case of injustice. Gove decided not to act; indeed he compounded his failure by openly admitting that the examinations had been unfair on the pupils. The one man who had the power to right a wrong failed.

On the one hand, he claimed that he couldn’t intervene in the GCSE grading row as that’s the role of the exam regulator. Yet when a planning regulator makes an informed and proper decision, he feels it entirely appropriate to intervene and overrule. Why did he not act in the GCSE debacle? Because it suited him for the whole GCSE exam system to go into meltdown. His goal is to replace GCSEs with exams more akin to O levels. An ongoing row between schools, exam boards and the exam regulator was timely - perfect for the man who wants wholesale exam reform.

These are not the acts of an impartial education minister who cares about the fate of children. These are the acts of a cynical, ideologically-driven man with an agenda of educational genocide. Gove is determined to wipe out any vestige of a state-maintained education provision with the ultimate goal of privatising it. The lure for companies seeking to invest in our newly privatised system is that eventually they will profit from our schools and children. Gove is engaged in a power-grab - forcing unwanted, often unnecessary change that frequently flies in the face of evidence.

Yet Tories love and support him. Why? Their answer is simple. For too long our state schools have been failing our children and educational standards are too low with our international standing in league tables far below where we should be. Gove, as well as the Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, cites our low position in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) table as evidence of our failing education system and justification for his academy programme and teacher education reforms. Unfortunately for Gove and Wilshaw, they were censured and criticised by the UK Statistics Authority for using "problematic" statistics to justify their reforms.

In the world of academia, evidence is supposed to inform practice. You’d expect evidence to inform government policy. The DfE has a whole section on its website devoted to evidenced based practice. Gove is keen to justify his policies with "evidence" from other countries, for example the success of Finland in international standings and the rising profile of the Far East. Sadly, on closer inspection, Gove’s evidence is highly selective and very biased. Take teacher education in Finland. He has often said that his goal is to emulate the high esteem with which teaching is held there and the highly competitive nature of entry into the profession which sees the best graduates applying. What Gove omits is the fact that teaching in Finland is a master’s degree profession that entails five years training. By comparison training in England is 36 weeks at most and not all at master’s level or resulting in a master’s degree. In 2010 Gove scrapped the master’s degree route for serving teachers and recently deregulated teaching in England to allow academies and free schools to employ, without restriction or training, unqualified teachers. As for professional status, he effectively destroyed teaching as a profession by shutting down the General Teaching Council, grabbing its powers for himself and the Teaching Agency, a part of the DfE.

This is Gove’s education hypothesis: our state system has failed and only by cherry-picking strategies and practices from other "more successful" countries can education be saved in England. But as Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog and a great scientist, once said "the great tragedy of science [is] the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact."

The great tragedy for Gove and his "beautiful hypothesis", is the "ugly fact" that came to light this week. Pearson - a global media and education company – published a league table of international educational achievement. The UK came sixth. Granted, Finland was top and the next four countries were all from the Far East, but sixth in an international comparison – where other European coutries and major powers like the USA struggle to get into the top twenty - is no mean achievement.

This is an inconvenience to Gove, but it will no doubt be ignored or brushed aside. The data used to compile this table was gathered between 2006 and 2010. Gove, of course, did not take office until 2010. Our international position in this table had more to do with the policies and achievements of the last Labour government, who were by no means perfect, but clearly didn’t fare too badly.

So the question remains, why is Gove rushing headlong into change with little regard to the actual evidence and scant regard for the views of professional educators?

The answer I fear is simple. Irreversibility. By systematically and deliberately dismantling the whole educational infrastructure and selling it off, piece by piece, to a wide range of private interests he is ensuring that future secretaries of state, of whatever political persuasion, cannot ever recreate a state education system. Once the schools have been sold off to private academy chains, once the playing fields have been replaced by housing estates or shopping centres, once teacher education has been excised from universities, the costs of recreating such an infrastructure would be so high that no future government, of whatever political persuasion, could afford it.

The DfE recently disclosed that the cost of their rapidly expanding academy programme incurred a £1bn pound overspend, at a time when public spending is being cut and we are in the grip of international recession, fighting to reduce our budget deficit. The total cost of Gove’s academy dream to date is £8.3bn. Costs that the DfE assures us have been "covered". Covered they may be, but at what cost to state-maintained schools? Refurbishment, rebuilding and investment in true state-maintained education is rapidly drying up. The only way to go if you have a leaky roof and no money to repair and maintain crumbling buildings is the Academy route, but even that does not guarantee a school that is structurally fit for purpose. So, a burning question remains: are Gove’s policies, based on ideology rather than evidence, fit for purpose, or, a danger to what is a basic human right – a free education for all that delivers opportunity for children rather than profit for global companies?

 

Michael Gove: whirlwind. Photograph: Getty Images

David Harris is a pseudonym. The writer works in teacher education in England and has chosen to remain anonymous to avoid his institution being labelled as a hotbed of leftist Trotskyites indoctrinating its students with "useless theory".

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What Charles Windsor’s garden reveals about the future of the British monarchy

As an open-minded republican, two things struck me. 

First we are told that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has lost his battle for a “soft” Brexit. In a joint article, he and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, the hardest of the ministerial Brexiteers, seem to agree that the UK will leave the European customs union in 2019. Then we get a reverse ferret. Hammond will go for a softish Brexit, after all. A government paper states that the UK will seek a “temporary customs union” in the “transition period” that, it hopes, will follow Brexit.

All this is a taste of things to come. We shall see many more instances of hard and soft Brexiteers celebrating victory or shrieking about betrayal. We shall also see UK and EU leaders storming out of talks, only to return to negotiations a few days later. My advice is to ignore it all until Friday 29 March 2019, when UK and EU leaders will emerge from all-night talks to announce a final, impenetrable fudge.

Lessons not learned

What you should not ignore is the scandal over Learndirect, the country’s largest adult training and apprenticeships provider. An Ofsted report states that a third of its apprentices receive none of the off-the-job training required. In a random sample, it found no evidence of learning plans.

Labour started Learndirect in 2000 as a charitable trust controlled by the Department for Education. It was sold to the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank in 2011 but remains largely reliant on public money (£158m in 2016-17). Since privatisation, 84 per cent of its cash has gone on management fees, interest payments and shareholder dividends. It spent £504,000 on sponsoring the Marussia Formula One team in an attempt to reach “our core customer group… in a new and exciting way”. The apprentices’ success rate fell from 67.5 per cent before privatisation to 57.8 per cent now.

This episode tells us that, however the Brexit process is going, Britain’s problems remain unchanged. Too many services are in the hands of greedy, incompetent private firms, and we are no closer to developing a skilled workforce. We only know about Learndirect’s failure because the company’s attempt to prevent Ofsted publishing its report was, after ten weeks of legal wrangling, overthrown in the courts.

A lot of hot air

Immediately after the Paris climate change accord in 2015, I expressed doubts about how each country’s emissions could be monitored and targets enforced. Now a BBC Radio 4 investigation finds that climate-warming gases emitted into the atmosphere far exceed those declared under the agreement. For example, declarations of methane emissions from livestock in India are subject to 50 per cent uncertainty, and those in Russia to 30-40 per cent uncertainty. One region in northern Italy, according to Swiss scientists, emits at least six times more climate-warming gases than are officially admitted. Remember this when you next hear politicians proclaiming that, after long and arduous negotiations, they have achieved a great victory.

Come rain or come shine

Climate change, scientists insist, is not the same thing as changes in the weather but writing about it brings me naturally to Britain’s wet August and newspaper articles headlined “Whatever happened to the sunny Augusts of our childhood?” and so on. The Daily Mail had one in which the writer recalled not a “single rainy day” from his family holidays in Folkestone. This, as he explained, is the result of what psychologists call “fading affect bias”, which causes our brains to hold positive memories longer than negative ones.

My brain is apparently atypical. I recall constant frustration as attempts to watch or play cricket were interrupted by rain. I remember sheltering indoors on family holidays with card games and books. My life, it seems, began, along with sunshine, when I left home for university at 18. Do psychologists have a name for my condition?

High and dry

Being an open-minded republican, I bought my wife, a keen gardener, an escorted tour of the gardens at Highgrove, the private residence of the man I call Charles Windsor, for her birthday. We went there this month during a break in the Cotswolds. The gardens are in parts too fussy, rather like its owner, but they are varied, colourful and hugely enjoyable. Two things struck me. First, the gardens of the elite were once designed to showcase the owner’s wealth and status, with the eye drawn to the grandeur of the mansion. Highgrove’s garden is designed for privacy, with many features intended to protect royalty from the prying public and particularly the press photographers’ long lenses. Second, our guide, pointing out what the owner had planted and designed, referred throughout to “His Royal Highness”, never “Charles”. I am pondering what these observations mean for the monarchy and its future.

Sympathy for the devil

Before leaving for the Cotswolds, we went to the Almeida Theatre in north London to see Ink, featuring Rupert Murdoch’s relaunch of the Sun in 1969. Many accounts of Murdoch  portray him as a power-crazed monster and his tabloid hacks as amoral reptiles. Ink is far more nuanced. It shows Murdoch as a mixture of diffidence, charm and menace, in love with newspapers and determined to blow apart a complacent,
paternalistic British establishment.

You may think that he and the Sun had a permanently coarsening effect on public life and culture, and I would largely agree. But he was also, in his own way, a 1960s figure and his Sun, with its demonic energy, was as typical a product of that decade as the Beatles’ songs. The play strengthened my hunch that its author, James Graham, who also wrote This House, set in the parliamentary whips’ offices during the 1970s, will eventually be ranked as the century’s first great playwright.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear