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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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity