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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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.