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".

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder