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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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.