To Kill a Michael Gove: The Gentleman Rapper shuffles off
Empty chairs at empty tables. In a world where ministers are born, breathe and expire as quickly as fruit flies, the great Methuselah of Sanctuary Buildings has signed off his last free school. Stop all the clocks.
In the Department of Education's visitor foyer, guests will be familiar with several things: a permanently out-of-order coffee machine, a rotating display stand of British memorabilia that would shame a Piccadilly gift shop and a wall of photographs, a rogues' gallery of the post-war education secretaries. They'll have to make room for one more now, because Michael Gove has left the building.
I imagine him today, sadly filling a portapak from Viking with pictures of Lenin, books by Hirsch and a bound sheaf of letters from curious parents, with a post-it note attached, saying, "Do the opposite of this". The only other time pharaohs get turfed so suddenly, there's usually a crowd of villagers at the gates with pitchforks and flaming brands. Football managers enjoy greater tenure than ministers, even successful ones.
Despite his pantomime villain status, Gove was one of the most effective ministers in my lifetime, and certainly the most effective education minister, by several barometers. One was by the sheer amount of change he drove through in such a short space of time. Whether you think he was the Tooth Fairy or the Child Catcher, there's no denying that he took a scythe to the long grass of the secret garden, and you can take that metaphor any way you want. Others tinkered and rearranged the porcelain frogs on top of the education mantelpiece; he fixed them with a hammer. Your attitude to porcelain frogs will dictate your taste for what was left.
Another area where he innovated was his relationship with social media, and with unconventional methods of discourse. He was the first minister I've seen who – by proxy – seriously engaged with the online teaching community, and certainly the first education minister who seriously entertained the views of those who didn't occupy the traditional hierarchies of unions and their like, Besides, with ed-secs routinely being booed to death at any conference they dared to face, it's unsurprising that he engaged with voices online. Where else would he turn to discuss schools? The GTC?
I first met him at the end of 2012, when I had been asked to come in and discuss education. And that's exactly what we did. He seemed genuinely interested in what I thought, as a classroom teacher as much as a rentagob. I can't claim that I changed his mind on anything, but to step out of a classroom one minute and be talking to the education secretary the next was a peculiar sensation, similar to stepping out of a plane. People often forget how remote ministers can feel from the subjects of their brief, and the need for them to gain first-hand experience of the environment is pressing. Why not turn to online authors, bloggers and amateurs? Why not?
And now, a reshuffle. It isn't guns that kill people, it's electoral efficacy that kills people. Old Andrew has a theory – and possibly a laudable one – that Gove's removal signifies that education will be kept on the hob to simmer until after the election; that there must be no more outbursts and surprises to stir a jittery electorate. The next election hangs by a thread, and Britain still faces, like a bride at a hen party, something hung. Gove is too divisive a figure to paint a picture of happy families for the floating voters. For every bluestocking he charms with rigour and values, he loses an Earth Mother with core knowledge and ghastly facts. The core vote, I think, has been banked, and now the broker gnomes of the Tory party are locking down the wobblers. No doubt a poll somewhere suggests to the party panjandrums that Essex White Collar AB1 won't swallow any more school revolution.
Whatever. Gove has always had, according to former adviser Sam Freedman, a five-year game plan: get it all done, and get it all done quickly. He certainly did that. Even his defeats seemed suspiciously like victories. The climbdown over GCSEs/O-levels wasn't a climbdown at all. He got almost everything he wanted with that, and let his enemies think they had won, which is really very clever.
He hasn't faced serious opposition for his entire term, and that was a pity; it would have made better sport if someone had done more than make a few tired lunges at him which he barely needed to parry. Current Labour education thinking is still an anxious soup of Tory policy, with some crepuscular initiatives stapled on at the fringes, swinging in the wind. Tristram Hunt still shows a good deal of promise, but Gove kept putting him into check. Now with two NQTs sitting opposite each other across the lines of the House, we might see some real jousting. Perhaps.
What would be a disaster is if his successor, Nicky Morgan, defaulted to over-reliance on existing power structures in education. One of Gove's most accurate assessments of the landscape was that a reactionary hegemony existed in education (which Toby Young defiantly characterised as The Blob – he would never use a toothpick where a toffee hammer would do), which had established both an orthodoxy of discourse and ideology, and a method to replicate itself indefinitely. His utter, damn-your-eyes disregard for popularity and kow-towing to the gatekeepers of convention made him a revolutionary much in the mould of his Bolshevik inspirations. It was a necessary part of steering a ship that no longer wanted to be steered. He's often been criticised for having the subtlety and diplomacy of a meat mincer, but sometimes, it's steam engines when it's steam-engine time. Maybe Cameron saw a threat there, but who knows?
So I'm sorry to see Gove go (and it's odd to see those words without 'must' inserted somewhere in the middle). You'll never agree with anyone on everything, but I still find enough common ground to write a valediction. When I entered education in 2004, it was a bear pit of orthodoxy and monopolies. Now, the dogs have been let out.
What now though?
My suggestion: we don't wait for the grown-ups to make everything better. We carry on doing what we've begun to do: mobilise, organise and improvise. Teachers and school leaders are, to a great extent, leaders of the culture within which they inhabit. Brain Gym may have been dropped on us from a height, but we didn't have to do it. As teachers, we take responsibility for our own development, and get involved in the movements that undercut the traditional hierarchies – like researchED, like the Headteachers' Roundtable. We try to create our own answers to the problems that beset us. Big changes in direction in education take decades, and it might be as long before we hear and feel the final echoes of Gove's sonata.
Farewell, Michael Gove. From now on, Michael Rosen will have to write letters to someone else. Straw effigies made of straw and spectacles will sit sadly in cupboards, forever unused. Many will claim a victory, as if they had personally been responsible for today's news, where the truth is that he outlasted them all, slain only in the end by the irresistible determinism of political mortality and entropy. Venisti, vidisti, vicistis.
And we wait and see what happens next. Education is many things, but it is never boring.