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'Gove, the great reformer, mistook change for improvement'

I don’t know whether there’s a masculine version of the song Ding Dong the Witch is Dead.

Even with my extensive credentials as a failed radio DJ, I’m struggling to locate the right song for news of today’s momentous reshuffle. The Spice Girls’ Goodbye is pithy but too unsubtle. Peter Sarsted’s more sophisticated Where Do You Go to My Lovely? hardly captures the post-Govean zeitgeist. Most teachers would probably want to change the title of Pink Floyd’s Goodbye Blue Sky to Hello Blue Sky. And Michael Jackson’s Farewell my Summer Love simply seems, in all respects, wrong.

So perhaps we’re best just falling back on that Rogers and Hammerstein set-piece from The Sound of Music; So Long, Farewell, which feels kind of appropriate for an education secretary who did all he could to nudge schools like ours to place more emphasis to subjects he deemed more worthily academic – including modern foreign languages.

I’m writing this when I should be watching the rounders games at our sports day. It’s interesting to note that as the news of Michael Gove’s departure was received by various staff out there– from teachers through office staff – many punched the air and screamed “Yes!”

Their reaction was one of physical delight.

I don’t think this is a sign of the way I – perceived, no doubt, to be at the heart of The Blob – have indoctrinated the team here. They certainly have their own opinions on everything we do. Their response, I suspect, simply mirrors the same almost visceral reaction that has been has been spreading across the country and internet, like beacons lit in times of national celebration.

“Gove’s gone”, they’re intoning, wide-eyed with disbelief, in a phrase that Michael’s English degree will probably enable him one day to admire at least for its combination of alliteration and assonance.

Yes, Gove’s gone.

And from where I am – in a world apart from the seething and self-regarding world of Whitehall politics – it looks like a demotion for the education secretary to the post of chief whip at the fag-end of a government’s term of office.

Gove was hailed as the golden boy, the great crusading reformer, the man who was prepared to take on those of us seen as the blockers. It’s not so long since he was being talked up as a future prime minister.

Not today.

But, truth be told, I don’t share the collective sense of glee, the schadenfreude, the distasteful sense of bunting being metaphorically festooned across Twitter.

I admired Michael Gove.

Those are four words I haven’t previously written. I admired the way he understood that education was, for many – including people just like him – an escape route into a better world. I admired his courage in sitting on conference stages and taking on his critics in face-to-face debate. I admired his underlying sense that English education had to up its game. I quietly admired his self-belief.

So it’s odd that someone like me who shares so many of his principles should have felt so alienated by his cliquiness, by his fatal attraction to the media limelight, and by his thinking that rubbishing his critics with such a lack of nuance wouldn’t ultimately drive away the very people – people like me – that he needed to implement his reforms.

Because for all the froth of policy-making, for all the grand plans over academies and changes to pay and conditions and the curriculum and the assessment regime, we knew many years ago from Black and Wiliam’s The Black Box that change in schools will only arise from what teachers do in the classroom.

Yep: it’s all about the classroom.

And for too many teachers and school leaders, we have been distracted from what makes the biggest difference – improving teaching. We have been distracted by the frenzied juggernaut of policy changes, few of which have given sufficient emphasis to helping teachers to become better teachers.

It may even be that on Michael Gove’s watch, the overall quality of teaching has stood still.

That – if my instincts are right – is a damning legacy. Because as I’ve written so many times, Boyle’s Law is Boyle’s Law. In the hand of one teacher it’s inspiring and compelling. In the class next door it’s leaden, lifeless and off-putting.

The lesson is simple. Teaching trumps curriculum change: devote your energies to improving teaching.

Thus, teachers matter far more than Michael Gove ever realised. Their self-esteem, their professional pride, their entitlement to high-quality training and development, as well as the need for them to be accountable – all of these count for far more than he acknowledged.

There was the opportunity from the outset to create the conditions whereby great teachers helped weaker teachers to improve, for a collaborative sense across all England’s schools that a mission to transform our teaching could restore our national education system.

Instead, we have a school landscape that has splintered and fragmented, where competition is leading to tactics between schools that work against the notion of shared moral purpose.

Gove was the great reformer but – devastatingly – he mistook change for improvement.

Real improvement in our school and colleges will come on someone else’s watch – when someone realises that, however deep you hide within the bunker of Sanctuary Buildings, you’ll only improve the system by working with teachers, not by thinking you can chide, goad, humiliate or threaten us to do better.

Today reminds us, as Johnny Cash’s song so memorably put it, that These Things Shall Pass. Politicians come and go. Schools and children and teachers and parents and communities remain.

Meanwhile, outside my office, a thousand young people are competing, laughing and learning. I’m heading back out to that world.


Related links: 

Michael Gove leaves Department for Education in major Cabinet reshuffle - July 2014 
Profile: Who is Nicky Morgan?- July 2014 

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