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'Gove's conviction was his strength, and his weakness'

Tom Finn-Kelcey, head of the faculty of social sciences at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Faversham, Kent, writes: 

Even as a seasoned watcher of politics, I was pretty surprised by the demotion of Michael Gove in yesterday’s reshuffle.

Watching as the curtain fell on one of the most controversial holders of the post of education secretary, I asked myself how best to assess the impact of Mr Gove. My lovely wife is a primary school teacher, and as I write this she is busy assessing children’s work with her system of “stars” for good things and “wishes” for improvements. I think I shall undertake something not dissimilar.

One of the things most deserving of a star about Gove was that he actually cared about the position of education secretary. For so many of his predecessors, this job was a stepping stone; a way to cut your teeth in a mid-level cabinet job before hopefully moving onto one of the “big jobs”.

I get the impression that within the largely privately-educated Westminster bubble that’s exactly how this role is viewed. Previous education secretaries have had a much easier time of it and been much better thought of by the profession for simply spouting off a few platitudes and being happy to preside rather than actually try and effect change. In a political world where the elite have so little contact with the state services they oversee it was quite nice to have someone in charge who not only cared, but who had some actual ideas.

The biggest plus of the Gove era for me was the comeback of academia. I spent so many of my early years as a teacher in the noughties listening to nonsense about discrete subjects being dead, how antiquated notions of subject knowledge didn’t really matter as long as you were teaching “skills”.

Too many in the education establishment really did buy into some of this nonsense, and it was genuinely empowering to have an education secretary on the side of those of us who still believe in true academic rigour. No one Gove reform has made this happen in itself, but I get the sense that within education a better balance between subject knowledge and skills-based approaches exists now than it did pre-2010.

Gove must also get credit for taking the axe to some of the low-value vocational options peddled by the previous government. The New Labour administration, along with a number of school leaders eager for a quick fix to climb the league tables, saddled so many children with desperately poor qualifications that have left them absolutely nowhere in terms of their prospects. Gove, along with people like Alison Wolf, deserve credit for standing against this moral dereliction of duty.

The legacy of Gove is, however, far from a rosy picture overall. This has not been entirely his fault, and I wonder whether had Gove been at the helm during the boom years of the early 2000s, we may think of him rather differently. I say this because Gove has had to attempt far reaching reforms with one hand tied behind his back, due to the dire economic situation.

Two major factors have held him back. The first is that Gove has always known that he was working to a tight deadline. From the outset it looked highly unlikely that he would have more than one parliament in which to effect change. Any government making the kind of economic cuts this one has was always unlikely to win a second term – indeed, it is only the ineptitude of Labour that has kept the Tories in with a chance next year. Because of this, he has rushed reforms and thus been unable to affect any one change fully and rigorously. Both the exam reforms and curriculum changes reflect this problem.

The second complicating factor is the way the cuts have fallen on education provision. These spending cuts – no doubt imposed by the Treasury, rather than by Gove himself – have led to a ravaging of educational services and support staff, both of which will massively affect teachers’ workload. Along with this is the almost wholly untold story of huge cuts to post-16 funding in schools. The damage this has done to the ability of schools to provide high-quality A-levels is considerable, and to do this at a time of radical curriculum change will inevitably have a negative effect on outcomes. 

At this stage, it is far from clear his attempts to reform the educational establishment have been a positive change. There is very little evidence free schools and academies actually make any material difference in terms of academic outcomes – a fact starkly revealed by the DfE themselves in court last week.

With the demise of the role of local authorities, we find ourselves in a world where inter-school cooperation is becoming more and more fraught with difficulties. This is in no small part down to the fact that Gove, like so many of his predecessors of all political stripes, has continued the orthodoxy of expanding marketisation within education. It is this, more than anything else, that incentivises schools to take the quick fixes, incentivises exam boards to dumb down exams to attract customers and incentivises all of us to look at the numbers more than we look at the children we teach.

A really radical education secretary would have rethought this damaging orthodoxy, as it is the root of so many of the problems in education today that Gove himself rails against – and not to have done so is, for me, his biggest failing.

His conviction was a strength in some ways, but it was also a weakness. Fundamentally, Gove didn’t really bring people along with him. A secretary of state has to lead by persuasion as well as by making tough choices and that was never really Gove’s strength. His failure over curriculum reforms to properly consult experts with a range of perspectives is a good example of this.

For me, the Gove era promised more than it has delivered. I think he leaves the substance of the curriculum, the quality of examinations and the educational values of the profession overall in a better place than he found them in. However, as far as the structures and institutions of schooling are concerned, he has been yet another in the long list of contributors to the damage done by marketisation.

All those who celebrate his demise should remember that his successor will no doubt pick up this baton and carry on the orthodoxy, as will any Labour successor. Many who see Gove as a pantomime villain will cheer his passing, but the sad truth is that it makes little difference in terms of the broad direction of education policy. For that, we need a bigger rethink.

Related links: 

'Gove, the great reformer, mistook change for improvement' - July 2014
Michael Gove leaves Department for Education in major Cabinet reshuffle - July 2014 
Profile: Who is Nicky Morgan?- July 2014 

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