'Nothing Michael Gove says should be taken at face value – here's why'

Fact-checking the former education secretary: Warwick Mansell puts Michael Gove’s statements under the microscope

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Here we go again, I thought, as I clicked on Tes’ recent interview with Michael Gove. And, no, my internal groan was not so much frustration with his defence of his policies, which, it seems increasingly clear, are casting a chaotic shadow over much of education in England.

Rather, it was in the oh-so-familiar sense that a key claim in his comments seemed likely to be...at variance with the actualité.

In the report of the interview, the former education secretary said that he did not regret using his infamous “enemies of promise” barb, which, he seemed implicitly to admit, had been taken by teachers as a widely aimed insult against the profession.

But it was not meant as such, he suggested, as it had been confined to “those people who opposed the forced conversion of an underperforming primary, which is now doing brilliantly”.

So I embarked on a now well-established procedure. It runs as follows:

  • Read or hear something from the former education secretary.
  • Think “hmm”.
  • Conduct some basic fact-checking.
  • Conclude that the statement was factually wrong or dubious, and so set about writing about it.

I looked up the 2013 Mail online article, published under Mr Gove’s name, in which he did indeed take aim at “enemies of promise”, alongside the “Marxists” who were against his reforms.

In his Tes interview, Mr Gove is clearly talking about campaigners, whom he implies were synonymous with the Anti-Academies Alliance and Socialist Workers' Party who were fighting the conversion of the former Downhills Primary School, in Haringey, north London. This had been run as a local authority primary until forcibly converted by Gove to the Harris academy chain in 2012.

The argument, he said, “was not that these were teachers, it was just the Anti-Academies Alliance – in essence, the Socialist Workers' Party”.

So that’s pretty specific, and, if the interview is right, should not be taken as implying an insult aimed more widely at teachers.

But here’s that 2013 piece’s headline: I refuse to surrender to the Marxist teachers hell-bent on destroying our schools: Education secretary berates ‘the new enemies of promise’ for opposing his plans.

Were teachers his 'enemies of promise'?

Well, that seems wide. But, as any journalist knows, the author of an article doesn’t write the headline. So let’s look at the text itself.

It said: “The new Enemies of Promise are a set of politically motivated individuals who have been actively trying to prevent millions of our poorest children getting the education they need.”

That’s some reach for campaigners fighting a change to one school. If this insult was not widely meant, why did the article suggest it was almost all-embracing, in terms of education in England?

That weary memory that nothing Mr Gove says should be taken at face value returned.

Before Christmas, researching a feature on grammar schools, I alighted on a comment Mr Gove made in a speech at Cambridge University in 2011 about how schools in east Manchester were being “transformed as academies” under the leadership of a grammar school.

The multi-academy trust spun off from that school is now in dire straits, as it happens. But what staggered me more was finding out that none of the schools to which he seemed to be referring in the speech became an academy until 2012.

Similarly, in July 2013, I reported how Mr Gove had told MPs that his new system of teacher education, School Direct, had “achieved a dramatic increase in the number of highly qualified graduates entering the profession”.

"Strange that," thought some, as School Direct did not get going in earnest until September 2013.

Also in 2013, Mr Gove told reporters that schools should think about cutting school holidays, as had happened in successful education systems in the Far East, including Singapore, Hong Kong and China.

But, on checking, it emerged that Singapore has a six-week long break, as we do; Hong Kong has an annual minimum of 190 teaching days, as in England; and China has a summer holiday starting in early July and ending in late August.

In 2014, Mr Gove took aim at the “ridiculous” number of Old Etonians in David Cameron’s inner circle, though I then wearily pointed out that three of Mr Gove’s own close advisers were Eton alumni.

Mr Gove was also caught out making dubious claims in that Mail online piece that “survey after survey” had revealed that teenagers’ historical knowledge was weak.

Even if we take at face value Mr Gove’s comment that his “enemies of promise” slur was directed only at those opposing the Downhills conversion, I was told on Friday that it came without the education secretary having met or talked to those campaigners.

I remember attending a Downhills campaign meeting at which a teacher spoke of having spent decades trying to help pupils in a poor area succeed and thus how offended he felt by being called an “enemy of promise”.

I thought then that it was a disgusting criticism. It remains so, even on these narrower terms, and with the reality of the Downhills case more complex than the simple tale that Mr Gove, seemingly for ever a storytelling columnist rather than a facts-driven reporter, seems to want to tell.

Perhaps those photographs of Mr Gove with Donald Trump were appropriate. The fact-checking experience I have had with the former seems very reminiscent of that currently being experienced by the overworked Washington press corps.

Warwick Mansell is a freelance education journalist and author of Education by Numbers. You can read his back catalogue here

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