'The tectonic plates of education are shifting again, as Gove's magic deserts him'

21st March 2014 at 19:23

Geoff Barton, headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, writes:

It’s Friday evening and I'm in a bar in a hotel whose name I've forgotten somewhere near the National Exhibition Centre, out amid the scrubby hinterlands of Birmingham. I’m here so that you don't have to be.

And, to be honest, I'm not sure precisely where I am (geography teachers – stop carping: it’s Friday night, dammit). All I know is that that I'm near a roundabout. But then everywhere around here is near a roundabout.

The reason for my brief escape from Suffolk is to attend the biggest annual conference for school and college leaders – what we in the Twitterati give the sexy label #ASCL2014.

Thus I spent the afternoon listening amid an audience of 1,200 secondary school leaders to two of the dominant figures of the current educational scene – Michaels Gove and Wilshaw.

There we sat like an older, politer and (in my case) rather balder version of your typical X-Factor audience, anticipating today’s billed Clash of the Michaels.

Conspiracy theorists were speculating beforehand that the 45-minute refreshment break was strategically arranged so that, following recent spats, M&M weren't actually on the stage together – nor had they much chance of passing one another in that cavernous auditorium of the NEC Hilton.

Yet what we saw – even when separated by an elongated tea-break – revealed a lot about the current direction of educational policy, just over a year before the next general election.

Michael Gove was up first. I wasn't close enough to see him in close-up. This may not be a disadvantage. I had heard some hotel helpers earlier saying, "It’s him; he’s here", in tones that hinted of genuflection.

Me, I sat under a Big Brother-style screen halfway down the hall from which Michael, and his celebrity interviewer, the journalist David Aaronovitch, glowered down. David had adopted the dress-code of the journalist – the Clarksonesque open shirt and casual jacket. Michael Gove was in – depending whether the big screen’s resolution was quite accurate – a Lib Dem yellow shirt and blue tie.

And from where I sat it felt as if something today had changed. What we got was an interview that was sometimes interesting but marred by chuminess. There were questions about school finances, about relationships with the profession, about the confusion over assessment, plus comments about the pace of reform.

It was familiar stuff. But this time all was muted and tame; it lacked the kind of sparkle that many of us who have seen ‘Michael Gove live’ – whatever we think of the policies – relish and admire.

After a weekend of reading in the papers that he had assumed the mantel of kingmaker for the next Conservative leader and reading his views on various issues beyond education, I wondered whether this Michael’s interest had moved on to other things, to other policies, to other putative departments of government.

There were some bon mots – such as a nice filleting of the media’s long-standing obsession with caricaturing the conflicts between successive education secretaries and the profession: "I don't recall David Blunkett having group hugs with the teaching profession," he said.

But in response to the questions from the (to my mind) under-researched Aaronovitch and then a small number of audience members, we saw little of the Govean charm, the moral fervour, the sheer delight in education.

It was as if, like Shakespeare’s Propsero, the magic had deserted him and his mind was now elsewhere. Either that, or – judging by the amount of water he knocked back – he has a heavy cold.

Next, it was Sir Michael’s turn. I have been pretty critical in the past of his role at Ofsted. The tone he has set as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector has too often been corrosive and carping. It has led too many inspectors to see their role too as nit-picking and laying easy tripwires for teachers and school leaders.

Sir Michael’s tendency to pontificate on too many matters had made me wonder whether he had found the adjustment from Hackney staffroom to the national stage a bit too much.

But today he impressed. Ofsted had to change, he told us. This was a sign of the nation’s improved schools and the need for a more grown-up relationship. He delivered his usual censorious messages – "Ofsted is there for parents, not for the profession" – but he also revealed, for the first time to my eyes, what must have made him an outstanding headteacher.

He dealt with the questions; he made his mark. He gave a sense that Ofsted was reinventing itself for the next phase of our nation’s educational development.

With Michael Gove – perhaps because the questions didn't probe the stalling of the free-school initiative and those murky questions about academy chains – it was a glimpse of the past, not the future.

So there we are: one afternoon, one view of two Michaels, and one sense that whether it’s in government policy or Ofsted’s new relationship with the profession, the tectonic plates of education are shifting again.


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