The ideologue in a hurry who's having a bumpy ride

13th August 2010 at 01:00
Clever, charming and committed to the job in hand, Michael Gove has drawn criticism for his first months in office - even from Tories. Richard Vaughan reports on a man who may be trying to do too much, too quickly

Westminster Education Secretary Michael Gove experienced the lowest point of his short political career last month, when he announced to the Commons that he would be scrapping the secondary school rebuilding programme.

Until that point Mr Gove had been viewed as a safe pair of hands, the man to get things done. But in the days after announcing the end to Building Schools for the Future (BSF), something slipped and, for possibly the first time, the usually unflappable Mr Gove was flapping.

Cutting costs around schools is an unpalatable prospect for many in Parliament and the educational establishment. Unlike health secretary Andrew Lansley, Mr Gove does not have the luxury of ring-fenced budgets, and was charged with finding pound;670 million of cuts in a single parliamentary session.

Since embarking on the cuts, while also starting a far-reaching reform of the education system, Mr Gove has been the subject of unremitting public scrutiny.

Much of this can be attributed to the bruising parliamentary skills of his predecessor Ed Balls, who now shadows his portfolio.

However genuine Mr Balls's fury about the new Government's direction, there can be little doubt that he has grabbed every opportunity to raise his profile during the Labour leadership race by giving Mr Gove a political kicking.

When the new Education Secretary cancelled BSF, Mr Balls pounced. "Ever since Michael Gove announced the cancellation of over 700 school building projects, things have gone from bad to worse," he said at the time. "His handling has been botched and chaotic, with change after change."

Since then, Mr Gove seems to have suffered more negative media coverage than any of his colleagues. Grumblings became roars of derision as errors were found on four successive lists of schools that were to lose out on rebuilding money.

Mr Gove was also pushing through the Academies Bill, which would create independent "free schools" and expand the academies programme to every school.

The rush was palpable: in a matter of weeks, Mr Gove introduced a raft of changes that previous secretaries of state would have been proud of in a five-year term.

But commentators who say the radical reform programme is being hurried point out that politicians in a hurry tend to make mistakes.

One source experienced in the workings of Whitehall told The TES in England that the new Education Secretary needs to slow down and consult more widely with officials.

"He has rushed into quite significant changes before taking con- sultation and without fully understanding what it is he wants to change - and without understanding the process you need to go through to effect those changes," the source said.

Mr Gove's problems gathered pace when The TES reported that the Government was using parliamentary processes usually reserved for anti-terror laws to push through its Academies Bill. Then the Department for Education revealed that just 153 schools had applied to become academies, despite Mr Gove's claim that more than 1,000 had done so.

Mr Gove said his haste was because children's education was at stake, but the revelation about the actual numbers of applicants attracted criticism from even those on his own side of the Commons.

At the time, Graham Stuart, chair of the education select committee, said Mr Gove would need "an overwhelming argument" to push the bill through without the requisite scrutiny.

But for one political adviser, who did not want to be named, the rush is simply "unnecessary". He believes Mr Gove has the summer to turn his fortunes around.

"He has yet to make the change from a politician to a statesman. He still acts as if he is in opposition. It was typified in the select committee last week. When asked about faith schools, he said he would be happy to hear from Richard Dawkins about an atheist school. Officials in the Department must have had their heads in their hands. It opens the floodgates to everybody applying to open a Jedi Knight school."

The adviser added: "He is undoubtedly an ideologue, but he seems to enjoy attracting controversy, which is not advisable for a secretary of state. He has two hurdles to overcome this summer in the shape of A-levels and GCSEs. If anything goes wrong or there is a failure to provide enough school places for five-year-olds in September, he will cease to be seen as a safe pair of hands."

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