Interview - Mr Charm gets ready to become the Conservatives' Mr Frugal

1st May 2009 at 01:00
With an election on the horizon, the party's leading `neocon' talks to Richard Vaughan about school freedom, primary academies - and money

Michael Gove enters the room in Portcullis House in a whirlwind of civilities and politeness. The shadow schools secretary is one of the more charming politicians in Westminster, never short of a pleasantry or two.

The 41-year-old, with wide, staring green eyes, somehow manages to look both young and old at the same time. He moves like a series of still pictures, as if his every movement has been considered.

In contrast, his route to his current post was anything but as premeditated.

He was adopted at four months old by a mother who worked as a lab assistant at Aberdeen University and a father who was a fish merchant. He attended two state primary schools and Robert Gordon's College, an independent secondary, to which he subsequently won a scholarship when his parents' finances grew tighter. He then studied English at Oxford University.

It wasn't until after a career in journalism and an article criticising the Conservative party that he was asked by David Cameron, soon to be the party leader, to join the Tories. He was elected MP for Surrey Heath in May 2005 and served as shadow minister for housing.

Our meeting takes place the day before the Budget is announced and Mr Gove is under no illusion as to how grave a situation the country is in. A day later he was no doubt pondering an even thriftier future.

There is a distinct likelihood that Mr Gove could be inheriting a much poorer Department for Children, Schools and Families should the Conservatives win the next general election. (It is expected to take place around this time next year.) But the Scot is quick to reassure as best he can that, despite the bleak outlook, education would be in safe hands under the Tories.

"One of the things that reassures me is the fact that David Cameron and George Osborne (the shadow Chancellor) have said how important education is if we are lucky enough to form a Conservative government," he says.

"David Cameron has stressed that education is, after the economy, top of his agenda. That gives me a tremendous sense of encouragement that, even if we do face tough economic times, education is seen by the two central people at the top of the party as not simply an area that needs to be nurtured and protected, but an area that is central to the ambition of the next government."

Education has been a key part of the Conservatives' campaign to become the next government, and it builds heavily on the work set out by Tony Blair's administration.

A linchpin of their schools policy, as set out in their 2007 green paper Raising the Bar, Closing the Gap, is to increase the academies programme vastly, building on the free schools system that has seen varying degrees of success in Sweden. The Tories want to see the freedoms already afforded to academies extended to schools in deprived areas, hoping to create a "free market" scenario. The new academies would challenge other schools in their area to up their game.

Thus, the Conservatives have said they would create more than 220,000 school places, enough to cater for each child who "lost an appeal for their first choice of school".

However, the state of the economy presents a big obstacle to achieving this aim. The Tories had hoped to redirect Pounds 4.5 billion earmarked for the Building Schools for the Future project to help build the new academies, but capital spending is expected to be dramatically reduced from 2011 onwards.

Mr Gove admits that his party's plans are "ambitious", but says that no opposition party would, at this stage, go into "absolute, penny by penny detail" about how budgets would be reallocated.

"Our reforms are about making sure the system is more responsive and more efficient," he says.

"Look at Building Schools for the Future. You have a multibillion pound budget - Pounds 45 billion and rising - and how many schools have we had built? Fewer than 50. This is a disastrously mismanaged project.

"Of course you need to have continued investment in education. The staggering thing has been the way in which resources have been poorly allocated.

"Our sole aim is to ensure that money goes to the chalk face and is spent in the classroom, rather than being held back by bureaucracy."

The Tories would like to see greater freedom given to the new academies, allowing them control over their budgets, curriculum and school hours.

Last weekend, at the Conservative conference in Cheltenham, Mr Gove announced that thousands of primary schools will also be in line for the academy treatment. The news grabbed headlines, but primary academies have been strongly hinted at previously, not least by the Policy Exchange think tank, which Mr Gove helped to set up in 2002.

He told the party faithful: "Academy freedoms for secondary schools have already helped thousands of disadvantaged children by driving up standards in the state sector. We want to allow the same thing to happen in primary schools.

"Making schools genuinely accountable to parents by freeing them from political interference and giving them control over budgets, curriculum and staff could make a real difference to the opportunities for some of the most deprived children."

Directly linked to this is the plan to introduce a pupil premium, additional funding that follows pupils from deprived backgrounds as they move from school to school. Unlike the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives have yet to reveal how they would fund the policy, and it would appear to be ever more difficult to achieve in the current economic climate. Mr Gove says it is something that he is "looking at very closely" but refuses to be drawn further.

"As any TES reader would know, the whole question of school funding is opaque," he says. "Any reform of school funding is something you have to proceed with carefully because of the potential of adding another layer of complexity that will lead to school leaders, and others, finding themselves entangled in a system that was supposed to be about liberating them. So we want to make sure we get it right."

Mr Gove is cautious not to commit to spending plans at this stage. It is a position he sticks to throughout our meeting, particularly when the conversation turns to pay and conditions for teachers.

"We all know we're going through an age of austerity," he says.

"One of the things I absolutely want to do is to ensure there is flexibility in the system and there is the capacity to attract and reward talent.

"I know that people enter teaching for a variety of different reasons, and money is not the most important thing. We've got to make sure teachers are valued. Part of that is making sure the system of rewards - and they're not just financial - take account of that."

Mr Gove, who is described as the Conservatives' most prominent "neocon", says he is keen to continue the "open conversation" he has had with teacher unions. The three-year pay deal, for instance, is something that he and Mr Osborne are happy to discuss with them.

"If you have, as we've had, a mature conversation with the unions, then you get a better sense of what their priorities are," he says.

"Every union, every institution, every campaign group will have a wish list, a one to 10 of what they would like to see. Some of the points are negotiable and some of them are high priority. It is getting a sense of those that will help frame our judgment."

He admits that he does not know what the situation would be with teachers' pensions in the future, but is quick to say that the state should "honour the contributions that individuals have made on the basis that (they made when) they entered the profession".

Mr Gove is keen to point out that the country is in an "age of austerity", a phrase also used by Mr Cameron. It seems to indicate that people should not get their hopes up when it comes to pay. It is a point Mr Gove makes on the subject of the NUT's call for a 10 per cent pay rise, saying that "it wasn't the best time to make that case".

Going by last week's Budget statement, there may not be a good time to raise that case for a while. Should Mr Gove take up the reins of education after the next general election, he will have to be adept at being a frugal player in the sector, while keeping the masses happy. But for now, he is making the right noises.

"Education is hugely important in itself but improving education will be central to our long term economic fight back," he says.

CV: Michael Gove

  • 1967: Born in Edinburgh
  • 1977: Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen
  • 1985: Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University
  • 1995: Brief acting career, appearing in A Feast at Midnight
  • 1996: Joined The Times
  • 2005: Elected MP for Surrey Heath
  • 2005: Shadow minister for housing
  • 2007: Shadow Secretary for Children, Schools and Families.

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