It's all change at the top. Time for a fresh start?

18th July 2014 at 01:00
Nicky Morgan must grapple with reforms and an angry profession

When news of a Cabinet reshuffle broke earlier this week, few believed that it would involve Michael Gove losing his job. But prime minister David Cameron told one of his closest political allies to clear his desk, bringing Mr Gove's four-year tenure at the Department for Education to an end.

In his place, relative unknown Nicky Morgan has taken up the reins; she faces the tough task of making her predecessor's reforms work on the ground while improving strained relations between the government and the teaching profession. But as the dust begins to settle, what will Ms Morgan's appointment mean for schools and teachers across the country?

Back in January, Ms Morgan called on her party to stop using the "language of hate" and instead opt for a note of optimism. This conciliatory tone will need to continue if she is to build bridges with teachers, particularly as she takes up the post a week after the NUT teaching union held a national strike.

Ms Morgan's in-tray also includes a daunting list of half-completed reforms, including a fundamental overhaul of GCSEs and A-levels from September 2015. She will have to oversee the introduction of a new national curriculum and performance-related pay from this September, complete a major review of initial teacher training and make tough decisions about where to approve new free schools. Sam Freedman, a former senior policy adviser to Mr Gove, has suggested that some officials in the DfE, wary of the pace of change, will use the reshuffle to try to put the brakes on reform.

Geoff Barton, headteacher of King Edward VI School in Suffolk, urged Ms Morgan to behave as if she were a new school leader and "spend the first term seeing what works and what doesn't". But he said that teachers should not expect an easier ride under the new regime.

"Gove thought he knew how the system worked," Mr Barton said. "The truth is that he didn't, but he left behind a very, very powerful legacy and teachers will still see his boot mark in years to come. What he has put in train is unstoppable. Even if someone wanted to, there is not much chance it will be changed any time soon."

Academies became a fixture of the school landscape under Mr Gove, with around 60 per cent of secondaries now independent of local authorities and the number of primary academies still growing. Free schools, too, are proliferating, and changes to league tables and accountability measures in general will continue. Newer reforms that are yet to be formalised, such as those to initial teacher training, appear more vulnerable to being watered down or shelved.

Not all teachers are in favour of a period of calm, however. Education blogger and classroom teacher Andrew Old said Ms Morgan should explore the reforms to teacher training, although he doubted that the changes would ultimately happen.

"The whole education bureaucracy is so complex; unless a politician has been paying attention for a very long time it is impossible for it not to fall apart", Mr Old added. "The same happened after David Blunkett left [in 2001]. One policy after another slowly gets replaced, people in certain jobs change and there is just a return to the normal routine of what they've always done."

There was consensus among commentators this week that Mr Gove had been removed because of his antagonistic relationship with teachers. Ms Morgan's comparative anonymity gives her a chance to re-engage the profession and attempt to detoxify the relationship between her department and teachers.

Unions have made conciliatory noises about wanting to engage in dialogue, which gives them a possible route out of further industrial action, but it seems unlikely that they will win concessions on the issues of performance pay and pensions that prompted last week's strike.

One source suggested that the new education secretary would have to refuse immediate talks with teaching unions, for fear that it would seem as though they had "won" in removing Mr Gove from office. But Dame Alison Peacock, executive headteacher of the Wroxham School in Hertfordshire, urged Ms Morgan to take notice of views from the front line.

"What the profession needs now is an education secretary that listens to the workforce," she added. "I don't know much about her, but it is very important that she listens to teachers.

Who is Ms Morgan?

Nicky Morgan was born in Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, in 1972. She attended the independent Surbiton High School, where she served as head girl. After graduating from St Hugh's College, Oxford and qualifying as a solicitor, she spent 16 years working in the legal sector, specialising in corporate law. She failed to win a seat in the 2005 election, but was elected MP for Loughborough in 2010. Ms Morgan was made minister for women and equality earlier this year, despite voting against gay marriage.

Is Gove's departure the end of cold war in education?

Famously, on the wall of what is now his former office in the Department for Education, Michael Gove had pictures of Lenin and Malcolm X. However, the historical figure he most reminds me of is George S Patton, the maverick American general of the Second World War. Almost any Patton quote sounds like a Govian manifesto: "A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week" or "If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking". Like Patton, Gove is charismatic, aggressive and steeped in the history of the battles he fights.

His forcefulness and unwavering commitment to education reform often cast those of us who believe in the need for great change in England's schools (especially those of us from different political traditions) as Omar Bradleys. We watched with a mixture of shock, bemusement and occasional admiration as Gove won significant victories, such as the imposition of a phonics check in primary education or the forced academisation of the failing Downhills Primary School in North London. We flinched as he flogged the troops, bickered with prominent colleagues and cast aside reliable allies like former Ofsted chair Sally Morgan. But, whether or not it was wise, there was certainly something laudable about Gove's refusal to mollycoddle a profession that all too often bemoans its lot in a manner reminiscent of its most petulant teenage charges.

Because he was so clearly the champion of English education reform, Gove's unforced errors - dodging the need to change rather than just remove universities' role in teacher training, or stirring up a maelstrom of innuendo during the Birmingham "Trojan Horse" affair - weren't just embarrassing for him and the Conservative Party, they were a blow to all serious education reformers. They turned the big questions of educational transformation into little questions of being for or against Gove. Nuance was rationed in the ideological cold war.

Now that time has passed. That does not mean there is not still real work to do: teaching is not yet the mature profession we need, our qualifications are not yet the passports to success our students require and our evidence base is still dependent on a riven educational research community. But in solving such problems, the inheritors of Gove's legacy have the chance to be education's Eisenhowers: steady, calm and determined to see the show through without all the fuss and flash of "Old Blood and Guts" Patton.

Crucially, the fact that Gove's successor, Nicky Morgan, is an unknown in education provides Labour's Tristram Hunt - armed with his experience as both an educator and an education shadow minister - with an opportunity to show his mettle.

But I wonder how Gove will take this change. "The absence of war will destroy him," said one German officer of Patton. What will it do to Michael Gove?

John Blake is a teacher, writer and co-editor of the Labour Teachers blog

The show must go on for Gove musical

Some opponents of Michael Gove may have raised a glass to mark his departure on Tuesday, but one was otherwise occupied. Luton secondary school teacher David Lloyd was frantically making last-minute changes to his musical, Dear Mr Gove, which is due to premiere this weekend. The show, which satirises the impact of the arts being squeezed out in favour of academic subjects, has been in development for three months.

Mr Lloyd, a drama teacher who joined his colleagues from the NUT teaching union on strike last Thursday, admitted that he had not expected the antihero behind his production to be leaving the job just days before the premiere. "It's incredible, really," he said. "I didn't expect it to happen; I was of the belief that the day would never come."

The musical was inspired by the young people in the Next Generation Youth Theatre group, co-founded by Mr Lloyd, who have seen the arts cut back in their schools. The plot follows staff at the fictional Crabtree Academy, who are fighting against a diktat from Mr Gove to axe arts provision.

Mr Lloyd hopes that new education secretary Nicky Morgan might share his passion for the arts: an invitation to the show's debut performance at the Luton Library Theatre tomorrow evening has already been dispatched to the Department for Education.

For more coverage of Michael Gove's departure and the arrival of Nicky Morgan, go to


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