The low points of high office

6th August 2010 at 01:00
Clever and charming and with a clear commitment to the job, Michael Gove has attracted vociferous criticism during his first months in office

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 - and particularly during his time in opposition - the Education Secretary had enjoyed being the keeper of his party's ideals and, what is more, had acquired a reputation 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.

While there is undoubted support from some quarters for his reform agenda, it is surely an understatement to say that things have not all been going his way. Is there a way back for the now controversial journalist-turned- politician?

The Education Secretary has been given an undeniably difficult task. And although his Cabinet colleagues have also had their work cut out to acclimatise the public to the idea of a new age of austerity, cutting costs around schools is a particularly unpalatable prospect for many in Parliament and the educational establishment.

Unlike his colleague, health secretary Andrew Lansley, Mr Gove has not been afforded 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 simultaneously starting implementation of far-reaching reform of the country's education system, the MP for Surrey Heath has been the subject of unremitting public and media scrutiny.

Much of this can be attributed to the bruising parliamentary skills of former education secretary Ed Balls, who now shadows Mr Gove's portfolio. However genuine Mr Balls' fury about the new Government's direction of travel, 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 as often as possible.

When the new Education Secretary cancelled BSF, Mr Balls was quick to pounce. "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 had been botched and chaotic, with change after change."

He later added: "The thoughtless and botched way Michael Gove announced it showed the hurry he was in."

Since then, Mr Gove seems to have suffered more negative media coverage than any of his colleagues.

Scrapping the expansion of free school meals promised by the previous administration and axing a number of quangos were widely regarded as unfortunate but accepted as necessary evils. The age of austerity had, after all, arrived.

Even the decision to end BSF was not criticised per se; it was the manner in which it announced that triggered negative headlines.

Grumblings turned into roars of derision once errors were found on no fewer than four successive lists of schools that were to lose out on rebuilding money. One minute heads and teachers believed that their school would be rebuilt; the next, their hopes were dashed.

And while Mr Gove was taking away with one hand, he was providing with another, pushing through legislation in the Academies Bill that would create independent "free schools" and expand the academies programme to every school.

The rush was palpable: in just the first few weeks in office, Mr Gove introduced a raft of changes that previous secretaries of state would have been proud of achieving 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 that the new Education Secretary needs to slow down and consult more widely with officials.

"Consultation with his officials has been minimal," the source said. "He has rushed into quite significant changes before taking consultation 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."

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. And when, last week, the Department for Education published its list of schools that had applied to become academies it revealed just 153 had volunteered, 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.

"To make changes to public services of this importance, ideally you would have longer to reflect on it and to suggest changes and improvements and make sure there aren't any problems which haven't been considered," Mr Stuart said.

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."

Mr Gove is sure to face more scrutiny when he returns from his holidays in September, but unless he suffers more hiccups it is unlikely that he will face the same level of criticism from the educational establishment and the press as he has to date.

And according to one onlooker, if he avoids more scrapes Mr Gove will be able to look back on his first year in power in the knowledge that he has achieved more as Education Secretary than any of his predecessors since Rab Butler introduced the 1944 Education Act.

TES Forums - `Slow down, get it right'

Clumsy 1974

Why does everything Gove does have to be done at speed? My Granddad gave good advice - measure twice, cut once.

Martin Blank

Gove was right to stop the BSF fiasco - it was like the Emperor's New Clothes.


Gove holds teachers and educational professionals in contempt. He is the most rabidly ideological of all the new ministers.

Keith Mamac

Gove claims half of the groups interested in setting up his "free schools" are teachers. Who the hell are these people? I don't know of any.

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