Michael Gove: No dawdling, there's work to be done

28th May 2010 at 01:00
`Humbled' to be in the job, the new Education Secretary talks to the TES

`Humbled' to be in the job, the new Education Secretary has rolled up his sleeves to produce the coalition's first legislation. Autonomy may be its focus, but Michael Gove, in his first newspaper interview since taking the post, tells Richard Vaughan that no one will be compelled to be free.

Michael Gove is regarded as one of the Conservatives' most revolutionary thinkers, so it is startling that he very nearly missed out on his preferred education patch when it came to forming the coalition Government.

His position was the last major post to be filled during the frantic, behind-the-scenes horse-trading that formed the new Con-Lib regime. But now he has his feet firmly under the table at the new Department for Education (DfE), Mr Gove is enjoying the role he held out for - and he is bang on time for our meeting.

"I'm humbled and delighted to be doing the job," he says with a smile. "In a way, the coalition has worked out better than I anticipated, because the range of support on the things that we wanted to do is visibly greater."

Mr Gove's department has a particularly blue tinge: four out of five of the ministerial seats are filled by Conservatives, with only Sarah Teather, Liberal Democrat MP for Brent Central, waving the yellow flag.

However, Mr Gove is quick to dismiss the notion that the DfE is anything but a fully fledged partnership and stresses that Ms Teather is "unambiguously" his number two in the department.

"It's a partnership department," he says. "Sarah is my deputy, and she has been tremendous so far. I have asked her to take a particular interest in how the pupil premium works, and to ensure that overall our reform programme reflects all of the priorities within the coalition agreement."

He certainly puts on a good show at making the shotgun marriage between the two parties seem feasible, but his is a far easier burden to bear. Behind the scenes, the Conservative education team is delighted with how the chips fell following the coalition negotiations. They kept most of their flagship policies from the Tory manifesto and gained one they had expressed support for already, in the shape of the pupil premium.

To make things sweeter for Mr Gove, this week he was even able to announce that the schools budget, Sure Start and 16-19 student funding would be protected until 2011.

Thanks to his safe passage into Government, the 42-year-old Surrey Heath MP has been able to focus on the task at hand - to provide teachers and schools with more freedom.

To help him achieve this, the first of two education bills was announced on Tuesday in the Queen's Speech.

It will enable all schools deemed "outstanding" by Ofsted to become academies. How many actually take up the offer is entirely up to them, Mr Gove says.

"In a way, because it's a permissive bill, that is really a matter for school governors, heads and teachers. It's in the nature of this bill that we hand a greater degree of autonomy to schools, and therefore, by definition, you don't compel people to be free," he says, ruminating on the philosophy of liberalism.

A letter from the Education Secretary will be landing on the desks of every headteacher and governing body in the country over the weekend, offering them the chance to apply to become an academy in the coming days. Those deemed to be "outstanding" by Ofsted will be "pre-approved" to become academies and, furthermore, will be exempt from Ofsted inspections.

It opens the door to a raft of schools from a pool of 2,000 that will be free from local authority control, free from the national curriculum and free from Ofsted inspections.

The changes to Ofsted require "one or two legislative" tweaks, Mr Gove says, that will make way for "traffic light" metrics or indicators that will "flash danger" when triggered. Parents will also be able to request an Ofsted inspection if they are unhappy with the school.

The changes mean the coalition will rely much more heavily on league tables, with exam results being a key indicator of a school's performance.

"It's a change in focus," Mr Gove says. "The accountability that we envisage will be sharper, more precise and more intelligent.

"And there are other ways, and I know this will make me unpopular, but we are going to keep - albeit reformed - league tables. So we have accurate data that will allow us to make valid school-by-school comparisons.

"When we say comparisons, that means looking seriously at how things like (contextual value added scores) are calculated. Looking seriously at comparing like with like. But what we absolutely have to have is public, objective data about how schools are performing."

And this is the price schools have to pay if they want to be given more autonomy. The coalition, he says, is offering a far greater degree of professional freedom and respect for the way in which teachers do their job, but in return there must be clear accountability.

The new Academies Bill will retain the Young People's Learning Agency (YPLA) as the body that oversees the country's academies. The decision is a surprise, as the Conservatives had labelled the YPLA the "wrong agency" to look after the schools.

It is hoped the bill will be passed before Parliament goes into summer recess, and it is expected the new academies will pave the way for "free schools" to be set up by parent groups, teachers, local businesses or other accredited providers. Mr Gove anticipates that the first of these new schools will open in September 2011.

But far from the free school model that many had envisaged ahead of the election, Mr Gove paints a picture not of a free market where strong schools succeed and weaker ones fail, but a mechanism for collaboration.

Just as any school that becomes an academy will be expected to take another weaker school under its wing, the Education Secretary says he wants to see greater collaboration between free schools and their neighbours. Rather than "markets", he prefers to talk about "networks".

"I think it is the case that quite a lot of what we said was characterised in a way - it's just one of the things that happens in politics," Mr Gove says. "Take parent-promoted schools - people automatically thought this would be yummy mummies from west London using their sharp elbows to say, `We're building a school here.' And that it would be a group of professionals gathered around a stripped pine table saying what their mega school should be like. I've got used to the fact that we will be caricatured."

In the spirit of working together, Mr Gove says he will also look to have a more "inclusive" social partnership, one which will see heads' union the NAHT re-enter the fold and teaching union the NUT invited back in after years in the wilderness.

The main aim of the partnership will be to address concerns about behaviour and discipline in schools, he says. But there will be obvious clashes, particularly as he mentions that the Treasury is considering whether final salary pensions for new recruits entering the profession will be maintained.

Chief secretary to the Treasury David Laws, he says, is aware of the need to be able to continue attracting "the very best graduates into the profession".

It is in the very nature of the coalition Government that Mr Gove stresses how "lucky" he is to have the former Liberal Democrat education spokesman in the Treasury. "Mr Laws has a particular knowledge and expertise in what we want to do," he says.

Although it is an arranged marriage that the Conservatives least hoped for, Mr Gove - on the face of it, anyway - seems to be taking the idea of collaboration with his one-time adversary into his every piece of business. News, pages 12-15

TES Forums

Gove grilled: teachers pose the questions

The Education Secretary answers the online inquisition

Mr G: Quality learning should be the same whoever is in government. Can the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour parties, along with teachers, sit around the table and look at the long-term future of education? It is too important to be a political football.

  • Michael Gove: I think behind this is a fair point. I want as much as possible to have policy that is evidence-led and to give the profession a greater degree of freedom and control. Sometimes those two things collide, sometimes the evidence points in one direction and professional opinion may point to the other. Brokering those two is a matter of political judgment. Sometimes politicians will make mistakes, but you have to recognise they are two admirable things that aren't always in perfect alignment. I was criticised for saying I wanted to pick up some of the things that (former prime minister Tony) Blair had been doing. There will be an element of continuity in what we're doing and what the government was in 2005 and 2006. I have always been explicit about that.
    • autismuk: Will you close down the General Teaching Council for England (GTC), given that it has no function that is not better performed by the police or a couple of secretaries?

      • MG: I am listening to what the profession says. I have heard a lot from teachers about the GTC. They all seem to speak with one voice. Watch this space is all I can say.
        • cf5mhc: What is your advice to primaries with regard to their aborted plans for the proposed introduction of a new curriculum from September 2011?

          • MG: My view is that there is already a fair degree of flexibility in the existing system. I visited a number of schools that have been remarkably creative when it comes to the existing curriculum. We can revisit the primary curriculum with some of the best work from Robin Alexander, some of the best practice in primary schools, and some of the best practice internationally. In the meantime it would seem better to pull back and return with an improved curriculum in due course.
            • celticqueen: Will we see an end to the situation whereby students at age 16, who may only be at level 3, sit the same exam as more able students, in the hope they may obtain an F or a G at most?

              • MG: We want to make sure that every student can sit an exam and obtain a qualification that is appropriate to the level (at which) they are operating. I recognise that some students have real difficulty achieving the five A*-C floor target and we should celebrate any achievement they can make. The important thing is that people who show effort are rewarded. But we are operating at a time when other countries are rapidly changing their education systems. (In the US) President Obama is doing things very similarly to what we are, insisting on accountability, giving schools more freedom, improving the curriculum so that it is more knowledge-based. If we don't move in that direction, we risk our own children facing an uncertain future because we haven't equipped them as well as we can.
                • bgy1mm: A not very good comprehensive near where I used to live in London displayed in large letters above its gates, "Excellence for All". Isn't this sort of harsh materialism destroying education?

                  • MG: There is a difference between harsh materialism and engaging with the world of business where most of students are going to end up making their way in the world. My own view is that if you look at other countries that succeed, they do two things well. First they give all children access to the curriculum entitlement that includes academic subjects, but they also enable students to study, from 14, the appropriate vocational qualifications at a higher level that will enable them to get good jobs.
                    • Original paper headline: Profile - No dawdling, there is work to be done

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