Like Thatcher, Gove was a game-changer

19th September 2014 at 01:00
We must not allow the negative aspects of the former minister's legacy to blind us to the firm foundations he laid for the future

In many ways Michael Gove did for the world of education what Margaret Thatcher did for Britain as prime minister. You can decide whether that's a compliment or a criticism. Or both. Or how backhanded. And on his much smaller stage and in his smaller way, he shared a good number of her qualities.

England's former education secretary listened only to people he perceived to be "one of us", which was certainly one of Thatcher's strengths as well as one of her weaknesses. He was visionary. He was destructive. He was game-changing. He attacked "Mickey Mouse" qualifications with all the zeal of a prime minister laying waste to the lame ducks of British industry.

He took on the educational establishment and ignored vested interests. He did not trust local government and broke up its monopoly of schools with mass academisation. He invited in new entrants via the free schools programme.

He had character, if not charisma. He is one of few politicians today worthy of a Spitting Image puppet. It would be almost as good as London mayor Boris Johnson's. And in the end, like Thatcher, Gove was a victim of the brutal self-interest of electoral politics: there is no loyalty in the presence of the ballot box.

But whereas the Iron Lady beat back Labour, Gove somehow managed to ostracise supporters. It was as if he had his "poll tax moment" right from the off. Or perhaps the most unpopular education secretary in living memory simply failed to survive until his Falklands War?

Unlike most secretaries of state, however, Gove does leave a legacy. There is no denying his impact. There is no going back. Some of the consequences of his actions may have been unintended, even disastrous, but now we have to live with them and build on them.

I would defend some of that legacy unequivocally, however. I am a strong supporter of free schools. As a fully signed-up member of the educational establishment, I welcome the opportunity given to parents and other groups to offer something different or to improve standards in their area.

As an academy group, we have also benefited from the programme, opening our third free school this term to meet local demand. And in the few cases where free schools have failed, it falls to established schools to put our effort and our reputation where our mouths are, and to fulfil the hopes of those who founded them: if all goes to plan, my group of academies will take on one such school in January.

It is true that the English Baccalaureate performance measure is more 1950s than 21st century, crucially ignoring the requirements of some students and doing nothing to address our need for credible vocational alternatives. However, I believe that Progress 8, which will be introduced in 2016, will prove to be a much fairer, more comprehensive and more worthwhile measure of school success than anything we have had before.

Above all, I cannot defend the previous orthodoxy, which led to an ever-increasing divergence between the qualifications of those who could afford a private education and those who could not. Gove also did well to demolish the local authority monopoly, hopefully beyond repair. If we as school leaders fail now to lead our system, we shall have only ourselves to blame.

The illusion of freedom

But my grudging respect can only reach so far. Gove talked rather too often and too glibly about academy freedoms. I am still nostalgic for simpler times, with a clearer moral purpose, when academies were local authority-free zones driving up standards in the worst 200 schools in the country. Many superb converters have driven forward that vision. But for each of those there is another that took to academisation in an unabashed pursuit of extra money that was not really there.

Gove handed out freedom like someone who did not believe in social responsibility. In any case, freedom under Gove did not feel very free at all. For all his school-based, system-led platitudes, he wielded accountability mechanisms in a way that would make a Stalinist proud.

Keen on school leadership, he was very certain of its qualities, seemingly never having taken the risk of leading anything himself - before us, that is. He talked of cutting red tape and reissued statutory guidance on fewer pages, but making a precis does not equal cutting regulation.

The worst thing Gove did, however, was to trust in the examination system. Even those who have done well this year seem muted in their celebration: hardly anyone really believes results any more. The wild disparity between marks for different papers in the same exam at the same school, the desperately late appeals for markers to take on more batches of papers, the randomness of schools affected by poor results - all suggest that what regulator Ofqual tries to excuse as understandable variability is, in fact, partly a lack of quality assurance and control.

This cannot simply be explained away by grade inflation, by the shift to end-of-course examination, by previous game-playing or cheating in some schools or even by Gove's own pronouncements. It is symptomatic of a system that has broken under the strain of successive changes, each brought in before there has been time to adjust to the previous one, and scrapped before anyone can be sure they have had the desired effect.

This, too, is a legacy but a toxic one. It confuses the accountability of teachers and headteachers with the performance of their schools. It may precipitate a knee-jerk reaction by some governing bodies or delay necessary action by others. Even in the best institutions, it potentially misdirects the focus of school improvement. Above all, it damages the life chances of students who deserve much better.

As a result, Gove will for many always remain an outrageous hate figure, like Thatcher. He was strong and focused and certain, as she was. He undoubtedly dared to bring about large-scale change, and fast: but often because - like Thatcher - he did not fully understand its implications or care about its impact on those outside his field of vision.

Nick Weller is executive principal of the Dixons Academies Trust and chair of the Independent Academies Association

Gove, resurrected

England's former education secretary lives on in spirit at this year's Independent Academies Association awards dinner and conference, entitled Life After Gove. The networking event, aimed at leaders of primary and secondary academies and free schools, will take place on 9 October at the Park Plaza Riverbank hotel in London, with TES as media partner. Lord Adonis and Lucy Heller will be among the contributors to a programme of speeches, round-table discussions and workshops. To book your place, visit


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