Thursday July 24, 2014
No sooner had the announcement been made that Michael Gove was being moved to the office of Commons Chief Whip in Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle, Twitter was awash with declarations of delight at his departure from the Department of Education. Teachers, union leaders, parents – you name them (and rather unhelpfully, Gove did - ‘The Blob’) – were united in celebrating the ‘demotion’ of the man they loved to hate. To put it mildly, Twitter had a field day. Within minutes #GoveGone was trending, accompanied by cartoons, witty one-liners and initial reactions to the news. One only has to look at this small selection by the Huffington Post to see what a frenzy it caused – the number of retweets and favourites each of the tweets that are featured got gives only an inkling of the effect the news had. As one (anonymous) minister said this week: “Michael Gove was an epoch-making Secretary of State.”
True, but in what sense? Undoubtedly, Gove has been one of the most radical and controversial figures in Cameron’s government, driving through extensive changes to the education system, such as the extension of the academy programme, free schools, a back-to-basics national curriculum, changes to teachers’ pay and conditions, increasing the number of unqualified teachers in schools and exam reform. His ideological drive for a return to more traditional teaching methods, widespread reforms to qualifications, his apparent dismissal of vocational education and plans to introduce performance-related pay caused conflict with the teaching unions and he faced repeated opposition from the teaching profession, not least because these changes brought about prolonged disruption and turmoil. These sweeping, far-reaching reforms have seemingly been rushed through one after the other, with little consultation and breathing space for one set of changes to be embedded fully or rigorously, resulting in a rather fragmented education system. In short, Gove became a public hate-figure, a pantomime villain even, for many within the educational establishment who increasingly felt undermined and undervalued.
His departure, therefore, may not seem like such a shock. Reports suggest that Gove was axed ahead of next year’s general election, due to a ‘toxic’ public image which has been blamed for turning voters against his school reforms. According to the Tory general campaign director, Lynton Crosby, private polling showed that Gove was one of the most unpopular senior ministers and this unpopularity had spread beyond the education establishment and was contaminating the Government’s education message more widely. Similarly, an NUT poll earlier this year found that some 79 per cent of teachers believe the Coalition has had a “negative impact on the education system” and that more than eight-in-10 opposed the academies and free schools programme. Three-quarters said morale in the teaching profession has fallen since the last General Election.
Yet, in amongst all the Gove-bashing, he is singled out for praise in a few areas (you do have to search for it, mind). He challenged the culture of low expectations in education and focused on driving up standards. He was also a passionate advocate for social mobility, believing that any child can achieve what they want in life, regardless of background, provided they are given the right opportunities. This weekend, a letter signed by 76 educationalists (mostly Academy and free school head teachers in outstanding schools in deprived areas) backing Gove and his agenda appeared in the Sunday Times. The letter applauded “the difference he has made for some of the most disadvantaged children” and his unwavering passion to “level the playing field.” Some (perhaps begrudgingly) even admired his courage; that he was not afraid to take on his critics, often in face-to-face debate and that he stuck steadfast to his principles.
An excellent speaker, “articulate”, “charismatic”, “charming”, “intelligent” (and on some occasions “polite”) are words which even some of his adversaries have used to describe him. He clearly cared about his position as Education Secretary – no one could doubt his conviction, his desire to transform education and see the reforms he has put into place through to completion. Of course there is also the argument that he displayed arrogance, ruthlessness and bloody-mindedness in doing so and that this determination led him into unnecessary confrontations. Labour’s Tristram Hunt who shadowed him until last week said: “He’s got real interest in schools…[but] he over-applies his own life story to the totality of education.” And it is this apparent misguidedness and disregard for what the experts and professionals have to say that ultimately alienated him from the teaching profession. As Matthew Norman described him in The Independent, he is someone who mingles “genuine attacking flair with schoolboy defensive howlers…the Cabinet’s David Luiz.”
In recent days, focus has shifted to the question of legacy. In his four years in charge of education, the list of Gove’s reforms is dizzying and in political terms is quite remarkable. But are they long-lasting? Quite a lot of this depends on whether the new Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, will follow Gove or tread another path. Many see the instatement of Morgan, who is seen as having a less confrontational style, as an attempt to try and calm things down – there are hopes that she may slow down or halt some of the most controversial reforms. However, others believe that Gove’s legacy will inevitably live on and invariably change the face of education, even though the impact may not be felt for some time. It may only be in years to come that the impact of his work is felt; as Gove himself admitted: “In ten years’ time, children who started school back in September 2010 will be finishing compulsory education at the age of 18 – the first cohort since our reforms began."
There’s no doubt that Gove will be remembered – depending on your viewpoint, either as a revolutionary Education Secretary, or as the most hated. Whichever way, it seems he probably had the right intent – I don’t think anybody would argue with the laudible aims of raising standards and narrowing gaps – just not always the right execution.