Gove’s removal means the election was put above education


July 18, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith


During his time as Education Secretary, Michael Gove would often quote a passage of Machiavelli: ‘There is nothing more difficult, more doubtful of success or more dangerous than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order.’

Sure enough, the Prime Minister, apparently a man of considerable intellect, allowed himself to be convinced by the protests of one quarter of the members of the most militant of teaching unions (those who had actually voted to strike) and by opinion polls which had sampled the views of non-parents that he needed to get rid of Gove. That somehow Gove had “lost the argument”.

Interesting. This that stood to gain most from Gove’s reforms were those with the quietest voice in society. He wanted the poor to benefit from the same choice in schools that the rich have. He wanted the poor to benefit from the same quality of teaching as the rich get. He wanted the academic rigour expected of pupils in the top private schools to be expected of pupils in every school. Gove had worked tirelessly for a decade on what he viewed as the best way to improve the life chances of the poor. This was never going to be a low hanging political fruit. In particular because political strategists of the type that have clearly got Cameron’s ear right now know that the poor are less likely to vote.

Of course, there is no doubt that Gove went about making his changes in a particularly artless and tactless manner. Teachers have a saying for how to write a report or give feedback in a manner that is most likely to be taken the right way. It’s known as a s**t sandwich. It involves sandwiching any constructive criticism between two bits of praise. It’s not because we are afraid of giving constructive criticism, it’s just that it is taken better if sandwiched between recognition of strengths or positive aspects of work. Gove basically threw the filling at teachers straight away, with little to no recognition he understood their job nor recognised positives in the work they were doing back in 2010. This continued on to the present day, highlighted by his inability to engage properly in a debate over performance related pay apart from arguing that it allows good teachers to be rewarded and essentially that anyone who is against it must be a bad teacher. Teachers felt under attack from the start and they weren’t having it. Cameron could have done more to help Gove with his communication and presentation, what he shouldn’t have done is to have backed away so cravenly from Gove’s reforms, which had the potential had they gone through to transform the life chances of the very underprivileged that Cameron once argued his social justice agenda would most help. Wither that social justice agenda now an election is approaching?

Had Cameron promoted Liz Truss to Education secretary I would have more faith in his judgement on this. The Education department is now peopled fully by ministers who have a private education. Truss was battle hardened and supported the reforms. Instead, it went to Nicky Morgan, who has not only shown no previous interest in education whilst also managing to be put in the oxymoronic position of being equalities minister (which she is ridiculously keeping despite having the education brief) having voted against gay marriage.

Morgan, it is feared, will face a militant teaching union that believes that their refusal to change has worked, that the pressure they applied on Gove did for him, that if they simply keep applying pressure whenever they think the education secretary isn’t ‘respecting’ them, they can get rid of that person too. There is a major chance that Morgan will be ‘captured’ by the profession she is supposed to regulate and drive ahead in the same way as the lamentable Estelle Morris was back in 2002 when she was persuaded to make languages non-compulsory, a decision that did more to entrench social immobility than almost every other decision a government had ever made.

In the many discussions I have had about Gove, I have insisted that whatever his tactics, whatever his communication issues, whatever his lack of understanding of what it is like to be a teacher, he genuinely wanted the poor to have the same quality of education as the rich, but by levelling up not levelling down. Now that Cameron has shown himself to be running scared of confrontation, he will be faced by the same problem as any teacher who runs scared of confrontation by challenging children, or any parent that does the same. It will get worse.

5 thoughts on “Gove’s removal means the election was put above education

  1. No no no.

    I just find it extremely hard to believe that Gove really “wanted the poor to benefit from the same choice in schools that the rich have”. If he did then he is in the wrong party. If he genuinely did then he is monumentally misguided about how to achieve it – you know as well as I do that his party’s rampant Thatcherite policies are increasing inequality – not reducing it – and that every educational reform since the 80s has helped middle class parents to play the game which effectively segregates their kids from society’s losers. I wonder why kids do well in private (and many ‘faith’) schools? Anything to do with the critical mass of their socio-economic profiles? Anything to do with ten times more money to spend on each child? Did Gove increase funding to state schools? My school budget has been cut severely. My pay has been cut in real terms – never mind pay freezes in a time of inflation. Which brings me on to ‘militant’ unions. Is it ‘militant’ to try to defend your members’ pay and pensions in the face of serious attacks? What would non-militant look like?

    All Gove wanted to do was raise up a few token deserving poor kids with a golden ticket to a private school so they could be like him. And the rest can stay herded into the same schools until conversion into a boot camp (and the inevitable permanent exclusion of all the worst cases) makes them acceptable to the middle classes again. Furthermore, the way teachers are treated in those Mossbourne style Academies results in most of them burning out after two or three years. They are certainly not places where teachers could survive if they had young families. If I’m wrong then why aren’t you working in one now?

    As for his attitude towards Education experts and academics? Insulting and arrogant. His approach to the teaching of history? (a list of dates chosen by him – and taught in such a way that it promotes a particular political agenda i.e. his brand of right wing nationalism/patriotism) – practically totalitarian.

    You’ve written some sensible posts recently Paul. This isn’t one of them.


    • The point of my article wasn’t about whether Gove was right. It was about What David Cameron is saying when he demoted him. David Cameron disagrees with you. He thought Gove’s reforms WOULD make a difference for social mobility and the life chances of the poor. Yet he decided to remove him from post because of an election. If David Cameron really believed in social justice above a craven desire to retain power he would have stuck to his guns and kept Gove in place. I am more frustrated by the ridiculous replacement of Gove by a political operative with what I so far believe to be no interest in education. As for your point about cuts in funding, you know full well that money isn’t the only way to improve a public service. Having been left a deficit of 168bn, and a debt on which yearly interest was more than what is spent on education, you know full well that all departments were told they had to find a way to operate and reform if necessary without spending more money. It’s not ideal, and the combination of no money, terrible communication and contentious reform was almost a perfect storm that Gove couldn’t negotiate, I also believe that there are areas of reform in which he was genuinely trying to do good.


  2. Ok – we can agree that Cameron’s re-shuffle was a blatant bit of window dressing in an attempt to win a few female and ‘middle of the road’ voters at next year’s election. Even The Spectator admits this.

    On the question of money…could private schools deliver the standards that they do without so much more per child than the state sector has to work with? I don’t like much of what New Labour did with education – but they certainly raised the pay and status of the teaching profession – bringing it into line with some of our more enlightened European neighbours. Gove and the Tories are attacking that with their cuts. As it is with performance related pay, by your own admission – no more money overall, so some get more while others get less – so it is with the schools system. It has been well documented that Gove has found all sorts of ways of throwing money at new Free schools and academies – at the expense of schools that have decided to remain ‘comprehensives’.

    This article in yesterday’s Guardian points up some of the contradictions in Gove – a polite man who picks fights – an egalitarian who says he believes in meritocracy and cares about poor people while espousing an agenda to the right of Thatcherism…in fact this last contradiction is my emphasis and the article doesn’t really make enough of it for my liking.


  3. julia5589 says:

    Reblogged this on juliasjudgement and commented:
    I completely agree with this and feel very passionately about the education system of this country. I am a student myself and have a blog with some posts that are relevant to this one and reach a similar conclusion from a completely different perspective. So overall, the need for change is overt, as is the direction of this change.


  4. Gove as the champion of the poor – I’m not convinced and I’m glad he’s gone. Cameron’s move to replace him now – yes that is blatant electioneering.


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