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.