Goodbye, Mr GoveJuly 15, 2014
I won’t say this is the post I never wanted to write, because I would have written a post with this title more than happily if Michael Gove’s departure had been the result of an incoming Labour government. While I did have some worries that a Labour government would see a return to the complete dominance of progressive orthodoxy in education, I was pessimistic about both the chances of my party winning and the chances of a re-elected Tory government, with a different education secretary, being any different in that respect. The one thing I have noticed most about the education system is that it is barely under political control. The only politicians whoever seemed to be in charge while in office were Gove and Blunkett, and both of them had years of opposition to study the brief and four years in office. Moreover, the changes Blunkett began soon dissolved (sometimes while he was still in office) and were replaced by policies of the opposite stripe with no public debate. Almost any change of education secretary seemed almost guaranteed to lead to a drift back to the education establishment calling the shots.
And that is what I now expect. Not because I know anything about the new education secretary Nicky Morgan. Like most people I have no idea who she is. I do know, however, that she has never had education as her brief . I do know she is not a proven, powerful figure in the party or government. I do know that education secretary is a position nobody gets the hang of just by learning it while doing the job. As far as I can tell her appointment is likely to indicate that education will not be a political priority for the government between now and the election. It is being neutralised as an issue and she is likely to face an expectation from above to create no waves. The message sent by this is that the revolution is over. The system is back to normal.
As I implied above, I don’t expect Gove’s reforms to have made a permanent difference to the system. Those in positions of influence, who were most in sympathy with his agenda, will – no doubt – gradually be replaced by establishment figures over time. Reform of exams and teacher training will probably not be completed properly. The system has been shaken up a bit, but not replaced, and will soon settle back to normality.
The one place where Gove may have made permanent change is in the Conservative Party. There used to be little interest in state education there, beyond ideas about increasing selection, rooting out leftist influence and reducing the power of local authorities. Gove has made it possible for a Conservative politician to espouse the comprehensive principle and argue over the education of the worst off. It has gone from being an area, like health, where talking about it could only benefit the Labour Party, to one where a Conservative politician could become famous (if not loved) and repeatedly see off his opposite numbers.
As for his weaknesses, I’ve never seen Gove’s general willingness to cause a row to be a weakness, more of a necessity. Education is full of those who have exercised power without being challenged. However, I fear he did go far too far in the Trojan Horse row. By over-reacting to a mix of real, but unexceptional, problems and outright smears he helped make one of his own success stories into a gift for those who would see a monolithic system with no diversity at all, while at the same time causing a public row with one of his own colleagues. This may have been the step too far that finished him off, but it would be a real shame if education now dropped off the agenda. My one hope is that freed of the need to constantly react to Gove, this might actually be an opportunity for Tristram Hunt to show some of the potential that he had a few years ago, that has unfortunately been unrealised. He now faces an inexperienced opposite number and a government that has lost its nerve. Labour has a chance, for the first time in years, to be the party of high standards for all instead of comfortable acceptance of orthodoxy. Let’s hope they take it.