Michael Gove always fancied himself a keen amateur historian. His back-of-an-envelope first comedy draft of the new history curriculum demonstrated the amateur bit very well. So he’ll appreciate that when an English ruler is awarded a title to follow their name (Alfred the Great, Richard the Lionheart), then it’s because they managed to stand out from amongst their peers. I personally think Gove also managed to stand out from amongst post-war education secretaries. So I offer the epithet : “Gove the Incompetent” as a suggestion, to mark his truly impressive four years of catastrophe and disaster.
Since Gove’s demotion, I’ve been struck by the vehemence with which several media voices have decried his long-overdue demise (not just his missus tweeting bile at Cameron). Today I even read a piece in the Mirror, of all places, which could have been written by Dominic “mad as a box of frogs” Cummings, such was its one-dimensional contempt and loathing for teachers, and its ignorant praise for Gove’s policies. But there’ve been plenty, scattered all over the media, and of course politics, who have been wiping away tears as the odious little wretch has slithered out of Sanctuary Buildings for the last time.
It got me thinking about what was going on. How can this tiny unrepresentative group of politicians and journalists be seeing such a different Gove than the rest of us?
It’s well known that the great majority of teachers hate Gove. And I mean hate in its truest sense of feeling genuinely happy when he suffers misfortune – no mean feat for a bunch of generally overly empathetic people. Personally, his voice on the Today programme was enough to set an Inspector Dreyfuss-esque twitch going in my face, and I needed to do a meditation routine in the shower to avoid spending the day shouting angrily at kids as a result. However, it’s also acknowledged that the majority of parents loathed the man too. A quick look at YouGov’s polling on political figures will show this, but anyone who’s ever mentioned Gove on a panel show knows that it’s an easy win with the audience to chuck a barb his way. But of course, the politicians themselves also know this – hence the reports about LibDem and Tory polling showing that Gove was “toxic” not just with teachers, but with all but the most right-wing of Tory loyalists.
Then throw in the evidence which is beginning to pile up showing that Gove’s policies are a failure. His academization vandalism could be said to have led directly to the corruption the Guardian covered in February this year, plus contributed to the extremism allegedly embedding itself in Birmingham academies. His curriculum reforms were even disowned by his own hand-picked group of Tory historians, and so badly planned and rushed through that Universities are still refusing to recognise his silly “decoupled” AS levels. Even a supine Labour party has felt able to step forward and promise their reversal. His slashing of the Building Schools for the Future scheme was a presentational disaster. His bizarre – and frankly childish – belief that all University-based teacher training was run by revolutionary Marxists, has led to a massive teacher recruitment problem. His evisceration of LEAs has created a shortage of school places disaster in the making. Meanwhile his Free School policy has not only failed to address that shortage, but has give opponents so many easy wins – such as Toby Young’s admissions apartheid system at West London, through his young acolyte who lasted less than a term as stupidest-headteacher-appointment-of-all-time, all the way to Al Madinah – that it almost seems like he’s been deliberately passing ammunition to those shooting at him.
Finally, note that education is a big sector. Nearly 1 in every 10 working women is working in education somewhere. Gove’s often-stated position that each of them who disagree with him (nearly all), from classroom assistants to teachers, are lazy, unreconstructed enemies of promise, is not very sensible politics from a man in a Party struggling to detox its image for nastiness. It’s even worse management, when every education conference, and every piece of educational research, points out that nothing will change unless it changes in the classroom. So reaching a point where every classroom practitioner would go out of their way NOT to comply with Govian diktat is a crashingly counter-productive approach.
At first, he could rely on those who had benefitted from his patronage : Wilshaw, chosen heads of favoured schools, and of course the businessmen whose academy chains were gifted hundreds of millions of pounds of public money. Yet by the time of his dismissal, he’d managed to row publicly with the deeply conservative fellow-traveller Wilshaw, and the previously quiescent headteacher organisations who had done his bidding while pocketing large pay increases and public Govian laurels, began to openly criticise the man and his works. He even managed to throw in some dodgy petty bullying and financial scandals within the DFE itself, and was such an appalling judge of character that he employed the loathsome Dominc Cummings, a throwback eugenicist so deranged that even Cameron came out and accused him of being mad. Do I also need to mention being so incapable of working with essentially sympathetic ideological partners that he turned Clegg into a non-speaking enemy ?
Essentially, this is an utter disaster. In every way, a catastrophe. Politically, managerially, professionally, and in terms of policy outcomes. He must go down as the most incompetent Minister of Education of all time. Truly, “Gove The Incompetent”. Yet pick up any paper, and you’ll read journalists and politicians (usually from the right, but not exclusively so) claiming that somehow this disaster was all worth it. His impact will be felt for years. His legacy works for children, or some other such rot. All without a scrap of evidence that anything he has done has had any significant positive impact on anyone, anywhere (well, except those well-connected types whose pay packets have been stuffed with the gold which used to end up in classrooms).
So why the gulf ? How can this tiny minority of people make such positive judgements when the evidence of this crashing failure is all about them ? What distinguishes them from the rest of the population, and nearly all the professionals involved in education, who breathed a sigh of relief when Gove was finally removed from being able to do more harm ? I guess I’d point to a few common denominators
First, they all work in the Westminster bubble. There, someone like Andrew Adonis – a journalist with no experience of working in schools – is lauded for his knowledge of, er, schools, and what to do with them.
Second, very few of them have any contact with state schools. They didn’t go. They don’t send their children. When they think of the nearby state school in their mental map, they see “here be dragons”, and steer their SUVs carefully around them to the private school nearby. They believe stories of failing schools, incompetent teachers and feral kids because they’ve never experienced any of them in the flesh, but their equally closeted and ignorant peers keep repeating these myths.
It’s a small, self-selecting echo chamber of people who have no idea, talking to other people who have no idea. When people who do have an idea – teachers, academics, researchers, state school parents – resist their nonsense, a bunker mentality sets in. To this group of people (the “glob” as blogger Francis Gilbert has called them), the very fact that the people are opposed means, to these self-referential ignorant clowns, that the policy must be correct. They believe that we, the professionals, the experts, and the public who use state schools, are suffering from false consciousness in that we oppose their diktat. They are a set of closed minds, pushing failed policies onto schools in the face of contradictory evidence which they refuse to allow challenge their uninformed beliefs.
There is a blob in education. But it’s not teachers.