Of Ministers and Men. Michael Gove: Undeniable success or unpalatable failure?

16 Jul 2014

Rising for another working day, one could almost hear the gleeful cries of the school-bound echo across sunlit breakfast tables. Perhaps they thought it was joyous dream, or a hallucinogenic hangover that had caused them to experience such ecstasy. Yet a passing glance at the news would have turned whispering doubt into a chorus of jubilant certainty - Gove is gone. The government's Joker has been discarded from Cameron's pack of Kings and Aces. Indeed, within academia, Michael Gove is considered contemptuously - a figure to rile even by the most open-minded of educators. Yet is such an interpretation fair? Did Michael Gove not simply provoke the anguish towards change stimulated by all great reformers? Backbench Commentators Rory Claydon and Saadia Sajid consider such a suggestion, and provide their thoughts on the legacy of the Cabinet's departed villain.

An Undeniable Success

So, from the outset, it is safe to say that we all know Michael Gove as the fearless, bold and brave middle aged man who entered Parliament in the 2005 general election as Conservative member for the safe seat of Surrey Heath. After the establishment of the Coalition Government in 2010, Gove was then appointed Secretary of State for Education, a position he held until yesterday. Indeed, Mr Gove has just been made chief whip in the biggest ministerial shake-up of Mr Cameron’s premiership. In no way is this a “demotion”, but a confirmation that Gove has fulfilled his mandate and is ready to take a more central role in the party’s 2015 election campaign.

“I’ve got every confidence that our own children and, indeed, our own teachers, are the equal of anyone in the world, but we do need a more rigorous and relevant curriculum to help them achieve everything of which they are capable.”

This quote set out Gove’s intentions as the Education Secretary to reform, modify and improve the lives of pupils as they progress through the challenging stages of education.

In June 2013, Michael Gove unveiled his GCSE reforms to the Commons. Among those who welcomed his proposals were many Labour MPs, who said that the reforms would particularly benefit working class and black minority ethnic children. With an entirely revised, innovative National Curriculum to be taught in schools in the year of 2014, and new GCSEs and A-Levels coming on stream in 2015, Gove was on course to radically reshape Britain’s education system for the better. Even when he suffered an obstacle, as he did with his attempt to introduce a single exam board in core academic subjects, he quickly reordered and attacked the problem from another angle. Most ministers, even the fanatics, would have trouble getting the government mechanism to move so efficiently. 

Due to the actions of Gove, in the first year of school pupils will be expected to read and write numbers up to 100, count in multiples of ones, twos, fives and tens and learn a series of simple sums using addition and subtraction. Children will also be introduced to basic fractions such as ½ and ¼ at the age of five – a subject currently left until pupils are aged seven to eleven – and algebra will be taught at the age of ten, broadening mathematical skills from a young age, something which can only be profitable. Supplementary modifications include the requirement to learn twelve times tables by nine rather than anticipating that pupils will master tables up to 10x10 by the time they leave primary school at eleven. In computing, pupils will be taught how to code and solve practical computer problems at eleven rather than using work processing packages. In design and technology classes, children will work with hi-tech devices such as 3D printers, laser cutters, robots and microprocessors. I’m not an expert when it comes to the advantages of technology, but it doesn’t require a rocket scientist to gather that if ICT is taught well, it will open opportunities to pupils in our modern world. Gove’s intention was not to get rid of every textbook or exercise book that ever touched the face of the Earth, but only to broaden pupil’s horizons and allow them to use advanced technology in a way that can only be advantageous. 

Gove urged David Cameron to push through an Education Bill in his first 90 days as Prime Minister - it was done in 77 days. That Act of Parliament enabled a majority of England’s state secondary schools to convert to ‘academy’ status, making them operationally independent and free from local authority control. In many ways, this can only be seen as beneficial. Indeed, schools are now given the upmost trust to utilise the money under no intervention from the local authority, allowing them to organise their resources efficiently based on their individual needs.

Then there are free schools. They are perceived to be such a success within the Westminster community. Gove has managed to convince the Labour leadership that free schools — and academies in general — are a successful Conservative innovation.

Finally, Gove has tackled religious extremism in schools better than any politician I can imagine. Many may have seen this as a narrow-minded attempt to resolve a situation that was beyond his expertise; however, Gove was blatantly just doing his job – investigating the schools he was responsible for as Education Secretary. Having schools that effectively segregate pupils according to religious denomination, and teach extremist values, is profoundly adverse - this is why the government had to take action. It seems to be that if Gove did or did not intervene, people would still have voiced opposition to his decision. When Mr Gove ordered an investigation, he said the risks to children were serious enough to merit "more comprehensive action" than a normal school inquiry. We have to ensure children are safe in our schools, and this seemed the only feasible way to investigate the situation.

It seems to be that Gove took a leaf out of Tony Blair’s book — or rather his journals, which the former Education Secretary was pretty fond of quoting. Incredibly, Labour politicians don’t even want to give Gove credit for the fact that about twenty private schools have now become academies. They could, if they desire, say that these schools have been ‘nationalised’ and brag about how pupils from poor families now have access to schools that, not so long ago, only the rich could afford. Thanks to Gove, it is now seen as a Conservative policy.

In the world of modern politics, the person doing the most for children from low-income families is a Conservative, while the leaders of the Labour Party are willing to die in a ditch to defend a system that preserves privilege and “embeds” poverty. Some teachers may hail and rejoice Michael Gove’s departure from the Department of Education, however, for all the great steps he has taken to reform our education system, I could not be more thankful.

By Saadia Sajid

An Unpalatable Failure

As I write this, I can’t help but feel a sense of jubilation. The recent reshuffle may have frighteningly culled most of the Tory moderates in the cabinet, but it also got rid of perhaps one of the worst education secretaries ever to walk into the Department of Education, Michael Gove. Divisive, unwilling to compromise or negotiate, and inefficient, Michael Gove will leave a legacy that not many people will look back at fondly, particularly those actually working in education. If Katie Hopkins’ endorsement of Michael Gove as “delicious” doesn’t put you off, or Gove’s own answer of “hot sex” being the way to draw the best entrepreneurs to London, then, I hope, this article might shed some light on just why Michael Gove was one of the worst figures to influence modern British education. 

As many of you many know, the public sector recently, and rightly, went on a mass strike – many unions taking part, including PCS and the NUT. Naturally, as the NUT were striking as a result of Gove’s policies, Gove hit back with equal vigour, saying teachers have no right to deny our children an education. However, the Independent journalist Andy McSmith pointed out the government hypocrisy on this, citing: “those two occasions in April and May 2011, when the Government decided that the schools should close for a day, for a royal wedding and then for a referendum.” This government has quite a strange approach to education – it is fine to close school so millions can pointlessly watch a woman give birth, but it isn’t fine when teachers strike for fair pay. Although, I suppose, whenever anything related to the monarchy rears its ugly head, all logic goes out the window for the British government and public, but I digress. 

Michael Gove claimed to The Telegraph that “we’ve made it clear, that we will work with them [The NUT]” yet as evidence shows, most talks didn’t even see Michael Gove attend, and when they did, he remained for only a woeful short amount of time. Much like Thatcher rarely met with the National Union of Mineworkers, refusing to listen to their just demands, Gove refused to meet with the NUT – throwing angry, yet empty, rhetoric proclaiming that teachers were striking simply for the greedy desire for a better wage. I had the privilege of covering one of the earlier strikes in Manchester this year for this very website, and I can say with confidence that not one person I talked to was striking for self-satisfactory reasons – all of them were doing it so they could better teach their pupils. And with morale rock bottom across the entire teaching profession, it is hard not to sympathise with the strikers. 

In my previous articles about Gove I mainly looked at his disastrous History reforms – but it appears Gove took note of the thousands of people, many of them history teachers, protesting against this. Thus, he decided to eviscerate the subject of English instead. For some reasons that seem purely jingoistic, he decided a good plan of action would be to remove all American authors from the curriculum and replace them with good old British ones instead. This will deny children the access to some hugely important literary works – especially American literature from the 20th Century. Works like Of Mice and Men were studied by me when I was taking English GCSE and I enjoyed them hugely. To deny children such important works purely for vapid patriotic reasons boggles the mind. Indeed, a poll conducted by the Mirror found that 91% of those polled were opposed to Gove’s removal of classic American literature. Is there a more damning indictment than that? University professors have also warned that restricting the English curriculum to strictly British authors might turn children away from studying literature in the future. It seems Michael Gove was quite the expert at trying to wreck well-established disciplines to suit his own needs, rather than the needs of the generations below him. 

The Troops to Teachers policy also re-emerged on the news towards the end of his tenure. For anyone that doesn’t know about this policy – it is essentially a scheme that will give members of our Armed Forces a very short two year course to then go into teaching – without any prior B.A or PGCE qualifications. However, the policy, which has now cost £2 million, has attracted a meagre 102 recruits. Evidently, it was clear that this policy wasn’t destined for greatness, as it was criticised from all corners when first envisioned in 2010. Indeed, it seems as though a clear service record and good GCSE’s are all that is needed for an ex-soldier to go into teaching. As I mentioned in a previous article, the United States offer a much better system whereby they subsidise veterans to attend university to get suitable qualifications, to then go on into teaching, rather than immediately throwing them into a school environment without the academic training. Mr Gove would have been wise to learn from the example of the US, rather than pursuing such an ill-devised, hair-brain strategy.

Undeniably, Gove did support some positive reforms – I chiefly bring up his policy of making Maths and English compulsory until the age of 18, something I wholeheartedly agree with. However, he failed so spectacularly in almost every other area that you’d be hard-pressed to find those who support him outside the hard-line political right. His GCSE reforms were disastrous and forced him to U-turn on several occasions. Instead of meeting with teachers, he merely intimidated them using aggressive, pejorative language, whilst slowly attempting to ruin their profession – causing them to leave in droves. It was put best by the NUT national executive, Ian Burch, who stated that Gove was“flailing around in an out-of-control broken-down system – one that he broke down himself.” 

Gove’s legacy won’t be one to go down in the history books, and one can only hope that Nicola Morgan won’t be reading from Gove’s handbook on how to handle educational policy in the future.

By Rory Claydon

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