Hey, minister, leave those teachers alone

Michael Gove is an ideologue whose attacks on the academy are a smokescreen for the damage caused by his radical policies, argues Martin McQuillan

June 13, 2013

The National Association of Head Teachers is not an organisation one would expect to be filled with what are now known as “swivel-eyed loons”: the 28,500-strong union is hardly a hotbed of dissent. At its recent annual conference in Birmingham, however, the NAHT passed a motion of no confidence in Michael Gove, the minister for education, who was heckled and shouted down when he addressed the event. It is a singular achievement on the part of the minister to provoke a conference hall full of headteachers to behave like rowdy fourth-formers. The union has taken exception to Gove’s “reforms” of education in England and his “unapologetic” hard line on standards. However, its members are just the latest in a long line of mainstream educationalists with whom Gove has clashed. To describe the minister as a Marmite politician would be to do a disservice to the yeast-based product, and all this at a time when he has made known his ambition to lead the Conservative Party and the nation.

Earlier this year in an article for the Mail on Sunday, Gove warned that “the new Enemies of Promise are a set of politically motivated individuals who have been actively trying to prevent millions of our poorest children getting the education they need”. Experienced readers of the higher education scene might have wondered whether he was referring to the coalition Cabinet that since 2010 has scrapped the education maintenance allowance and the Aimhigher programme while raising the cap on university tuition fees in England to £9,000, resulting in 54,000 fewer students starting degree courses in UK universities last autumn. But no: in fact he was referring to academics, the “academics who have helped run the university departments of education responsible for developing curricula and teacher training courses”. These enemies (of promise) within are, he wrote, “Marxists” living on another (Red) planet.

Some might struggle to recognise university schools of education from this description. The pass on education as a critical social science was sold years ago when Ofsted was allowed into universities to determine the curriculum as professional formation: the days of what Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools, once called “barmy” theory are long gone.

We should not be surprised to find the spirit of McCarthyism alive and well in the pages of the Mail: it seems to be a matter of house style to describe the present leader of the Labour Party as “the son of a Marxist academic” and the campaign group Hacked Off as “Red Ed’s Thought Police”. Evidence-free, right-wing populism is the paper’s stock-in-trade, but it is slightly more concerning to find it central to the thinking of the secretary of state for education. To describe the 1,000-word feature in a Sunday newspaper as an “outburst” would be inaccurate: it is surely something else when a minister of the Crown takes the time to pen a full- frontal attack on academics, declaring his refusal “to surrender to the Marxist teachers hell-bent on destroying our schools”.

Gove’s ire was prompted by a letter from 100 academics working in schools of education across the sector to The Independent warning that the minister’s proposed changes to the national curriculum would not promote problem-solving, critical understanding or creativity among schoolchildren.

The signatories, from institutions as diverse as the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Manchester, Roehampton, Greenwich and Sheffield Hallam, King’s College London, the Institute of Education and The Open University, argued that the narrowness of the proposed curriculum and its emphasis on rote learning would result in increased failure rates and demoralisation among pupils.

They went on to suggest that the curriculum changes represented a lack of trust in teachers and a micromanagement of schools that would only lengthen the “long tail of low performance” and exacerbate the failure “to stretch the able” that consecutive ministers have sought to address. I have been unable to discern any reference to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In a separate move, the academics’ letter was belittled and awarded the inaugural Idler Academy Bad Grammar Award by a jury that included Toby Young, a celebrity early adopter of Gove’s free school programme.

So what are we to conclude from this “Gove versus academia” spat? One might think in the face of such a mild, reasonable and relatively short communication that either the minister is exceptionally thin-skinned or that his reply, in another less nuanced type of newspaper, was intended as a smokescreen, reinventing the Red Scare about what he termed the Marxist “blob” in our universities as a distraction from an otherwise, shall we say, “imperfect” record in government.

To describe Gove as a Marmite politician would be to do a disservice to the yeast-based product

Gove did not get off to a good start. One of his first acts as minister was to cut the previous government’s Building Schools for the Future programme, but the initial list of terminated projects had to be reissued several times after its accuracy was repeatedly questioned. In February 2011, a judicial review deemed the decision to axe projects in six local authority areas unlawful because the minister had failed to consult before imposing the cuts: in five cases this failure was deemed “so unfair as to amount to an abuse of power”.

In the meantime, Gove sought to encourage parents to take over disused shops as part of his free school programme. He has been notably reluctant to formalise the full cost implications of the programme, however, as free schools move from temporary accommodation to new builds or permanent sites. Initially £50 million was earmarked from an axed technology fund for the schools; this rose to between £110 million and £130 million for the first tranche of free schools approved in April 2011. In November 2011, an additional £600 million was designated for building 100 free schools in England over three years.

Gove has also accelerated the conversion of secondary and primary schools to academy status. While the minister has taken an interventionist position on the design of the national curriculum, free schools and academies are at liberty to opt out of it, raising questions about its intrinsic value.

Michael Gove effigy

U-turns have been performed over curriculum content, with Mary Seacole, the Jamaican-born nurse and heroine of the Crimean War, at first out of and then back in to history courses after inevitable and righteous protest; climate change is to be a topic reserved for those over 14, yet Gove has approved three free schools likely to teach creationism in religious education lessons. A plan to replace GCSEs with “Gove-levels” had to be largely abandoned in the face of Liberal Democrat opposition within the coalition. Universities have questioned the proposed changes to AS-level examinations, the Russell Group and the subject associations have declined to take on the task of setting A-level exam papers, and a proposal to introduce a single GCSE exam board for each subject has been scrapped. (Oddly, on the final point Gove believes that privatisation and competition between exam boards have driven down quality.)

Then there was the high-profile scheme to provide each school in the UK with a copy of the King James Bible, inscribed “presented by the Secretary of State for Education”; this was bailed out by private funding after it was suggested that this might not be a good use of public money. When last year’s GCSE results were subject to contestation following the perceived downgrading of results, Gove refused to order an inquiry. On 17 September he announced that the English Baccalaureate Certificate would replace the GCSE from 2017; in February he had to explain an embarrassing U-turn to Parliament.

It is worth noting that throughout the Leveson inquiry, Gove, a former journalist at The Times, kept up a public and unabashed defence of Rupert Murdoch, who was keen to establish a News International Free School after a media and technology academy scheme failed to come off. There have also been allegations that email correspondence between Gove and his advisers was destroyed to avoid disclosure following a ruling by the information commissioner that their use of a pseudonymous private email address (“Mrs Blurt”) to discuss government business did not fall outside the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. And in February there were reports that a Twitter account, @toryeducation, thought to be run by members of Gove’s department (and so funded by the taxpayer), had been used to launch politicised and highly personal attacks on journalists and critics of the minister’s policies in breach of the Civil Service code on special advisers.

Such things may make Gove what BBC journalist Eddie Mair called (with reference to Boris Johnson, the mayor of London) “a nasty piece of work”. They may even put his attack on academia in context. The greater significance of Gove for universities, however, is not just that his policies will produce (or fail to produce) the undergraduates of tomorrow, but also the possibility that he might one day be their paymaster: in a post-2015 Conservative administration, it is not inconceivable that Gove would make a play to bring universities under the command of the Department for Education. Such a development would make one feel positively nostalgic for the past three years of ad hoc policy announcements from the now mostly house-trained Cable & Willetts™. The real worry about Gove’s time as minister for education, though, is neither his loudhailer demonisation of critics nor his quaint ideas for prelapsarian curriculum reform, but how his bravado has served to obfuscate the continuing radical marketisation of education in England.

The notion that the minister’s academic ­critics are ideologically driven while his own market reforms, privatisation and olde-worlde curriculum are ideology-free is a curious one

First there is the matter of initial teacher training, which was previously the business of universities, with 93 providers of ITT in England each training cohorts according to the analysis of the teacher supply model developed in Whitehall to respond to regional and demographic needs. Continuing professional development for teachers was funded by local education authorities and provided by universities, but there is now very little LEA money beyond true blue Tory areas and directly allocated places for secondary ITT in universities have been slashed.

ITT is moving to a model familiar from the NHS: schools, including academy chains, are free to commission their training from any willing provider, allowing new and unregulated private provision of ITT and CPD to emerge. Gove’s opinion that “the best people to train teachers are teachers” demonstrates a shaky grasp of higher learning and postgraduate training, and also suggests that he is unaware of who actually staffs university schools of education: predominantly, experienced schoolteachers on secondment. And as part of Gove’s commitment to doing away with “red tape”, staff in academies and free schools do not require teacher training qualifications at all. Gove has broken universities’ monopoly on teacher training, degraded the professional status of teachers, commercialised secondary schools and incentivised comprehensives to embrace academy status, removing them from local democratic accountability and delivering them into the hands of chains, consultants and purchasing consortia.

Gove accuses his academic critics of acting out of ideological motives: worst of all they are, like the late Ralph Miliband, Marxists. This is ironic given that “ideology” itself, in its fullest elaboration, is a Marxist concept. If Gove were to find the time to read what Marx says about the subject, he would learn that the individual who imagines himself to be free of ideology is the one most securely rooted in it, blind to his own status. The notion that the minister’s academic critics are ideologically driven while his own market reforms, privatisation and olde-worlde curriculum are ideology-free is a curious one.

It is doubly curious given that in a speech to the Social Market Foundation in February, Gove cited reality TV star Jade Goody and the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci as the two biggest influences on his work. He described the former as an example of someone who became famous as a result of her ignorance, only to spend her wealth securing a place in private education for her children, using this example to score points against members of the metropolitan liberal elite who also send their children to private schools or “good” state schools. From here the minister leapt to Gramsci, who he said was a critic of “progressive” education in Fascist Italy because he recognised that what the working class needed to get on in life was a sound grounding in the classics and fact-based learning rather than the low expectations of fashionable theories such as the child as the co-creator of learning.

Gove is at pains to suggest that an ability to recite Shakespeare and to rattle off the names of the kings and queens of England is the key to unlocking social mobility. Had he read beyond the first few pages of Gramsci, he would know that the philosopher was keen for others to read classic literature not just to liberate themselves from ignorance but also for what it would teach them about the formation of bourgeois society, the power of the ruling elite and the ideological representation of class divisions as natural. Gramsci sees in literature, philosophy and mathematics not the earning potential of an individual but the educative potential for social justice and revolution along Soviet lines. For one so obsessed with rigour, Gove’s reading of Gramsci is limp.

Michael Gove teachers protestors

In his speech Gove declared that “the class war is over - and the working class lost”, blamed progressive education on Rousseau’s writing in the 18th century, unselfconsciously called for a return to 1940s reading programmes, failed to mention the global digital revolution transforming the lives of today’s schoolchildren, and concluded with a section on “the government’s liberation theology”. Here he noted that “this government’s educational philosophy is not really conservative at all - but rather uncompromisingly radical”. Gove is correct about that, but not in the way he thinks. He imagines himself as some kind of Paulo Freire of the Right for offering his Gradgrindian worldview to all rather than the minority unfortunate enough to be sent to private schools by their parents.

In reality, Gove is more Lansley than Gramsci. His radicalism is a form of Notting Hill Maoism in which a revolutionary vanguard of the ideologically pure with an unshakeable faith in their own convictions, without mandate but able to exploit the weakness of political circumstances to seize the levers of power, enact a scorched-earth programme of “reform”. This reform is a radical experiment in the marketisation of public institutions in England. In this regard the coalition, through the offices of Andrew Lansley, Gove and David Willetts, has pushed this agenda further in three years than Margaret Thatcher managed in three terms, and has demonstrated just how skin-deep New Labour’s investments really were.

It would not be strictly accurate to characterise this as privatisation in the normal sense. Rather, schools in England, like the NHS and our universities, are now subject to the absolute stricture of Whitehall control combined with the competition that comes from an unregulated Wild West in which any willing private provider can draw down public funds in the form of tenders, commissions and access to the loan book. For such ministers we are living in the time of a great leap forward in public services, but there is no evidence to support their belief. It is, rather, a leap in the dark, a leap of faith, if you will. Like all visionaries blinded by the light of their own convictions, Gove grounds his ministry not in the world as it presents itself but in his own belief in a higher truth. He is motivated by theology, not policy.

Before government, Gove was a successful journalist with a gift for polemic; it is not clear that this was sufficient training for the office he now holds. While he may favour a return to the classics, the need to understand Gove is the perfect argument for the promotion of media studies in our universities today.

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

question marks PhD study

Selecting the right doctorate is crucial for success. Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O'Gorman share top 10 tips on how to pick a PhD

India, UK, flag

Sir Keith Burnett reflects on what he learned about international students while in India with the UK prime minister

Pencil lying on open diary

Requesting a log of daily activity means that trust between the institution and the scholar has broken down, says Toby Miller

Application for graduate job
Universities producing the most employable graduates have been ranked by companies around the world in the Global University Employability Ranking 2016
Construction workers erecting barriers

Directly linking non-EU recruitment to award levels in teaching assessment has also been under consideration, sources suggest