Michael Gove had, to put it mildly, an uncomfortable week. I can understand the frustration and rage that schools in Sandwell must have felt thinking their new build project had a green light to find out the next day they did not. Over the past three years I have grown used to such emotions as either the Government or the LEA decide they are going to do one thing for the future of the School where I am Chair of Governors, announce it to the press, and then change their minds. It’s not fair on staff, teachers, parents or pupils. I had hoped that such cock-ups would end with the new Government, but the week’s events show they have not. This was an open goal for Gove’s many naysayers and so in school report terms he ‘must do better’.
Gove did at least give an object lesson in Ministerial accountability. He will not personally have drawn up the detailed list that was released – that will have been delegated to junior officials. Nevertheless, they report to him and the list was being released in his name. After thirteen years of a ‘never apologise, never explain’ attitude from Labour Ministers it was refreshing to see someone stand up in the Chamber and say that ‘the buck stops with me – my mistake – I take accountability – I am sorry’. Good though it is to see genuine contrition when something goes wrong I would still rather be able to say that this Government are better administrators not just better apologisers than the last one. This is Gove’s first strike. But he must not allow it to deter him from pressing on.
The worst thing Gove can do now is to retreat with a bloody nose. He has to learn from the experience and stick with his reform agenda. One of the first things he has got to do to quieten the ‘noise’ is make it clear what mechanisms for capital spending in schools are going to replace the BSF Program. Nothing quite encapsulates the mismatch between’s Labour’s laudable ambition and its lack of capacity, capability and means to deliver than the bloated way ‘Building Schools for the Future’ was muddling along. The program needed killing and doing so was always going to cause upset to those whose hopes had been cynically played with. That said there will still be demands for capital expenditure on Schools in the coming years – and in certain cases this will mean rebuilds – not because they would be ‘nice-to-have’ but because they are ‘must-have’. Gove needs to be clear the level of funding – however low – available for this and a streamlined process to fairly prioritise the release of funds.
With a wider perspective my fear now is that Ministers will have watched what happened to Gove and fear what will happen when they make what knowing fans of ‘Yes Minister’ call ‘Bold’ moves. To get the country out of the mess ‘Bold’ moves are exactly what is needed. There are so many unhelpful dynamics at play:
- Quangos and Civil Servants that the administration has inherited, like it or not, are crucial to Ministers ability to deliver. Their reason for being, their way of life and their empires are under threat as we try to draw back-in the State machine. There are unlikely to be many supportive stakeholders in these organisations. As Gove has seen a Minister can find himself at their mercy; either they chose not to play with a straight bat and wittingly causing mischief or they unwittingly display incompetence. Either way the minister is harmed and their ability to implement their agenda is diminished.
- Every tough decision the Coalition has yet made has revealed real twitchiness from the left of the Lib Dems. This will get much worse when the implications of the spending review begin to hit home. Clegg has a monumental battle ahead to keep his own team onside long enough for us to see the job through.
- The advantage of opposition – you only have to talk rather than ‘do’ – necessary difficult choices sadly make open goals in the sound bite news cycle. Labour will understandably exploit this – and it will put more pressure on the Government.
The lesson for Gove and every other new Minister is that they need good supporters around them at the moment to help them hold their nerve. They know what needs doing. They must act for the good of the country rather than the good of their careers. The right thing to do is not always the popular thing to do and the essence of leadership is driving on with that in mind. They need to look around them and figure out quickly who within their extended teams are really working against them or not up to the job? Then they need to be brutal and replace them. This is no time to go wobbly.