Michael Gove is not universally popular. Mention his name to a teacher and it’s likely they’ll react with the face of a cat biting a lemon. This reaction makes Gove ‘box office’ with our news media. To read politics our dumbed-down news consumers need pantomime villains. In the eyes of Fleet Street Gove’s Evil Wizard is storming centre stage and kicking Lansley’s Wicked Stepmother into the wings. Oh yes he is.
Every pantomime villain needs a cunning plan. The Twitter-wisdom, which the Guardian and TES follow rather than lead, is that Gove has leaned on the Exam Boards to lower grades so that more schools fall under floor-targets. They’ll then be forcibly turned into Academies. This will lead to a future of Blofeld-led corporations syphoning the education budget away from the careful stewardship of LEAs and into private coffers to then fund the redevelopment of the sports fields they’ve just sold to themselves into branches of Waitrose. The evidence is out there. Join-the-dots. The grades have lowered, the sports fields are being sold at an unprecedented rate. The man must be stopped. Right?
Oh come on. Get a grip. Gove is no puppet-master. Yes, he’s single minded and does seem to ‘work around’ as much as ‘work with’ stakeholders. But he can’t even rely on his people to count to 31 much less engineer ‘The Grand Conspiracy’. You can only join-the-dots-up in that way if you first sex-them-up. Sexing-up Gove stories has been an Olympian endeavour over the last fortnight. Take the playing-fields storm. Selling at an ‘Unprecedented rate’? Even if the sports field figure is 31 they’re selling 15 a year compared with their predecessors yearly average of around 20. Whilst every sale may or may not be a tragedy, to describe it as happening at an ‘unprecedented rate’ is an outright lie. It’s happening at the slowest rate for 30 years.
I suspect the truth behind these exam results will be equally mundane, boring and ignored to keep the pantomime rhetoric in play. This idea that downgrading is a ploy to make borderline floor-target Schools look worse is a nonsense. Don’t forget Academies enter exactly the same exams. Any downgrading puts the same pressure on them. They’re just as exposed in the same league tables. If anything they’re under more pressure to raise attainment quickly and under more scrutiny. Other things being equal, to introduce downgrading will make the Academy program look like it is failing to deliver. That would be in direct contradiction to the desired ends of our supposed ‘Grand Conspiracy’.
Almost certainly the exam boards will have recognised that grade inflation was an issue people were gunning for and then taken the call to sort it themselves. It seems the AQA in particular has gone a wee bit further than the others down this track. Now I share the demand that the same effort and score in an exam of the same difficulty should be rewarded with the same grade and not be variable depending on exam date. That’s why I’m miffed that my own GCSE results are considerably lower than they would be had I taken them this January. I took mine over 20 years ago. Those kids on the wrong side of the C/D borderline this year would have been on the wrong side of it in 2010 and every year before.
That said, reading the anecdotes from teachers there’s a genuine issue in the way students had their expectations managed. And the students themselves are blameless in that. Had the change not come ‘in year’ and been properly signalled to teachers then that bit at least could and should have been avoided. Conspiracy? No. Cock-up? A little bit. British policy development was ever thus.
I’m no blind Gove fan-boy. I think some of his views on curriculum are plain wrong. It’s as if he asked his Mum what she did at school and has decided that’s what kids should still do now. The idea of ensuring rigour in GCSEs is sound, but the idea that there can only be rigour in traditional subjects doesn’t logically follow. Raise the bar on subjects like ICT and add rigour to them! As an employer I can assure Mr Gove that a kid with a credible ICT GCSE or, if such thing existed, even a rigorous media studies qualification would be more use to me than a kid with Latin.
A side effect of this focus on the 1.5% fall in English (and 0.4% fall overall) is it distracts us from the great August tradition of praising success. Ironically, given this wider context recognising success where we see it is more deserved than ever this time. There are schools out there who had a great year and moved forward without a grade inflation nudge. You wont have heard their head teachers on the radio complaining. There’s one school just down the road from me that against the odds increased its headline 5 A*-C GCSEs rate by 10%. They can be very proud. It’s customary to say that such improvements are down to quality of teaching and a sterling effort from the pupils themselves. This year, for the first time in a long time even the cynics will believe it. And that is no bad thing.
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.
On Monday Michael Gove gave a speech in which he hammered Labour over their links with the Unite union and savaged their mischief-maker Charlie Wheelan. The attack on what is being called ‘Labour’s New Militant tendancy’ got a fair amount of media coverage. For me though, the really interesting bit of Gove’s speech was the level of empathy aimed at the ‘New Labour’ voter. I’ll quote a bit from the start:
“Once or twice in a generation, we have watershed elections – where the future direction of the country depends on the outcome. It happened in 1945 – when people chose to build a new Jerusalem on the rock of social solidarity rather than individual freedom.It happened in 1979 – when people decisively rejected the corporatist model that had dragged down the British economy and chose a new way based on free enterprise, low taxes and union reform. And it happened in 1997 – when people were inspired by a message that politics could be different; that wealth and fairness could go hand-in-hand.”
Stating the obvious two of these three watershed elections were Conservative defeats. What is interesting is that in Gove’s language there is no hint or suggestion that the public were wrong in ’45 or ’97 – just a calm acknowledgement of the choice they made and why they made it. In other words ’empathy’.
He then ratcheted up even more of this ’empathy’ – in a way that borders on outright worship for Blair as he drills down into the reasons for Labour’s appeal in ’97
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Labour leadership gradually came to realise that the changes of the Thatcher revolution were irreversible, because the British people did not want to reverse them. We did not want to go back to nationalised monopolies, class warfare, industrial strife and an economy defined by high inflation, higher interest rates and higher debt.
An increasingly classless Britain wanted a lifestyle which transcended class division – based on aspiration, freedom, opportunity – all found in the new market economy. Tony Blair understood this – and it is why he went to such great lengths, and fought some considerable battles, to change his party.
And he goes on. You can read the whole speech here and I recommend you do so. I know that many Conservatives will be deeply uncomfortable with a lot of what he says – such acknowledgement of any of Blair’s achievements will not sit well with many. Stick with him though – you can learn from the way Blair won the electorate over without admiring what he did with the power he won. Fundamentally, Blair managed to appeal to people’s core conservative values without being lumbered down by ‘nasty party’ baggage.
The Conservative Party have no divine right to reclaim the vote of those who left them in ’97. It is a two part equation; Labour have to lose them (check) then the Conservatives must win them back (still to play for). These folk still need to be convinced and the argument still has to be won. But winning any argument is always so much easier when you show empathy and understanding first rather than arrogantly asserting your own view point and expecting dissenters to follow. I like the language Gove has chosen in this speech. I hope to hear far more along these lines from the Tory front-bench in the run-up to May 6th. Game on.