Gove and Laws scrap it out on front pages over sacking of Ofsted head. Here’s what the row is all about.

by Stephen Tall on February 2, 2014

Today’s newspaper front pages are full of the scrap taking place at the heart of the Department for Education between Conservative secretary of state Michael Gove and Lib Dem schools minister David Laws:

gove laws - papers

  • Ofsted row: Lib Dems furious at Conservative plan to ‘politicise’ classrooms (Independent on Sunday)
  • Lib Dems savage Gove over sacked schools boss (The Sunday Times, £)
  • Angry Lib Dems accuse Michael Gove of bid to politicise education (Observer)
  • Why is there a row?

    On Friday night, The Independent broke the news that Baroness (Sally) Morgan, the Labour peer appointed by Michael Gove as Chair of schools inspectorate Ofsted since 2011, is being sacked. (Technically her contract’s not being renewed, but as she wants to continue in the role it amounts to the same thing.) Baroness Morgan popped up on BBC Radio 4′s Today Programme on Saturday morning arguing her despatch is politically motivated: “There is an absolutely determined effort from Number 10 that Conservative supporters will be appointed to public bodies.”

    Isn’t this something all governments do? Push their favourites into positions of power?

    Yes, ‘fraid so. The irony of Labour peer Baroness Morgan’s complaint hasn’t been lost on many. Labour did it for years, as Fraser Nelson has graphically highlighted in The Spectator – “Exhibit A is the egregious Chris Smith, a former Labour Culture Secretary who has somehow ended up chairing the Environment Agency” – with more than half of all quango appointees who declare political activity aligned to Labour.

    So why do the Lib Dems have a problem with it?

    Well, there’s the principle – not just that public appointments should be made on the basis of merit, but also that in a Coalition Government big decisions (such as sacking the head of the schools inspectorate) should be discussed first. It’s clear from the briefing given to the papers that David Laws was not parti pris to Michael Gove’s sacking of Baroness Morgan. Here’s The Observer:

    A source close to Laws issued a statement expressing the minister’s fury at Gove’s move and making clear that the Lib Dems would do all in their power to block actions that they believed would jeopardise Ofsted’s independence.

    The source said: “David is absolutely furious at the blatant attempts by the Tories to politicise Ofsted. The decision to get rid of Sally Morgan had absolutely nothing to do with her abilities, or even education policy, and everything to do with Michael Gove’s desire to get his own people on board.

    “David Laws is absolutely determined not to let Michael undermine the independence of this vital part of the education system.

    “David’s primary concern now is not to let Conservative game-playing destabilise Ofsted and he’ll be working closely with them as schools minister to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

    What will happen next?

    The post will be advertised and will be open to anyone to apply, including Conservative donor Theodore Agnew, who it’s rumoured is Michael Gove’s favoured candidate. Gove announced on BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show this morning that it was highly likely Paul Marshall – a non-executive director at the Department for Education, chair of ARK academy schools and former Lib Dem donor who chairs liberal think-tank CentreForum – would be likely to chair the appointments panel for Baroness Morgan’s successor. Whether that announcement was in response to the row or was his intention all along, I don’t know.

    Is this row about more than just Sally Morgan’s dismissal?

    Yes, it is. For a start, the Lib Dem leadership has long been suspicious of Michael Gove’s agenda, dating back (at least) to his impromptu announcement in June 2012 that he wanted to bring back O-levels. Nick Clegg, who was at a conference in Brazil, issued a swift repudiation (“self-evidently not policy that has been discussed or agreed within the coalition”). Compromise was eventually reached, but tensions remained. It’s no coincidence, though, that trusted lieutenant David Laws was controversially drafted in by Clegg as the Lib Dem schools minister shortly after, as his eyes and ears in the department.

    You’re saying the row is about who runs the education department, then?

    In part. There’s another aspect, too. Michael Gove is highly regarded in some Conservative circles – not just for his policies on free schools and academies, but also for his hardline advocacy of overseas intervention (witness his emotional outburst on the night of the Syria vote, shouting “You’re a disgrace!” at MPs who’d voted against military action) and his pro-Murdoch / pro-free speech (delete according to taste) views at the Leveson inquiry. If he wasn’t so publicly insistent that he didn’t want to become Conservative leader, he would probably be favourite to succeed David Cameron. But his ratings among the public at large are much less favourable, and both Lib Dem and Labour strategists have recognised that he is a weak link among voters in what could be termed the ‘progressive centre’.

    So it’s about politics, then, not education?

    Good luck if you think you can keep the two separate. In reality, there’s a high degree of consensus between Gove, Laws and Labour’s Tristram Hunt on school structures (academies, free schools and the like). Which leaves them picking fights on issues like the curriculum, exams, teaching qualifications, and so on. And who gets to be head of Ofsted.

    * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.