Michael Gove: The Case for the Defence. And also the Case for the Prosecution.

by Stephen Tall on July 16, 2014

Michael GoveUnlike most Lib Dems, I am not a Gove-hater. But nor do I share the adulation those one on the Right bestow upon him. The man we must now call the former Education secretary was more complex than his critics allowed and more flawed than his fans admitted.

No-one should doubt Michael Gove’s passion for schools reform, nor his sincerity. For him it is much more than political: it is also personal. Two men have shaped much of the education agenda in the last 15 years: Gove and Labour’s Andrew Adonis, the father of the academies programme. Both were adopted at birth; both feel education gave them everything they have; both are driven, restless individuals.

Here is my case in defence of Michael Gove, one I think Lib Dems should think twice about before jerking their knee to kick it into touch.

First, he was a passionate advocate for social mobility, believing there was nothing about a child’s background that meant it was impossible for them to achieve in life what they wanted – if they were given the right opportunities. To that end, he urged a relentless focus on standards and a more academic curriculum so that not only the brightest (who are disproportionately form wealthier backgrounds) would get the grades they need for whatever they want to achieve in later life, whether in work or further study. He was, in my view, right to do so (even if, like most Tories, he under-estimates the need to achieve broader social equality for those opportunities to become the norm). But equally he was wrong to urge the resuscitation of O-levels – dividing children aged 14 into the academic and non-academic – a reform which flew in the face of the educational equality he so often espoused. It’s just that kind of schizophrenic approach to policy-making which was leaped on by critics as proof of his baleful influence on schools.

Secondly, his was the government department which, above all others, has stressed the importance of evidence in formulating policy. It was Gove, after all, who (at the urging of his special adviser Dominic Cummings) brought in Bad Science writer and academic Ben Goldacre to head up a major report on how the Department for Education could help make teaching a truly evidence-based profession. Critics will say this evidence didn’t always inform the policies Gove pursued – true enough in some cases – but the legacy of the Goldacre report will live on and has already inspired grassroots teaching movements such as ResearchED to organise themselves as professionals, rather than rely on the Department for Education. That’s the kind of development liberals should welcome, and in doing so recognise Gove’s contribution to the environment in which it has happened.

Thirdly, Gove has, almost single-handedly, cured the Conservatives of their obsession with grammar schools (and to a lesser extent private schools), those enemies of educational equality. Let’s remember why he was appointed to the role of shadow education secretary in the first place in 2007 – David Cameron was forced to shuffle David Willetts out because Willetts (himself the product of a grammar school) had made a speech strongly defending the Conservative policy of not re-introducing grammar schools. The Tory grassroots exploded, roared on by the Telegraph and Mail. Yet when was the last time you heard a senior Conservative assert that more and new grammar schools are in any way an answer to social mobility? Whatever you think about his free schools – which have their Lib Dem champions such as David Boyle – Gove has rescued their Tories from their hopeless 1950s’ nostalgia. As the Labour-supporting teacher-blogger Andrew Old puts it:

The one place where Gove may have made permanent change is in the Conservative Party. There used to be little interest in state education there, beyond ideas about increasing selection, rooting out leftist influence and reducing the power of local authorities. Gove has made it possible for a Conservative politician to espouse the comprehensive principle and argue over the education of the worst off.

There rests the case for the defence.

There is also, of course, a strong case to be made for the prosecution. I’ll make it briefly here; others will, I have no doubt, add to it in the comments below-the-line.

The academisation of schools has torn asunder local education authorities – some of which were very good, some not, and many inbetween – with nothing to put in their place. No local accountability, nothing standing between thousands of schools and the Men in the Ministry. Mass centralisation combined with 24,000 atomised schools are not strong foundations on which to build a successful system.

Add to that the skewed funding arrangements for free schools at a time when the education budget is under strain; the odd belief that teachers shouldn’t be professionally qualified; his mis-judged over-reaction (and worrying politicisation of Ofsted) over the so-called Trojan Horse affair; his tendency to lump together and rub up the wrong way even his constructive critics; and the charge-sheet starts to add up.

Michael Gove’s record is a mixed one: some genuine achievements mixed with some major errors. His fans see only the former, his critics only the latter. There should be space to acknowledge both.

* 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.