Michael Gove’s unfinished revolution

Shortly after Margaret Thatcher died, Chris Husbands wrote of her:

She established more comprehensive schools than any other secretary of state for education. She raised the school leaving age. She set up the Bullock Committee which produced a ground-breaking report on language and learning still held in awe by teachers of English. She accepted the James Report on teacher training and in-service education recommend that teachers should be released for in-service training for periods equivalent to one term in every 7 years of service. Her most substantial White Paper – Education, A Framework for Expansion – envisaged that within ten years “nursery education should become available without charge to those children of three and four whose parents wish them to benefit from it” , that the number of teachers in schools would increase by 10% above the number required to maintain existing class size. She was given a standing ovation at a National Unions of Teachers conference … Her government funded the most lavish programme of technical and vocational curriculum development the country had ever seen.

… the 1986 Education Act extended financial management to all schools … She introduced the first statutory entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum England had seen. Her 1988 Education Act introducing this national curriculum was, at the time, the largest single piece of legislation Parliament had enacted … She introduced national testing at 7, 14, 11 and 16. The ‘City Technology Colleges’ introduced in 1988 prefigured City Academies; ‘grant maintained schools’ – for all practical purposes revised as converter academies in 2010 – were harbingers of autonomous schools. She abolished tenure for university academics …

“Her legacy defines the educational world we all operate in”, continued the Institute for Education director and “was not substantially changed by John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron nor any of the ten secretaries of state for education who have held office in the twenty four years since she left Downing St.”

I cite this post to raise the potency of Thatcher’s legacy rather than its divisiveness. It provides some context for considering what to make of Michael Gove, the former education secretary, who was replaced in Tuesday’s cabinet reshuffle. It reminds us that Thatcher really did a lot and that the extent of her legacy is only fully clear now that a generation of school children has passed through “her” system. Before rushing to beatify or damn Gove the Iconoclast, we ought to take a breath.

Not that he did. In 2009, Mr Gove gave a speech titled “What is education for?” In it, he argued that schools should focus on learning not tangential social goals, and that all children should be able to receive an intellectually demanding course of study, one that offers poorer children the same cultural stock as richer peers. In office, these ideas have dovetailed with the idea that Britain is in a “global race” – its children need to have a minimum amount of knowledge to compete in the world. Anything else is unfair on every child growing up in the UK in the 21st century.

(This way of thinking – education as a source of “democratic intellect” – has a long tradition in Scotland, and today is seen in the work of Lindsay Paterson of the University of Edinburgh, whom Gove cites. A cheeky way of considering Mr Gove is to ask to what extent did the former education secretary manage to turn the English education system into his realised version of the Scottish ideal? PhD thesis, please.)

As Nick Pearce, director of IPPR and former (Labour) head of the Number 10 Policy Unit has written: “As a secretary of state, he has taken world-class standards in education from a rhetorical phrase to a serious concern of policymaking”. This shift of emphasis is to be admired and commended. From a political point of view, it has also served to give the Conservatives a sense of purpose other than fixing the public finances. It took Labour three years to adapt to this reality. If nothing else, Mr Gove curbed the Tories’ curious obsession with grammar schools; his was a new national mission allied with the global education reform movement.

However, I don’t want to get carried away – it is all too easy to admire someone’s goal and their tenacity while forgetting to evaluate them based on their results and in their historical context. At this point, it takes Govian willpower to say that his structural reforms to the education system have been a success – for three reasons.

First, and rather obviously, we hardly know anything about the performance of children that have attended free schools, or those who have been taught under the Gove era. Ofsted reviews of free schools suggest they are no better than others. What we know about the features of the best performing schools across the world (mostly teacher quality but also data-driven classrooms, high aspirations, longer hours, etc.) are only sporadically apparent in the first waves of free schools. In Sweden and the US, where similar reforms have been tried, the evidence is mixed, too. Mr Gove was committed to evidence (see his support for randomised controlled trials) so I hope he would want to be judged on results.

Second, the National Audit Office and others have raised serious concerns over the transparency of the selection process, free schools’ availability where they are most needed, and the looming trouble in the department’s capital budget. Collateral damage from a battle against an incalcitrant bureaucracy? Perhaps. When you blast a blob goo comes out. But one can not read these reports and celebrate success.

Third, Mr Gove may have been the most radical reformer in the coalition but his changes should be seen in their proper context. Checking them against Thatcher’s legacy is important. So too is realising that they are a turbocharged version of the reforms began under the Blair government – free schools are academies. (Literally – they are academies under law.) I sense a tendency among some Conservatives to confuse how Mr Gove revolutionised the party’s views on education with him being the first and only person in the country to want to shake up the schools system.

Ultimately, I think Mr Gove deserves an A for the ambition he had for England’s children while the rest of his work is still being marked. Whatever that grade, though, his version of reforms will endure: Labour has implicitly accepted as much.