The scene is a back garden of a house in Kettering in a suburban setting; it’s a frosty November night and a bonfire party is underway. It’s either 1981 or 1982 and I’m either 13 or 14. The bonfire party is being held by a good friend of my mum’s and most of the people there are teachers. Proper teachers. Proper teachers with rusty cars and political ideals, with personalities bigger than the playing fields of their schools, destined to imprint their idiosyncrasies on a generation of raggedy arse kids fighting their way out of the economic maelstrom of the 70s. Proper teachers who’d never heard of a Baker day, had no idea that a national curriculum was on the cards and never spent a single night worrying about OfSTED because it simply did not exist. Teachers who by modern standards had endless freedoms to teach what they wanted, in the way they wanted.
The bonfire was lit and on top was an effigy of Keith Joseph the Conservative Secretary of State for Education. I was of an age when I was beginning to realise that there was something called politics which made people talk a lot and get angry, but not old enough to actually grasp the complexities of this, I felt that poor old Keith, burning atop of the pyre with a scrawled note of ‘could do better’ hanging around his limp neck, may have had a rough deal.
Fast forward to the modern day, and me writing this blog. Despite the dire warnings of my mother to steer well clear of teaching, I ended up doing that for a while, and then staying in the world of education. Or as I like to say ‘those who can’t teach, those who can’t teach, teach teachers, and those who can’t teach teachers to teach cut their losses and work in the education supply chain’. Once you get to 40 you realise that you have to try and understand things, even hard things like politics, because if you can’t understand them at 40, your window of ever understanding them is only ever going to get smaller. So today I have to grapple with understanding the politics of education in England and simply posing the question of whether an effigy of Michael Gove would go on the bonfire come November of this year – presupposing he keeps his job until then, which is no foregone conclusion.
Gove has done a lot of things to guarantee a fiery demise come November 5th, starting with his cack handed bungling of the decommissioning of the BSF programme in the early days of the new government. Although BSF was not perfect and was undoubtedly costing way more than it should, it had at least a political vision behind it. BSF was the fulfilment in plate glass and poured concrete of Tony Blair’s promise of ‘education, education, education’, and the relish which Gove set about trashing it seemed to be motivated far more by ideological obsessions and settling old scores than a genuine sense to help his elected party cut the deficit. Many of the BSF projects cancelled were in Labour heartlands too, which appeared to Gove to be a bonus of the cancellation of the project rather than something to be regretted.
In terms of the specific education community centred on ICT which I belong to, Gove has also done little to avoid the fiery blaze. He has not come out and openly criticised New Labour’s centralist approach (via grants, BECTa and policy) of putting ICT at the centre of education transformation, but has rather ignored this previously crucial policy strand and talked about teaching in the most narrow of ways which appeared to leave little room for creative approaches to ICT. And he has raided the Harnessing Technology Grant to take money which schools could use for ICT to spend on his pet project of free schools which is destined for abject and total failure rather than success. Unless of course you define success as giving Toby Young hard earned taxpayer cash for a pet project which is going to teach Latin to a bunch of his mate’s kids and give them all something other than house prices to talk about at their dinner parties. Free Schools will have no impact on the English education system, the initiative simply does not have the power to have a significant impact in any real terms. But no doubt some ‘free school’ success stories will be intoned at the party conference, giving the party faithful a chance to applaud the demise of the dead hand of local authority control.
And Gove has a random streak too; once a journalist, he seems happier with the soundbite and attention grabbing headline, than settling down and turning his ideological convictions into coherent policies and then doing the hard work of getting them implemented. Recently he was telling journalists that elite pupils could bypass GCSEs (the brain child of Keith, our erstwhile friend smouldering amongst the embers in the early 80s) and go straight to A levels. Apparently this happens in Singapore and as Singaporeans whip us on the PISA scores doing it here is obviously a good idea. So Gove can fob journalists off with novelty soundbites and very few people appear to be asking him the difficult questions, such as when the James Review of Capital Investment in Schools will report. The James Review is no trivial matter as it should lead to a policy which allows the country to fix up schools so they are at least fit for human habitation as many are not at the moment. But neither Gove nor the government seem to have any interest in a new capital investment programme.
Comparing Michael Gove and Keith Joseph, it’s clear that an effigy of Gove should burn, with a good shaking of added accelerant. He has political convictions which he experiences as certainties, but lacks the intellectual capacity to turn these into coherent policies. His understanding of education is simplistic and his focus on the way schools are funded and managed totally ignores the far more important issue of what teachers are doing in classrooms. And he is far more interested in novelty policies than doing the hard work of making the education system better for our children.