Michael Gove appears to love getting into trouble. Shortly after becoming Secretary of State for education he was in the House of Commons taking his ‘decisive’ axe to the BSF programme and looking every inch like the decisive sharpshooter, confident in his own abilities and assured his enemies would soon be lying at this feet. He was back in the house of commons not long after looking less like a sharpshooter and more like the clerk of a parish council suffering from a nervous breakdown as his paperwork gets out of hand. The BSF saga rolled on until we finally had a list of local authorities which were going to have their programmes axed, and those who could go ahead. This debacle ended up in the courts, much to the delight, I imagine of the barristers on both sides who were in for a nice earner.
Gove’s latest assay into the courts relates to the funding of his flagship academies programme. You will remember he took the New Labour idea of allowing a school to relieve itself of the command of the local authority and go it alone, but applied it to successful schools whereas labour had only allowed failing schools to do this. Many right wing commentators are calling the ‘academisation’ programme one of the unchampioned triumphs of the first year of the coalition and proof that Gove is indeed a hero. But the academy bill was forced through parliament using procedures usually reserved for anti-terrorism laws. Why the rush, Michael, we might ask? And why the abuse of democracy in borrowing emergency powers wholly unsuited to deciding education matters to shoehorn the bill in before the summer 2010 recess? If the academisation programme is the right policy for English schools, then surely it would stand up to proper scrutiny in the house and a full debate could be held. After all the media lately are full of the government’s backtracking over NHS reforms where serious checks to the over zealous free market reforms of Lansley have been scuppered by the operation of the democratic process. Gove seems immune to verbs such as ‘consult, listen or debate’ and either he ignores the advice of mandarins within the department who advise him of legal challenges (they must have knowledge when they are leaving themselves open to this), or he runs the department in such a way that these opinions don’t get voiced. He clearly sees himself as the true wild west hero, solely self reliant and not beholden to the law.
So Gove will be back in court soon, or at least his department will. The charge from local authorities is that the cut to their grant created by schools converting to academies has been miscalculated. Some are arguing that they have had the full costs of the setting up of the academy deducted from the monies they receive from central government, when it is clear that the cut should only account for services which the LA no longer needs to provide to schools which have become academies. The barristers will once again be celebrating some easy work and high fees. after all, that 3rd holiday home is not going to pay for itself. But this is public money being wasted here (on both the part of the local authorities and central government), and the prospect of there being some kind of consensus amongst the right and the centrist tendency about education reform is all but dead. Gove wants a gunfight it seems.
And what of our Wild West hero, the sharpshooting man who knows his own mind and who is determined to shape the territory of education in his ideological image. Well he rides on, but with pension battles with teachers around the corner to add to all of this, he best clean his gun and sharpen his spurs, there is trouble ahead.