Friday, 8 February 2013

Michael Gove's EBacc-Track: Conditions of a Policy Disaster

Michael Gove's U-Turn on the abolition of England's GCSE examinations (above) brought to mind famous policy disasters of the past. For we should be a little bit more systemic about the reasons why some policies fail, and some succeed. It's not about how clever or able a minister is. For all his many enemies, Mr Gove is able, energetic and highly motivated. It's not even about party political support, or at least not all the time - although that can play a key role.

No. Your correspondent believes that we can be a little bit more mechanical, and perhaps a little bit more analytical, than this.

Partisanship. Michael Gove speaks in a courteous manner. He is always keen to seem urbane and to be polite. That's admirable. But behind the scenes, his mind works in a highly partisan manner that sees the Labour Party, and to a lesser extent the Liberal Democrats, as a bunch of well-meaning but misguided statists who are holding back 'able' but 'poor' children. He's wrong about that. But he left his coalition allies, and still less the Opposition, with absolutely no reason to help him.

Doing things too quickly. Was it really realistic to get to an entirely new exams system by the time of the next General Election (May 2015)? To take everything into account - study groups, textbooks, A-Level takeup, the knockon effects in vocational studies and Higher Education - was always going to take more like five to ten years. This was just all too much, too soon. Someone should have told the Cabinet.

The risk of chaos. A 'core' list of subjects would have come in, first, forming the hard centre of Mr Gove's E-Bacc. Then others would follow, unpredictably, at the same time as a complete National Curriculum overhaul. Was that likely to lead to certainty, and confidence, while GCSEs remained alongside the new 'Gove-Levels', and while Wales kept the old system? Er, no again - as Ofqual had already warned at the end of last year. Sorry.

Over-confidence. Michael Gove always spoke in the House of Commons to the effect that no-one could challenge his plans with good will and a clean conscience. He said he was restoring elements to our educational system that no-one could really object too: 'rigour'; 'discipline'; 'difficulty'; 'the big picture'. He should always have accepted that his opponents wanted similar things, but that they were coming at the problem - with good will - from a different angle. He didn't. He's paying the price.

Leaking. Every plan and every concept was leaked to the press before it was announced in the House of Commons. The initial proposal, a madcap and almost unbelievably crass plan to bring back a two-tier examination system at 16, was leaked to the Daily Mail, only to be shot down by Mr Gove's Liberal Democrat allies. Maybe that 'fight' was choreographed. But it helped to sour the atmosphere around the whole idea of reform - bitter fruits that the Education Secretary has now been forced to eat.

Lack of expert allies. How many teachers thought it was a good idea to abolish GCSEs? How many policy experts and educationalists? Well, not many. And nor did Mr Gove's sometimes confrontational language - still less his employment of ideologically-engaged and aggressive Special Advisers - recommend his plans to many. When he ran into trouble, there was no-one left to speak up for his ideas.

This is a good old recipe for disaster: over-claim, as Labour did on the NHS in 2001-10, or on the efficacy of economic 'planning' in 1964-67. Refuse to listen to experts, like Mrs Thatcher over the poll tax. Run straight into administrative difficulties and face the risk of chaos, as Mr Heath's government did over the Negative Income Tax in 1970-74. Tell everyone who'll listen that your ideas will wipe the floor with others - like the Labour Left in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There's a big list of lost causes and discredited rhetorics there, and the Education Secretary has just walked into not one trap but many.

England's schools are all the poorer for it.

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