Friday, 18 July 2014

So was Michael Gove just a vaudeville act?

Michael Gove's reign as Education Secretary had it all. Crusading certainty about what was good for children. Passionate commitment to 'education for all'. Massive structural changes that will probably persist for many years. Bitter conflicts with left-leaning commentators he insisted on poking in the eye (again and again), school governors, academics, teachers, and pretty much just about anybody Mr Gove (above) fancied crossing the road to have a bit of a barney with. By the end, he gave the impression that he spent his free time punching his own shadow on a wall somewhere, shouting 'Let me at 'em! Let me at 'em!'

Through it all, he maintained something of a twinkle in his eye - as if he wasn't taking it all quite seriously, as if his more outlandish proposals (such as a return to old-fashioned CSEs and O-Levels) were just some trailers he'd dreamed up over breakfast, and basically as if he was still a newspaper columnist who could say and do pretty much whatever he liked. Which was what did for him in the end, chucking bombs down other Secretary of State's chimneys whenever he wanted to fight someone who wasn't a teacher.

Basically, he was and is something of a wind-up merchant - someone self-aware enough, and clever enough, to realise his own absurdity, and to puncture the absurdity of others. And who loved to encourage others into a bit of lefty-bashing. Refreshing for a few months. Deadly boring, and infuriating, after a few years. Getting himself locked in the toilet right away after his humiliation hasn't done much to lessen the impression of Mr Gove as a bit of a vaudeville act from the early twentieth century, by turns serious, silly, pretentious, amusing, annoying, interesting and wince-inducing - an impression taken away by most observers who actually got to meet the Secretary of State in full flow.

But the personality of one man, however loathed by most teachers (and parents), shouldn't deflect from the serious issues before us. Mr Gove has actually set in train one of the most radical set of changes in school governance that we've known since the 1944 Education Act. He turned New Labour's Academy scheme upside-down, changing it from a plan to help schools in poorer areas to a full-blown revolution to make every school in the country a self-governing trust. He brought in new 'free schools' that often duplicated provision in areas that already had lots of school places - at a time when a baby boom meant that some localities were crying out for places. He's changed the GCSE syllabus to make it mostly about exams at the end, summarising everything in a quick bodge-it-all-up race to the finish at the end of two years of study (though his A-Level reforms have so far got rather less far). He's tried to bring the universities back into working on A-Levels. He said he was 'freeing' schools from the National Curriculum - while tightening his own controls over the system.

In short - and here his influence rather parallels the Lansley Act in the National Health Service and the chaotic disaster area into which the Department of Work and Pensions has degenerated - he has shattered a once-coherent system into thousands of pieces, beyond recognition or recovery. There'll be some benefits to that, in terms of local initiative and experimentation. But in terms of helping parents grapple with, or even understand, the 'choices' they're faced with? In terms of judging governors' and funders' suitability for their posts? As regards seeing how one school is doing as against another? Not so much.

So farewell, Mr Gove. Underneath his manner he shot his wit - and perhaps that was the point all along.

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