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Yes, Gove has lost a battle. But he’s winning the education war

8 February 2013

Michael Gove’s enemies will have savoured his defeat yesterday, and enjoyed every second of his Commons speech admitting that his pet project, the EBacc, was ‘a bridge too far’. Gove is fighting a war on many fronts — and he lost a battle. It doesn’t happen often, which is precisely why it’s memorable. I look at this in my Telegraph column today. Here are my main points:

1. The passion of Gove — and Adonis. Gove is just as passionate about the transformative power of education as Andrew Adonis and, I suspect, for the same reason. Both were born in modest circumstances: Adonis to a single father in Camden, Gove to a woman in Edinburgh who gave him up for adoption. Both had the very unusual opportunity of a first-class education. Adonis was sent to boarding school by Camden Council. Gove was adopted by an Aberdonian fishmonger who went without holidays to send him to the fee-paying Robert Gordon’s College. Both went to Oxford, and on to the highest offices in the land. Both will be mindful that the circumstances of their birth would have suggested very different outcomes. So what do you do, once you have acquired the power to change things? Thank God for your good fortune and keep climbing the greasy pole, or try to move heaven and earth to make sure more children enjoy the opportunities that you did? Both chose the latter course. If they come across as people who are on a mission, rather than just doing a job, this is why. Both declared war on the Comprehensive system, which Gove has called the greatest betrayal of the working class and Adonis has recently written a book to condemn.

2. But they differ on the curriculum. Adonis always regarded curriculum and exam reform as a massive time and energy trap. Yes, the GCSEs have been getting easier — as both Durham University academics and the OECD have shown — but the problem with the English system is that 40 per cent of pupils still leave school without the basics: five GCSEs at A*–C including English and Maths. For children on free school meals it’s a scandalous 63 per cent. You need to be Polly Toynbee or Ed Miliband to be relaxed about a system that fails the poor so badly.

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3. Exam reform is a minefield. Gove’s proposed EBacc Certificate, a tough exam that he wanted pupils to sit for, always seemed to be to be doomed. Top-down reform does not work in the English system: it doesn’t respond to orders. Thatcher was the first PM to set up a national curriculum (Churchill baulked at the idea and Callaghan was told by the unions that it was a power-grab worthy of 1930s Germany). As The Lady says in her memoirs, it grew into a monster. Once the bureaucracy got going, it proved unstoppable. Now it’s quite possible that Gove’s new all-England exam board would do precisely what he wanted. But unlikely. His EBacc was not one of his best ideas, and wouldn’t make the top five of his reforms. It was, to me, a good battle to lose. Whenever a politician wants to create a new exam and shape England’s education, we should start to worry — no matter how good their intentions. George Tomlinson, Attlee’s Education Secretary, summed it up: ‘minister knows nowt about curriculum.’

4. Losing battles is a sign that you’re fighting them. As Woody Allen says, if you’re not failing now and again you’re not innovating. And let’s take a look at Gove’s innovations. Even yesterday, he walked away with most of what he wanted to achieve: GCSEs will still be tougher, as the Guardian points out (despairingly) on its cover. Let’s look at the Gove scorecard. A-Levels are back in the control of the universities. National pay bargaining for teachers, a move that poses a direct threat to union power, will happen in September. This is a massive move: it means the best teachers can be paid the most, paid on merit like almost everyone else in society. And the worst teachers can no longer bide time and wait for pay rises. It could be a massive cultural shift. And how many schools may want to avail themselves of this freedom? The below graph shows the number of Academies over the years:

5. Gove is still winning. Most secondary schools are now independent of the council, something I didn’t expect to happen until 2015. And this fulfils the reforms started out by Andrew Adonis (who is now focusing on the lack of apprenticeships, saying they give pupils a chance to study). Gove has his problems (chiefly the slow supply of new schools, not keeping pace with the rise in pupil numbers). And yes, it was embarrassing yesterday. He walked into the Commons chamber with a massive home-baked humble pie, and ate slice after slice to the delight of Stephen Twigg. But Gove can afford to be mocked for a few hours. Yes, he lost a battle — but he is winning the war.

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  • PollyGlot

    Gove may be winning, in your opinion; but the casualties are the children and teenagers he’s bemusing with his computer-game mentality.

  • Mr Arthur Cook

    “The fate of our country won’t be decided on a battlefield,” runs the slogan. “It will be determined in a classroom.”
    1. Will Gove’s classroom be fit for purpose or reduced in size whilst cramming a few more pupils in?
    2. Will the teacher in the Gove classroom be enthusiastic and valued or downtrodden and demotivated by constant teacher bashing by political opportunists?
    3. Will the curriculum taught in the classroom reflect the needs of the 21st Century or hark back to a politically salable “Hovis time” situated somewhere in the 1950s?
    4. Will the assessment system in the Gove classroom recognize the achievements of all children or divide the nations children into winners and loosers?
    5. Will the Gove classroom be governed by principles of democracy and local accountability or will they be subject to the whim of “Sponsors” or eventually run by the corporate beast?
    It is a grotesque irony that the picture offered and the principles it represents stem from a hard won British victory and the need to offer an exhausted nation where all had made sacrifices a vision of the future where every child had a future and every child counted. A promise to move away from a system with a veneer of “elitism” which was simply a cover for an education system constructed to justify and ensure the continuation of privilege.

    Gove’s “classroom” has more “class” and less “room” than the vision of 1944.

  • matt smith

    Frankly insufferable. I wouldn’t personally have minded the move to the Baccalaureate system. What fundamentally oils my personal wrath-monkeys is his incompetent pandering to the older generation that he clearly believes is his key electorate, who were all taught one way and he is returning to it. His ideas are outdated, irresponsible and plain wrong in the view of almost the entirety of those who comprise the educational profession, and the vast majority of academics in this field. He wants – his stated aim is – a return to a knowledge-based curriculum. Ludicrous! All the knowledge we need is now in our pockets. What we need is a skills-based curriculum whereby children – and adults – are taught how to harness the knowledge we can call up in seconds on our technological devices. It doesn’t bloody matter who Henry VIII’s fourth wife was – what matters is that we know how to find the information, what to gain from it, how to investigate it, how to learn from it, how to present and share insights on it, how to discuss ramifications of it etc. etc. It is this ‘hidden curriculum’ of resourcefulness, reciprocity, interpersonal communication, knowledge of the value – or otherwise – of what you find, enquiry, problem-solving, reasoning, evaluation, analysis and criticality, synthesis, creativity and so on that is going to equip our children far far better for a future in which they will be doing jobs that don’t exist yet using technology we can’t dream of. The knowledge he has decreed is most important cannot be for everyone. The sneered-at Skills Curriculum DOES NOT mean apprenticeships in manual work – it means equipping children with the skills to utilise information, not the retarded retention of individual factlets that are good for only one thing: pub quizzes. Secondly, the previous Government, who I did not vote for, nor would I, actually engaged with the profession in their run-up to a new curriculum. They allowed EVERY TEACHER that cared to the chance to use their voice as to what it should look like. They engaged three high-level teams to look into it, the most high-profile of which was the Robin Alexander-led Cambridge Primary Review. The Curriculum that was ready to go had listened. It had cost milliions, but it reflected what the profession was saying, which I have precised above. Gove came in, swept it away , sidenlined the Reviews and came up with a return to knowledge-based moronism, a return to spelling tests, an even higher profile for phonics teaching (one small part of Early Reading, but by no means the sole reason to fail Higher Education Institutions that he and Gibb have made it) and a flat-out refusal to listen to anyone with the knowledge, passion and ability to actually make a positive difference. Yes I agree I’m ranting, but I’m on the inside of this, and it infuriates me beyond belief. The pace of reform he talks about is not too rapid: it is in entirely the wrong areas. It is totally uninformed and only a stupid man would allow himself to make decisions without the support of the profession he is making them for. So I stand by everything I said.

    • starfish


      So 30-odd years of the education establishment directing everything has resulted in what?

      Skill-based curriculum – more educational psychobabble. The majority of the current generation of school leavers know nothing unless they can plagiarise it off wikipedia or some equally dodgy resource, are incapable of stringing a coherent sentence together because they can only converse in text/facebook/twitter mindless musings, are functionally innumerate and unknowledgeable and disinterested in the way this country works or its place in the wider world

      Why do I know this? Because I see the output from the skills-based curriculum coming into my business area – we recruit 100s a year and then have to spend months turning them into functional adults.

      Yes, it was a rant. The same sort of rant that believes the NHS is a paragon of virtue due to all the dedicated staff that are also highly trained and committed professionals

      And you know what? No-one believes you

      • matt smith

        Then you recruit idiots. Which makes me wonder about you and your recruitment policies. Should you look at these? Or just blame the “educational establishment” for your woeful failings as an employer?

  • andagain

    Most secondary schools are now independent of the council, something I didn’t expect to happen until 2015.

    How many will have that independence removed when Labour get back in in 2015?

    • David Lindsay

      Why would it want to, once there is a Labour Education Secretary? Conservative advocates of this policy have never thought of that.

      And they are only now “independent” (nationalised) because they have been made to be, the better to enrich sponsors who award all contracts to companies owned by themselves, send the entire bills to the taxpayer, and then make gigantic contributions to the Conservative Party.

      One of those sponsors has just been made a Peer of the Realm and an Education Minister. As over the expenses of his nominal boss, Michael Gove, and of his colleague, David Laws, no arrests are expected.

      Meanwhile, take-up of the flagship “free” schools policy is negligible.

      • andagain

        Why would it want to, once there was a Labour Education Secretary?

        Because that would tranfer power from Head Teachers to councillors (many of them Labour Party members) and teachers unions (all controlled by Labour Party members).

        • David Lindsay

          The teaching unions are not, and have never been, affiliated to the Labour Party. Various Far Left groupuscules, than which no one hates the Labour Party more, hold considerable sway in at least one of them, the largest. If they were pro-Labour, then they had a very funny way of showing it the last time that Labour was in.

          The ability of Labour central government to defecate on its own party’s municipal base is the stuff of legend. Direct control of schools in “partnership” with the commercial Shadow State would suit Stephen Twigg down to the ground. The Blairitres always wanted to do it. Gove, himself a Blairite, now has.

          • andagain

            Are you trying to talk me into voting Labour?

  • BulldogSpirit

    Good article Fraser, about a good guy who is making real progress in the face of the new Forces of Reaction (Labour, Civil Service, Teaching Unions). One point missed. Unfortunately, the slow supply of new schools is because Gove failed to be brave enough to do early on what’s obvious and necessary to speed up the process: introduce the ability to make a profit. If he had, by now the country would be replete with enlightened and innovative new schools demonstrating what can be done with a radical approach to this appallingly under performing and politicised secondary school system of ours.

  • Archimedes

    Sometimes it’s worth losing these battles anyway to send a message. There’s not really a more effective way to state that the status quo is rotten, than threatening to abolish and replace the whole thing. GCSE’s have a culture problem, and that was adequately addressed by attempting to replace them.

  • In2minds

    Gove – I see he has got the curriculum for science teaching ‘climate
    change’. Would that be teaching or preaching, is there any balance

  • Eddie

    What Gove wants to do is return to an excellent school system, which does not avoid selection or elitisim (based on ability), and which has high standards – just like the old O level and A level systems.
    I agree with him absolutely. We need a return to a system which accepts that some are more academic than others – as we accept that some are more sporty than others and practise selection for teams etc. We need new versions of O levels and CSEs, however it is done. We also need selection – and at the start of primary school, preferably, because that is where a lot of weakness in our system lies.
    The teachers unions won’t, because their view is that all is endlessly rosy in the school garden, despite it resembling a bomb site.
    Many parents won’t either. What happens when their kids get a higher bar to jump than wll those kids who got 11 A grade GCSEs just by slogging away at coursework with close teacher guidance (which used to be called ‘cheating’). Mediocre ability with get you fistfuls of A grades these days, and a top degree.
    I know from personal experience that, despite all the evidence, parents just will noyt admit that their offspring’s exams are easier than the ones of the 70s and 80s. I have compared them – and boy, are GCSEs easy these days!
    The grade inflation and dumbing down has infected all our universities too of course – and the standards are much lower now. The A levels of 25 years ago are degree level now, and many students get to university without knowing the basics these days: so that is what they do in the first year.
    I wish Gove well in what he does. I know many retired academics and teachers who fully support what he believes in and is trying to do – and they’re mostly Labour loyalists too. He needs to break the teachers unions and the leftie pc anti-selection brigade which runs schools. It will be hard, but it is possible. I wish him luck.

    • Tommy Long

      Schools currently select from the age of 7. You don’t need to go to a different school in order to be streamed.

  • David B

    Yesterday showed what was wrong with the last labour government. Gove recognised a mistake and was will to change and adjust, while the opposition scored political points. We need politicians will to listen look and learn so we get the best policy. The last PM threw his mobile phone and look at the mess we are in because he would not listen to thoses that disagreed with him

    • Span Ows

      Yes, Twigg is an absolute *&^%

      • David Lindsay

        A Blairite dinosaur who won’t guarantee to restore the Educational Maintenance Allowance. Replace him with Rory Weal.

        • Span Ows

          the EMA? Are you nuts? that shouldn’t have happened in the first place and most certainly shouldn’t be considered again.

          • David Lindsay

            We can’t have the lower orders saying on into the Sixth Form, can we? Whatever next?

            You sound like Stephen Twigg, notable only for having removed Michael Portillo from Parliament. Twigg went on to lose that seat in 2005, so had to be parachuted into Liverpool in 2010.

            He doubtless does the most hilarious Scouse accent at parties, telling everyone to calm down. Mind you, if Peter Mandelson can do the famously inimitable Hartlepool, then I really will be impressed.

  • Nick Reid

    I’m a little confused as to what Gove has actually lost out on apart from the fact that his new more rigorous GCSEs won’t be branded as EBaccs (which was always a silly name as it caused confusion with the EBC).

    Unless you think that Gove is not going to be able to push through his reforms of GCSEs as he claims. But if “linear exams” replace “modular exams” & constant retakes, and the syllabus becomes more rigorous then it is difficult to see this as a battle lost.

    • Span Ows

      I agree. Except perhaps I’m almost thinking he set his stall out a little far ahead of what he ‘really’ wanted so he could be seen to concede a bit.

      • starfish

        My thought exactly

        He is playing a long game here – the direction of travel is clear

    • Tommy Long

      No single exam board. Means the supposed “race to the bottom” will continue.

      • David Lindsay

        Good to see you accepting the case for the public monopoly provision of essential services.

    • telemachus

      I like the 5 point format:-

      1. The passion of Gove: To antagonise the teachers by imposing an unworkable pay structure

      2. To impose a curriculum hot on Victoran 3R mentality but without the breadth suited to our less able

      3. To demoralise all our 15 year olds by telling them their GCSE’s are not fit for purpose

      4. To delude himself that failure is actually a victory

      5. To tell oneself that one is a winner because no-one else will

      The doctrinaire mentality takes us back to that other disastrous Tory Education Minister who contributed in no small part to the loss of Tory Office in 1974.

      • Nick Reid

        1) Apart from the teachers who get a pay rise for working hard and making a difference. You don’t think teachers are aware of which of their colleagues are poor teachers, lazy, always off “sick”, never volunteer for extra-curricular stuff ?

        2) Seems he’s just introducing the sort of rigour that parents who can afford it pay 20k a year to get at private schools.

        3) Really ? Kids do the exams that are available to them. And judge themselves against their peers. If the students coming after them in a couple of years time have more difficult exams or more interesting exams is that really going to bother them now ? You might just as well say everyone who took GCSEs ten years ago is demoralised because their 8 Bs would be marked as 8 As today.

        4/5) You really are just clutching at silly straws now.

        • telemachus

          Apols re 4/5
          I was following the titles above
          You have however got to admit that he is always pleased with himself

      • andagain

        3. To demoralise all our 15 year olds by telling them their GCSE’s are not fit for purpose

        You would prefer it if he lied to them?

        • telemachus

          The truth is we have a very broad range of subjects that suit every intellect and the GCSE’s are a sort mechanism before the rigours of the A level
          He should motivate the kids
          He should motivate the teachers

          • andagain

            You have not answer my question. You complained that Gove’s comments were “demoralising” without saying anything about whether they were true. It is a bit late now to say that you care a lot about telling the truth.

            • telemachus

              Of course he lied

              • andagain

                Oh, finally. Why did you not say that to start with? Apparently you think that praising the system is much more important than telling the truth. From which I conclude that you will praise the system whether or not that praise is true.

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