So, Gove is gone. Nicky Morgan is likely to continue in the same line as him, but in reality he himself (whisper it) largely followed the policy consensus over schools that has been since the Thatcher years. It was not in policy, but in pugnacity and zeal, that Gove distinguished himself. A fixation on school structures, the introduction of new metrics and structures to measure and enforce accountability, a belief in raising standards, and the weakening of LEAs to the point of obscurity – all of these are trends that can traced back to Kenneth Baker. But this post isn’t about what Gove’s achieved, but about his supporters on the right. One can’t look at them and deny that there are Tories who care passionately about social justice, who are angry at poor social mobility. It’s undoubtedly to their credit, as is the fact that they haven’t gone down the socially divisive and ineffective route of grammar or maintained schools. They’re quite nice people.
What attracted them to Gove was his avowed iconoclasm. As Shadow Education Secretary and then in office, he attacked, with a dramatic and ideological quality not seen in his predecessors, what he saw as decades of flabby anti-intellectualism and trendy leftism which he believed had weakened British schools and needed to be reversed. Moreover, the teaching profession, defended by left-wing unions, was denounced as moribund and self-protecting. The answers – reform of curriculum and testing, more independence for new schools, more control over the old – were not new. But they happened with a dizzying speed, and they were associated with ferocious polemics against at least some in the teaching profession. American liberals have a wonderful phrase for a needless attack by a Democratic politician on their own base on the left for spurious electoral gain – ‘hippie punching’. This is what Gove was doing: beating up a stereotype of a corrupt teaching establishment, with the promise of a transformation British schools.
This is really what Gove’s admirers loved, and this is what gives me pause. An alarming number of them express a certainty that his policies are correct because they’re opposed by the teaching unions who they see as defenders of mediocrity. As a product of a state comprehensive, I’ve suffered at the hands of useless teachers and dumbed-down teaching. Perhaps it’s because I understand the motivations of the Spectator crowd that I’m wary of them. Gove’s successes are not measured in children schooled, but teachers scolded. The NASUWT and other ‘producer interests’ don’t like him, so he must be doing something right. He has, to quote Andrew Marvell, ‘cast the kingdom old/into another mould’; the enemy of my enemy is a radical reforming genius.
It’s tempting. It’s also childish, drawing on resentments, prejudices and antipathies. Evidence is advanced relatively rarely; faith is often enough. It’s certainly not the job of the Education Secretary to do what teachers tell him to – it’s to make sure that kids get an excellent education. Sometimes that means standing up to the teaching establishment. But in reality, the public services are filled with people who usually care and know what they’re talking about, and teaching is no exception; if they’re complaining en masse, something probably *is* going wrong. This leads me to my second worry: so-called ‘liberalisers’ (and often self-described liberals) are ferociously supporting the man in Whitehall and the micro-management of curricula and pedagogy as long as said man (or, now, woman) is merrily punching hippies. Forgive me if, as a liberal, the idea of a wise Secretary of State knowing best and imposing a vision from above leaves me rather cold.
In reality, if you talk to teachers or nurses or civil servants, most of them will be candid about the imperfections of their various areas of expertise and would cautiously welcome the ‘right’ kind of change. And if you want to successfully introduce radical change, especially in a time of austerity, you have to work with them. I strongly believe that it makes for better policy. Yes, let’s be critical of anyone who is more interested in protecting outdated practices than in the interests of students. But for the ‘liberal’ right to support Gove almost blindly and with frightening zealotry in his campaign against ‘the Blob’ shows them to be thoroughly juvenile.