After the Govian Deluge

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With Gove gone, a deafening silence seems to have descended upon the DfE. Nothing of any note has emanated from there since, other than a quickly abandoned proposal to enforce setting in schools. It’s hard to even remember the new Secretary of State’s name – it’s Nicky something, isn’t it? But it gives one an idea, on reflection, of the mad frenzy of policy change and radical upheaval that characterised the Govian regime.

Of course, this is the difference between a serious politician and ideologue, and a seat-warmer. Whatever his faults – hubris, educational ignorance, authoritarianism, short-termism, administrative incompetence, to name but a few – you can’t fault Gove for his ambition or doubt his desire to address key political and educational problems head on.

So it’s interesting to review his legacy and unpick the motivation behind the frenzy, especially when he was so close to Cameron and Osborne – the two real drivers of the government. The over-arching political desire was to lift the performance of our school system so that it could help drive the economy in a situation where the West is in relative, and perhaps absolute, decline against the tiger economies and monster education systems of the East.

In this, Gove took the age-old line of the Education Right in this country – only academic excellence really counts. Gove’s particular and barely hidden take on this preoccupation was to narrow its focus to the educational elite and to traditional academic subjects. The constant reference to Chinese and Singaporean PISA results (drawn from tests on elite students within elite schools), the EBacc and the pre-eminence of EBacc subjects within league tables, the denigration of GCSE and A Level results and the creation of elite grades, the creation of Academies (originally only for outstanding schools) and free schools (which as secondaries were really just a way of producing elite grammar schools), and the huge jump in fees for elite universities were all measures designed to strengthen our academic elite.

All successful education systems create powerful academic elites, but Gove’s attempts to strengthen ours have all been curiously half-baked and unsuccessful. Rather than allowing an elite to emerge organically out of a strengthened education system in general, his reforms were at the expense of much of the school population. As PISA points out, the best systems draw their elite from a much wider social base than does the UK’s. The net impact of Gove has been to lessen social mobility though the school system and widen the gap between those who succeed and fail.

His policy of creating an elite system of academies might have been successful in its own terms, if the policy wasn’t then used to allow any school – especially failing schools – to be taken over as academies, usually by corporate chains. The educational mission to create elite schools was effectively hijacked so that academy policy could bring to an end any real role of LAs in education.

Similarly, the high university fees failed to make the elite universities even more elite when all the universities adopted the highest fees structure and then the elites were disallowed from raising their fees even further. Admittedly, this might have been the Lib Dems blocking, rather than Gove bottling on this.

The only school policy which might seriously impact on our international competitiveness is the introduction of coding and programming as a statutory part of the curriculum. But this is a mass policy, rather than an elite one. It redresses the prejudice of Gove in other areas against vocational and technical courses. It just shows that government policy, even under terrible regimes, is rarely totally monolithic and something good can always slip through. Or perhaps it shows that ill thought-out policy knee-jerkism might sometimes hit a right note.

The Balkanisation of our education system into different mini-systems, fiefdoms and largely artificial, clunky collaboratives (schools generally have no effective infrastructure to collaborate) was never an explicit policy and just emerged as a by-product of ideologically driven initiatives – all of which destroyed local authority power in education. This has been one of the most terrible and long-lasting legacies of Gove.

Now, the government, or at least the DfE, is finding that it has no real levers of change left to help improve the system as a whole. It has just launched its self-improving school strategy, but can’t find anyone to implement it, except the stronger academies. But it’s not their role, and they will not be able to give it the drive it needs to make such strategies successful on any scale.

Gove has destroyed the government’s ability to lead education pro-actively in this country. The negative long-term consequences – regardless of the weird emergence of education commissioners to tenuously try and fill the middle-tier gap – will be profound in the years to come.

The other major driver of Govian and government policy has been to respond to Britain’s growing under-class through education. Some limited successes here, but will they count in the end? More on this in our December issue of School Leadership Today.

Image: Steve Punter

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