By Paul Goodman
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There's many a slip between cup and lip, and spin isn't the same as substance. In other words, it's difficult for those not themselves immersed in The Blob, as a former Chief Inspector of Schools used to call our education system, to grasp whether Michael Gove's education reforms will have as much impact as his enemies fear, his friends hope and Britain's children deserve. On the one hand, the Free Schools programme hasn't really taken off, at least yet: its number remains in double figures. On the other, the Academies plan is soaring in the stratosphere: almost half of seconday schools are already academies or are converting. This is an outstanding achievement – perhaps the biggest single success of any of this Government's Ministers to date.
What is certain is that Mr Gove is generating a unique sense of mission and momentum. One morning, he will be arranging for an Authorised Version of the Bible to be delivered to each school. The next, he will be arguing for teachers to spend more time training at the classroom coalface. In between, he will be doing what even Lady Thatcher never did – namely, pushing change through perhaps the most conservative, small c, and therefore most liberal, big L, department in Whitehall, aided by his superlative special adviser team, which David Cameron should be encouraging every Secretary of State to emulate. What binds all this together is the belief that education is a good in itself, not just a means to an end – "the best of all that has been thought and said".
In other words, he is both solid, because his view has a real philosophical grounding (each detail, such as this week's praise for Sir Geoffrey Hill, is a mosaic in a coherent whole), and fantastically light on his feet, because he is turning the left's language of opportunity and justice against it, since the pupils who get the worst deal from schools are those who need them most. This makes him a "tall poppy" that the left would like to hew down, but he's managed to wrong-foot it by moving at extraordinary speed – thus recovering from early problems over school buildings and sports. Now comes the news that he is to abolish GCSEs and restore O-levels – and that the National Curriculum is to go too (though it's worth noting that there is to be a consultation).
The Daily Mail reports that "Mr Gove's proposals are nothing less than an attempt to reverse three decades of academic decline and create a system that Labour could not reverse if it wins power in 2015". The news will do nothing to dampen the leadership talk that he laughs off and the Blob Rage that he swerves round: earlier this year, this meticulously polite figure was denounced at the NUT conference as "an evil entity" bent on "demolishing state schools" who is surrounded by "cronies" and pursuing "fetishes" while "terrorising teachers" and empowering "vultures". I view it all the other way round. Indeed, I want to see the new film about Abraham Lincoln succeeded by a sequel about this scourge of the education establishment: "Michael Gove, Vampire Hunter".
He has hinted that he would like to go further; that he has nothing against the profit motive in state education or selection by ability. His self-confidence seems to have paralysed the left no less than it has enraged Lord Justice Leveson. One never knows what to expect next: perhaps he will announce tomorrow that he's restoring the Trivium and Quadrivium. The Education Secretary once wrote: "I can't hold it back any more; I love Tony!" [Blair.] In that spirit, I confess to not being able to hold it back any more, either. I love Michael! [Gove.] He has much the same effect on me as opium seems to have had on Coleridge, though to a less productive end. His flashing eyes! His floating hair! Weave a circle round him thrice and shut your eyes with holy dread!
The Education Secretary has fed on honey dew and drunk the milk of paradise. Then again, as he well knows, journalists are notoriously capricious in their affections.