John Bald is a former teacher, educational adviser and Ofsted lead inspector. He now works as an independent consultant and offers free help to people with educational problems.
The influence of education secretaries is not determined by the length of their tenure. In 30 months, Anthony Crosland set up 50 years of ill-informed and vindictive damage and decline. In four years of difficult coalition, Michael Gove restored schools to their proper purposes and honesty to the examination system. At the very least, this makes him the most important Conservative education secretary since RA Butler.
Gove’s real opponents, like Crosland’s, did not sit opposite him in parliament. Crosland’s were Butler himself, and Attlee’s education secretary Ellen Wilkinson, who rejected comprehensive schools, and accepted that most children were destined to be “hewers of wood and drawers of water”. Michael Gove’s were Crosland and the legacies of his victories – progressivism, poor basic skills, debased examinations, fake vocational qualifications, self-serving quangos and a boss class of left-leaning inspectors, local officials, union leaders and academics who were less interested in improving teaching and learning than in getting and wielding power. Conservative education secretaries were breakfast to these people – by the time Gove took over, they had even managed to abolish the education department.
Gove’s goals and achievements fall into two broad categories. From my perspective, the most important is the reshaping of the school curriculum and examinations. This includes the introduction of phonics and the phonics check in infant schools, the reforms to the national curriculum, tests and examinations, the extended role of the national college for teaching and leadership, and the bonfire of the quangos. He also managed to reintroduce technical education through Studio Schools, alongside Lord Baker’s University Technology Colleges.
All of this took hard, detailed work, much of it by Nick Gibb, to whom Michael Gove has shown conspicuous public loyalty. It would also have been impossible without Glenys Stacey’s deft handling of large-scale changes in examinations at Ofqual. The move to final examinations at GCSE and A level is already freeing pupils and teachers from Labour’s relentless grind of assessment and resits, and the technical quality and reliability of the new tests and exams constitute a genuinely new approach to assessment rather than a return to old, and less reliable, ways.
The second major initiative, free schools and the rapid expansion of academies, has had more to do with politics than with the practice of education. Many – probably most – local authorities have fought free schools tooth and nail. Katharine Birbalsingh’s only opened this term, four years after her courage on our Conference platform brought her the sack. Free schools offer parents an alternative to what the local authority chooses to dole out, and are central to Gove’s noble aim of giving all children the opportunities he had himself.
Some have immediately done very well, as have the best primary and secondary academies. ARK and Harris are leading examples, but I was struck by the excellent working atmosphere in a Co-Op academy I visited. This indicates cross-party support for the initiative, as indeed did the head’s withering assessment of his useless local authority. Labour’s proposed regional commissioners look much like Gove’s, and reflect a decisive move by Labour against leaving schools in the control of local councillors.
This, though, is the area where mistakes have been made, and some of them were avoidable. The freedoms given to academies and free schools made them an obvious target for extremists as well as cranks. The Policy Exchange report, Faith Schools We Can Believe In, recommended that the Secretary of State should have a veto on virtually all appointments to new faith schools, and should be able to close bad ones down in a fortnight. The secular academy structure, however, provided a fresh avenue for extremists, and led to Trojan horse. Ideologists or jobsworths in local government, in Birmingham as earlier in Bradford, were as much at fault as the DfE, but at the very least Gove has to accept responsibility for underestimating the determination, deviousness and malice of our extremist opponents.
Cranks make damaging headlines, but could have been dealt with by making the National Curriculum a baseline for academies and free schools, rather than letting them ignore it. Some primary schools, for example, wanted to become academies so that they would not have to offer a foreign language, and one secondary head of a “converter” academy boasted recently that it gave him more freedom to ensure that “attainment” did not take precedence over other educational goals. Headteachers have also become too fond of management by paperwork, a tactic introduced by Labour that has still not been reversed. The alternative is for them to check quality by monitoring pupils’ work rather than teachers’ planning.
The kind of Ofsted inspection that had been developed pre-2005, under which a substantial team, including a specialist in each subject, would spend several days in school checking on all aspects of standards, management and pupils’ personal development, would have caught cranks and extremists alike, but this was and still is opposed by people with little or no educational experience who have had too much influence. Exactly who said and did what is hard to establish.
Labour’s idea of basing inspection on data rather than first-hand evidence failed because of the unreliability of most of the data, and because the extremists’ tactic of forcing children to work hard and behave made their results look so good that they were barely inspected at all. Some of the money saved by cutting quangos should have been used to enable Ofsted to restore what Michael Gove has called the “multi-layered” inspection that is commensurate with the task, and that is still used in the private sector.
I said at the start that Gove was the most important Conservative education secretary since Butler. Whether he will prove to have been the most successful is in the balance. Butler succeeded largely because the next government did not seek to reverse him. If the Conservatives win next year, or if Tristram Hunt’s silence (on most issues) indicates consent, the future of Michael Gove’s reforms is assured. If not, the ensuing chaos will take a lot longer than one government to sort out.