I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about Michael Gove’s departure.
Michael Gove could have won me over. Back in early 2013 he was asked at a National College event whether he had won over the hearts and minds of Headteachers and he replied something like, Well, I’ve made some progress, but I don’t think I’ve won over Heads like John Tomsett… He was only partially right.
For all his renowned intellect, Michael Gove didn’t seem to have the nouse to understand that people can hold contradictory views simultaneously: I am co-leading an EEF Randomised Controlled Trial into the efficacy of research in schools, but I have also authorised the teaching of a new Happiness course to Year 10 from this September which has no evidence base supporting it whatsoever. The thing is, there are a number of key educational issues upon which Michael Gove and I agree. His problem was that I didn’t agree with him upon every educational issue. And as I wasn’t entirely with him, I must have been, in his eyes, against him. I was an Enemy of Promise. I was a paid up member of The Blob. I was a bad Headteacher, as he implied in an interview with Allegra Stratton recently…

I have quietly bemoaned the decline in academic rigour of the English Literature A level examination over the last thirty years. In 1982 I studied, amongst others, these challenging texts from the English literary canon: Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, Hardy’s Return of the Native, Chaucer’s The General Prologue and The Wife of Bath’s Tale, Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and Love’s Labour’s Lost, Seamus Heaney’s Selected Poems 1965-1975, all examined in closed book, three hour, terminal examinations, sans coursework. I still recite the opening scene of Antony and Cleopatra to anyone who will listen. Heaney himself loved my annotations when he signed my A level copy of his poems last year.
When I began teaching A level literature my aim was to teach my students to be active readers of literary texts and to understand the delicate but essential relationship between form and content. Somehow, the study of literature at A level has morphed into a formulaic exercise best exemplified by the quite appalling  Aspects of Narrative unit of the current AQA course. It’s not our students’ fault; they can only study what they are presented with. No, the decline in rigour is down to a whole range of factors, including the dire consequences for all of us should our students fail. You see? Michael Gove and I both know things aren’t like they used to be!
Michael Gove and I love international education systems. For the past four years we have offered the International Baccalaureate Diploma whose English syllabus is as close as you’ll find to my A level of three decades ago. Trouble is, as post 16 funding cuts have begun to hurt school sixth forms, we have just seen our last, very successful, cohort of IBD students finish the course; from September, for purely financial reasons, we’re back to A levels only. (Since I published this post ten minutes ago, it has been announced by the DfE that funding for the IBD will be enhanced by £800 per student…too late for the state school students in the north east corner of York. A cynical move with electoral motivations? I could weep.)
I admired Michael Gove’s courage to oversee the first fall in GCSE and A level pass rates for two generations. I remember being in a Local Authority Headteachers’ meeting in 2009, when Ed Balls, then Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, had declared that on the twenty-odd KPIs he had defined for schools to measure our performance, we were not allowed to set targets for next year which were lower than the previous year’s targets. I exploded, to the discomfort of all present, exclaiming, We don’t work with wood and steel, we work with human beings! When did we start living in a Stalinist state?!
Whenever I have met Michael Gove, he has been politeness itself. The thing is, I’ve never been convinced of his sincerity or that he ever really listened to anything I, or my colleagues, have said. And I’m probably in the minority when I say I have never been entirely convinced that his championing of the deprived children of this land is wholly authentic. Remember, for the last four years he has been an influential minister in a government which was criticised recently by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission in a report which concluded that, The statutory goal of ending child poverty by 2020 will in all likelihood be missed by a considerable margin, perhaps by as many as 2 million children. Furthermore, as Vic Goddard wrote, His dismissal of vocational qualifications was also extremely damaging to young people: I absolutely deplore his message that it’s better to be a doctor than a plumber and that you’re only valuable if you go to university. Sometimes he speaks as though he has no real sense of what faces the poorest families in our country today.

Michael Gove is a Shakespearean tragic hero in that his greatest strength was his undoing. His passion for education sometimes manifested itself as ideological arrogance. This one-time B-movie actor, comedian and journalist thought he knew better than thousands of experienced practitioners. In the end it was the ideologue, rather than the committed educationalist, who seems to have got him the sack.
Teaching is a mass employment profession. This is something Michael Gove forgot. There are 451,000 FTE teachers in the UK. You can only improve an education system by improving the quality of teaching, something difficult to do if, as the ultimate leader of those 451,000 teachers, you lose their trust.
If you want to achieve something significant, on a large scale, you have to take people with you, something Michael Gove just did not understand. In one of my earlier posts about preparing for an OFSTED inspection, I make this point about trusting my teacher colleagues: Headteachers need to trust their colleagues more than ever. At our school we deliver over 2,000 lessons each week; I cannot teach them all, so what I have to do is develop my colleagues in a safe school environment which allows them to thrive professionally and personally. It’s the only way to a decent OFSTED inspection. It’s the only way I will keep my job. If he’d followed my advice, Michael Gove might have kept his job too.

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This post has 17 Comments

  1. Haven’t seen anyone put it down in words so well – and I am happy to disagree with you on the whole end of course exams and coursework debate without feeling the need to belittle you, which is where dear Michael fell on his own sword. I don’t doubt his heart was in the right place but unfortunately for him his foot was often in his mouth. Requires improvement I would say!

    1. Oh, I have my doubts about the return to synoptic exams. I wrote this about my now Year 8 son over a year ago: “My Year 7 son is imaginative and funny, great with numbers, a decent reader but less good at writing. His memory could be better. He likes baking and making. He uses a laptop adeptly. He’s a water baby and loves to swim, but finds it hard to maintain his place in the football team – when I ask him if he wants to go to Old Trafford he gently tells me that he doesn’t really like football. He was gentle and patient with the Year 1s when he was a Year 6 monitor. He’s loving and still gets on his mum’s lap subconsciously. He’d make a brilliant Primary School teacher, but as an E-Bacc guinea pig I genuinely don’t know if he’ll get the qualifications. Born in 2000, he’s a twenty-first century boy heading for a 1970s nightmare.”

  2. Hello John. I think you underestimate the extent to which Gove was a cynic (in the original sense). There was a big difference between what he said and what he did. So, we know that this government decided that the route out of the economic crisis was through low pay. This imperative runs counter to the huge propaganda Gove et al put out about competing in the world market with skills and standards. My daughter is at secondary school at the moment and it’s become a test-crazy environment. I think she has spent most of the year revising for tests. The outcome of those tests is various forms of streaming. I see this as having no other consequence than to fix a percentage of students as failures. (She has just finished Year 8). In other words a London comp is going to look as if it is ‘succeeding’ yet doing so by guaranteeing that it delivers a percentage of students as failures on to the labour market.
    Meanwhile, the free school initiative divides localities up in unfair ways: free schools are taking in fewer EALs, SENs and FSMs than the schools immediately next to them. And yet it was Gove et al who decried post-code selection at comps!
    I could go on…

    1. Another example of course was:
      – On the one hand saying a curriculum change with emphasis on knowledge was needed. On the other hand allowing schools to dis-apply parts of that same curriculum.
      – On the one hand saying teacher quality and subject knowledge is key. On the other hand giving schools the freedom to attract SD teachers without enough subject knowledge and thinking it can be amended by following a short-ish SKE course.

  3. Excellent blogpost. Balanced and fair. One thing I miss, but the author might not have an opinion about this- is the effect on the ITT. For all that can be criticized about that sector I think in the end it has led to (i) trainees with less time for reflection and (subject) knowledge, (ii) budget cuts that many departments in a ‘university market’ can’t absorb (thus closing down). Some might think that is a good thing but I think trainees do not have a professional place outside their employers’ place any more; and reflection suffers.

  4. Great piece of writing John. I’ve never been convinced of his championing of the deprived children of Britain. To suggest that pupils living in deprived areas just need a better education while cuts send more families below the poverty line is nonsensical. To help pupils in deprived areas there needs to be a plethora of strategies in school and in the wider community.

  5. Anyone that assesses a government’s concern for the poor on the basis of a ludicrous measure of RELATIVE poverty is either ill-informed or a party political axe-grinder.

  6. Gove has been stupendously damaging to the education of the whole child. He has purposefully marginalised creative subjects and downgraded them within a straight jacket system disguised as rigour which reality is about Gove’s own vision of an industrial education model not fit for 21st century learners. Children as ‘finished product’ rather than pilots of their own futures. Our students are now currently measured through a narrow set of criteria which only suit a small percentage of learners. This ‘rigour’ does not provide time for students, and teachers , to think, reflect, innovate, be curious, deviate from the plan…all essential tools for an adaptive future. Education needs to move on from Michael Gove but with a collective, evidence based focus on what really makes a difference in our classrooms.

  7. Magnanimous in victory, and far more charitable towards Gove than he deserves. Michael and Chris have already pointed out some of the more glaring inconsistencies between his rhetoric and his actions, but there are plenty more. Yes, he *said* he wanted the right things, but the majority of his policies worked against those goals. Is he really so stupid that he couldn’t see that? Or was he being deliberately deceptive and maliciously manipulative in order to railroad through self-serving policies, safe in the knowledge that he could ride roughshod over his detractors?
    Why would he spend hours re-writing the minutiae of a GCSE curriculum when he is exempting academies from following it, showing that he doesn’t think a standardised curriculum is important … if not as a cynical measure to try to push more schools into taking on academy status, just to get away from his victorian curriculum?
    Gove was not “courageous” in overseeing a fall in exam results … again, it was a deliberate and cynical attempt to portray the established education system as failing and embracing grade inflation at the expense of standards. After all, it’s much easier for his beloved academies to show accelerated progress against a low benchmark starting point!
    It’s hard to see how anyone could have pushed through even a fraction of the policies that Gove has, and still kept the teaching profession on-side. Yes, he has been deliberately antagonistic, and has unnecessarily upset more people than he needed to, but even without his bombast and bile, the bulk of what people object to are his devastatingly destructive *policies*. And if he had pulled back on them … well, he simply wouldn’t have been Michael Gove.

  8. Gove is an interesting character (but he is a politician, who has a political agenda). I think he views the education establishment as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. I guess that the situation is more nuanced than that: the edu-establishment is both part of the problem and part of the solution. In my view (http://chemistrypoet.wordpress.com/2014/07/22/gove-gone-expectations-high/) the most important Gove-legacy is the prominence now of the issue of High Expectations. Much of the edu-discussion is now centred on high expectations; what that means, how to embed it, how to make it apply to everyone regardless of socioeconomic factors.

  9. John, you speak for many Headteachers. The difference between Mr Gove and many leaders in the profession is that we try to see other perspectives and take a balanced view – qualities informed and developed by the work we do. It is now for us to navigate this next stage under Nicky Morgan’s stewardship and to steer our own course with integrity…still very challenging when the means of judging schools has narrowed so significantly.

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