I hope those inside the political bubble who constantly define Michael Gove as ‘one of the few successes’ of the Cameron government find time to listen to Friday’s Any Questions on Iplayer.
Gove’s main success, so far as I can tell, is in persuading the media and the Tory Party that he is a success. However, both are out of touch with what most reasonable people with experience of State schools actually think.
The audience at a CofE school in Leyland, Lancs, was a fairly typical Any Questions audience, overwhelmingly white, middle class, middle aged, very middle England. Yet without having had a clapometer to hand, I am pretty sure that the loudest applause of the evening came when Camilla Batmanghelidh and I criticised Gove’s plans for variable pay for teachers.
Camilla’s opposition came from her view that schools are a community not a competition between teachers. Mine was that Gove is deliberately trying to provoke teachers into an industrial dispute so that he can have a fight and show his many media admirers and Tory right-wingers that there is a touch of the Thatchers about him. Children’s education is something of a pawn in this.
I visit a fair few schools. My partner Fiona visits a lot more. We know and we meet a lot of heads and a lot of teachers. If Gove is deliberately setting out to become a hate figure, he is making progress. One head I met last year, John Tomsett, who runs a brilliant school in York, had a letter in The Guardian yesterday expressing total outrage at Gove’s letter to heads suggesting they dock pay of teachers involved in the current ‘Action short of a strike.’ Tomsett said Gove’s letter was ‘threatening’ and designed to cause turbulence at a time heads are managing the ‘action’ without it escalating towards real damage to children.
But Gove, according to his briefers (one of whom even Andy Coulson wouldn’t work with) has put his department ‘on a war footing.’ Yet the only person who wants a war is him, and he wants it not to drive up standards in schools but to drive up political support and profile for himself.
At the pre Any Questions dinner for the panel, Tory commentator Tim Montgomerie and free marketeer Mark Littlewood had clearly both bought the line that Gove is a success. I said the public and the teaching profession took a different view to the commentariat. Tim looked somewhat shocked to see a middle England audience, in a non Labour area, loudly clapping the line that far from being a success, Gove is a disaster for our children, and far from being the best is shaping up as the worst education minister in our lifetime.
I heard Frankie Boyle on the radio yesterday echoing one of my favourite lines – never confuse media opinion with public opinion. Not least because he is essentially the media’s man in Cabinet, as his outrageous undermining of the Leveson Inquiry showed, and because he is a journalist close to Rupert Murdoch, Gove tends to get a very good press. But never forget that virtually all national newspapers editors, and a majority of the commentariat, use private schools for their own kids, and as a result not only know next to nothing about state schools, but have a vested interest in running them down.
As i said last night, the latest primary school improvements are the result of Labour investment and Labour reform, both put at risk by Gove’s agenda. In another question last night – on immigration – I mentioned the primary school my children all went to, and where Fiona has been a governor or chair of governors for most of their lives. When our eldest child went there, the Tories were in power and less than 40 per cent of kids reached level 4. Thanks to a new and brilliant head, but also to the investment and reforms, the school was turned around, despite many middle class parents deciding to go private. Today, 57 per cent of the children have English as a second language, 50percent are on the pupil premium. Ninety per cent reach level 4, and Camden primary schools have been rated by Ofsted the best in th country, an amazing achievement.
You’d have thought this was the kind of success story Gove and Co would want to highlight and build on. Far from it, because the success has been achieved despite his reforms not because of them, and does not fit with his potty backward-looking agenda.
One final point. He keeps saying heads should be autonomous. So stop sending them letters telling them what to do with their staff then. As John Tomsett said in his letter ‘I will stand by my colleagues and defend them from this unprecedented attack by the secretary of state. And when I do, don’t accuse me of being an enemy of promise, ever.’ He said he had dedicated his life, at some personal cost, to helping young people achieve their full potential, something Gove cannot claim.
Instead of supporting, he undermines. Instead of building up, he knocks down. Instead of valuing, he devalues. Te media bubble may think it makes him clever. The public are not so gullible. They can spot a disaster posing as a success a mile off, and they were out in force in Leyland last night.