Why Mr. Gove is Assured Success

Aspirations

I wrote a piece for SMT a few weeks ago on what I believed would be the likely impact of the new types of schools – academies and free schools – which are now beginning to dominate the educational landscape in England.  As is usual when I get on my soapbox about educational matters, I predicted that things would get so dire we’d have the educational equivalent of the four horsemen of the apocalypse on the horizon in a matter of months (in my fantasy, these are Baker, Woodhead, Wilshaw and a small boy on a scabby donkey called Gove – yes, the donkey is called Gove, not the boy).

I was very interested, therefore, to read an article by former education secretary Estelle Morris in the Guardian (Monday 23 April 2012), suggesting that many of the newly converted academies are not doing what the Conservatives expected them to do – namely, shake off the shackles which still impede the development of their not-thus-far-freed colleague schools by changing their curriculum, taking the shears to teachers’ pay and conditions and radically altering their hours of work and school terms.

In fact, as Morris reveals courtesy of a report by Reform and the Schools Network, almost all these schools converted to academy status for – and I do suggest everyone ensures they’re sitting down and have a friend on hand to call for emergency support if necessary – the extra money.  Morris says that if the extra money leads to higher standards, then it will have been a worthwhile move.  I wonder, however, how she might disaggregate the effects of extra money from the constant efforts that go on in all schools to raise standards?  Morris states that “there is a responsibility on the government to drop the rhetoric and be much more rigorous about finding out what is actually happening on the ground.”

Having seen a plethora of schemes, initiatives and ‘strategies’ being dropped upon schools throughout the last Labour government’s terms of office (some of them during Ms Morris’ own time in office at the DfE), I know at first hand that education secretaries do love to claim that one strategy or another has resulted in higher standards, regardless of how short a time it’s been in action or how little contact it has made with the pupils whose standards have been raised.  I recall, for example, that when ‘Excellence in Cities’ initiatives had been in place in Sheffield for less than a year the improved GCSE results in the city were ascribed to EiC, despite the fact that the Y11 pupils concerned hadn’t received any input from the various initiatives concerned.

Michael Gove has stated that he sees one of his important success criteria as the number of schools becoming academies.  I thought about this for quite a while before deciding that I couldn’t come up with any better response than this:  is he insane?  That we have in charge of national education policy and standards a man who thinks that an increase in the number of schools calling themselves something different in exchange for money means he’s done a good job is seriously, seriously worrying.

Were I the head of ASCL, the secondary school leaders’ union, I think I’d be taking Gove on over this one, single statement.  Just think what you could do to make him look daft – suggest that a corollary of his statement means that success criteria for schools ought to be the number of pupils supporting the head’s favourite football team, for example, since both are concerned with people doing a thing that a person in charge thinks is a good thing in itself.

Now I come to think of it, however, there’s no chance I’d restrict myself to this one example of Govery, because he’s offered us so many, just in his relatively brief time in office.  One of my favourites (purely in the sense that it gave me so much room for spleen-venting) last year was the notion that schools should be judged on how many of their pupils get Oxbridge places.  Now, I’m often accused by those who are unfortunate enough to have to work, live or play with me that I have a tendency to get bogged down in the detail of things; certainly, feasibility was something I usually demanded, when I led schools, before we progressed any idea further than the back of an envelope.  This Oxbridge place-counting wheeze, however, is so daft, illogical and unworkable that you have to wonder at the people who let politicians out to make these speeches.  Leaving aside the glaringly obvious fact that all such bean-counting does is – well – state the glaringly obvious, the sheer unfeasibility of compiling such data year on year should have led one of the more junior staff at the DfE (the tea person, perhaps, or the one of the cleaners) to sneak up behind Gove and whisper ‘Not everyone goes to university as soon as they leave school, you know’.

Returning to where I began today’s rant-piece, however, I find myself looking again at Estelle Morris and her all-too-brief term of office at the DfE, or whatever it was calling itself in those days.  Those with memories long enough to sift through the rather long list of MPs who have sat in the big chair at Sanctuary Buildings might recall that Morris resigned because she felt she wasn’t good enough at the job and there had been some controversy over whether or not she had previously promised resignation if targets on literacy and numeracy were not met in 2002.  Those targets were not met and Morris famously declared she’d rather aim high and miss than set targets that were too low.

It occurred to me that Michael Gove has done what most education secretaries singularly fail to do, in their constant meddling with and re-modelling of state education, which is to look at the examples of history and learn from them.  In setting himself ‘targets’ which can be met through little more than the blatant bribery of heads and governors in a time of shrinking budgets, he’s assured himself of success – hasn’t he?

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Helen Freeborn

Helen Freeborn was a secondary headteacher for 11 years until she gave it all up to live in Greece. Now returned after four years abroad, she divides her time between consultancy, training, a range of writing projects and catching up with all the television she has missed.

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  1. Once again Ms Freeborn has been astute to recognise the total ineptitude and crass “out of touchness” of Sir (to be future Knighted) Michaela Gove (mark my words).
    I was fortunate to work for six years in an amazing Excellence In Cities initiative for which the then government funded from borrowed money which will take YEARS (maybe decades) to repay. The policy of “education, education, education” should perhaps should have been “education, education, education, education, education, education” because during that time I worked for SIX different Education Secretaries (so much for consistency and commitment).
    During that time Ms Morris was the only one who was committed and convincing in her beliefs. Mind you I did work in her consistency BUT she really did believe in what she was trying to do and having worked as a TEACHER in inner city schools she understood what we were trying to achieve.
    Michaela Gove couldn’t teach in a one to one situation let alone an environment of children who have no idea how they can change their lives by an education provided by caring, thoughtful and emotive teachers who work hard for their future and sadly I think rarely exist in the profession any more.
    As for “targets” – I will go to my grave in the wonderment of being able to predict the future. Could we foresee:
    a) the pound/euro drop (I have lost one third of my money in the last five years living away from the UK – but am convinced I am still “better off”)
    b) targeting the increase in energy prices
    c) targeting escalating petrol prices
    d) the collapse (or “fall guy”) situation that exists with Greece – to be soon followed by Spain and Italy
    e) targeting the next government will be a total landslide for a Labour victory.

    I have never spent so long on replying to an article (even to the Daily Mail) but Ms Freeborn has hit the nail on the head. Perhaps her and I should take over the Department for Education – but then the Civil Servants would be saying “have you considered the effect blah blah…”.

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