Michael Gove: Doing the Right Thing?

Issue: 140

Nick Grant

Is Michael Gove simply mad? Is he a vain loose cannon who was given the education ship’s wheel by captain David Cameron in June 2010?1 He is certainly derided as being professionally unqualified for his job by teachers and lecturers. They find his goals unworkable and harmful. Thousands of students, parents and governors, academics, local politicians and local authority officers also despair at his apparent misunderstandings of their needs.

Gove is abrasive for school workers in a number of ways:

  • His “back to the future” approach to the curriculum—especially language and history.
  • His “survival of the academically fittest” approach as far as increased or re-structured tests and exams go.
  • A “private good, public bad” conviction when it comes to the governance of tax-funded education.
  • A punitive “you’ve had it too good for too long” approach to teachers’ pensions, pay and conditions of service.
  • An endless negative propaganda barrage in the media, which particularly demonises teachers’ unions.
  • The deliberate creation of student and school failure in order to justify privatisation measures.

Or is Gove just bad? Is he consciously scheming a coherent plan, ruthless in its execution, in tune with international trends, and actually succeeding? Gove has so far enjoyed a fireproof position within the British coalition cabinet to do as he pleases, unchallenged by the Liberal Democrats, even if he has upset his boss with his views on Europe and may be embarking on a Tory leadership bid.2

Parents are now witnessing Gove’s changes through the negatively different experiences of their younger children compared to older siblings, who were not faced with the phonics testing at five years old, spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPAG) tests at 11, the loss of Education Maintenance Allowance at 16, and hiked tuition fees and future debt post-18.

For young people and their families, and educators in all stages, there are intense debates about child development and emotional wellbeing, cultural enrichment and social entitlements, jobs and financial as well as social security in an increasingly harsh world. Nevertheless the population at large seems less critical about Gove. If you are not picking up the pieces of his policies—increased mental health issues for teachers and students, the burn-out rate among newly-qualified staff, the relegation of equalities issues, the random injustices of Ofsted (which carries out official school inspections for the government) and lack of post-school jobs—he can seem to be a serious moderniser, even an egalitarian. This is mainly due to the army of media mates who incessantly spin his propaganda. But it also exposes lame official opposition politics in general and specifically an absence of a Labour Party challenge. Despite Gove’s lies, however, it remains very significant that teachers’ standing with the public in the latest poll of trustworthiness is far higher, at 86 percent, than that of “politicians generally” on 18 percent. Politicians rank even below bankers and estate agents.3

So what is the nature of Gove’s political project overall as a secretary of state for education? Is he qualitatively different from his predecessors? Is he fallible or invincible? Is he “mad” or “bad”?

To address these questions I will look briefly at the following factors:

  • The history of UK education.
  • Its contemporary global context.
  • Gove’s biography and style.
  • Gove’s hallmark acts and methods since becoming secretary of state.
  • How and why critics can resist Gove’s regime.

Capitalism and schooling

Capitalism generally has required increasing levels of technical, scientific and cultural sophistication among its employees to achieve a competitive edge in the constantly evolving marketplace. To do this it requires an education system. But since its provision as a mass public service, politicians have had carefully to monitor access to education and quality because employees still need to know their place at work, and need to accept the democratic sham that enables a tiny minority to rule.

Historically, schools have balanced training with social control, curiosity with fear, the encyclopaedia with the cane, competitive individuation in exams with uniformity of clothing, often in cahoots with the spiritual enforcers of religion. For its subjects, liberation has constantly wrestled with suppression. This can be illustrated through a rapid survey of the history of mass schooling. In the course of the 19th century industrial revolution the skills required to support manual labour in UK fields, mines, factories, sweatshops and docks were simple literacy and numeracy. However, minds as well as hands had to be kept busy: oppositional movements such as the Chartists might demand “really useful knowledge” for use in the political field as well. The first UK state regulation of this was the 1870 Elementary Education Act requiring elementary schools. Many schools were still controlled by charities and churches, but many were built anew by Victorian municipalities and survive to this day. The teachers organised themselves immediately into the National Union of Elementary Teachers, principally in protest at payment by pupil results. The modern NUT emerged from this in 1888 and is emblematically re-fighting those same battles in 2013.4

The 1880 Education Act made attendance compulsory for five to ten year olds and conditional for ten to 14 year olds who were excused if they had a job.

Arthur Balfour’s 1902 Education Act transferred control from the directly elected and sometimes radical school boards and introduced Local Education Authorities (LEAs) to organise funding, employ teachers and allocate places. The 1944 Education Act extended secondary education to all, but divided hierarchically into grammar and secondary modern schools, with a middle tier of technical schools in some places. To a large extent this mapped onto a social hierarchy. Private fee-paying schools remained for the rich, and church schools continued to receive state funding.

Grammar schools took the minority of children who were most compliant and able to pass the 11 plus exam. Part of their function was to produce people fit to manage on behalf of capitalism. Secondary schools herded the majority of factory-fodder long enough for puberty and inquisitiveness to pass. Technical schools attempted to prepare minds and skills for newly developing industries and occupations. In 1951 General Certificate of Education (GCE) “O” and “A” levels were introduced. This did not sit well with a post-1945, radicalised, demobbed trade union and labour movement who baulked at the mass injustice of the 11 plus. Campaigns spearheaded by Communist Party and left wing Labour Party figures, supported by the NUT, had a more egalitarian vision.

By the mid-1960s there was a political majority based in Local Education Authorities in favour of what were called comprehensive secondary schools, to complement the de facto comprehensive primary schools. This went ahead in England without legislation in a piecemeal fashion but universally across Scotland and Wales. Ironically the secretary of state on whose watch, from 1971-4, comprehensive schools spread most rapidly was Margaret Thatcher. She also raised the school leaving age to 16 in 1973. This reform was in a period when economic expansion remained an expectation.

This lasted until the onset of neoliberalism internationally, including Britain. Michael Roberts describes it thus:

The neoliberal era, at least for the UK, began in the mid-1970s. The data confirm that. The UK rate of profit reached a bottom in 1975 at the trough of the first simultaneous worldwide economic slump of 1974-5. The Labour government under Prime Minister [James] Callaghan and Chancellor [Denis] Healey reacted to this dire crisis that forced the UK to ask for IMF aid in 1976 by beginning the long struggle to slash government spending, squeeze back wages and reduce industry.5

Certainly, Callaghan’s innovatory speech on education in 1976 at Ruskin College Oxford set the terms for subsequent ministerial debate. It legitimated a new governmental prioritisation of education policy that has resulted in a flurry of legislation since. But it has also initiated a protracted campaign against the progressive methods which were being introduced in a growing number of primary and comprehensive schools.

The actual Thatcher years from 1979 saw public spending fall in the new global economic slump of 1981-2. This era marked the end of apprenticeships and the start of an emasculation of local authorities, the Inner London Education Authority being her most prestigious scalp. The National Curriculum and its testing regime arrived in 1988. Control of staff grew exponentially, including Ofsted’s partial, inconsistent but damning raids, a form of performance related pay (PRP) and, increasingly, school closures. Students were abused in Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) to produce crude league tables, which generated competition between schools and parents.

The Blair decade, despite an electoral mantra of “education, education, education” as a supposed spur to a new “knowledge economy” in 1997, was a seamless transition from the Tory regime once they had dumped Thatcher. Blair’s main adviser was ex-NUT education officer Michael Barber.6 Their 1997 Education (Schools) Act and School Standards and Framework Act 1998 established Education Action Zones as the first private-sector orientation away from LEAs.

Increasingly the drive to privatisation was conducted under cover of a claim to be helping the urban poor. Private management of schools was introduced through the 2000 academies initiative, another stiletto to the heart of local publicly accountable governance. The first three academy schools opened in 2002, with nine more in 2003. Private sector bonanzas akin to the vast NHS consultants’ handouts were provided via Private Finance Initiatives for school building projects. The 2004 Building Schools for the Future programme guaranteed 12 percent profit rates to the likes of Balfour Beatty and Kajima, well above their rates of return from private clients.

Labour secretary of state Charles Clarke’s Children Act 2004 consolidated the thinking behind a duplicitous 2003 Green Paper entitled Every Child Matters, with its perverse implication that this had not been the case up to that point.

The general point of note here is that governments globally have become more and more obsessed with schooling as economic and political changes have increasingly required more sophisticated subjects.

A synchronous global context

Any debate about education is a proxy debate about how a society sees its own future, in ways that are riven by class. The hope enshrined in most newborn children by their families is replicated at mass levels by the aspirations that politicians declare for shaping a new world.This is complex and contradictory since the world we live in is engulfed by often unprecedented events, with interconnected crises at every economic, ecological, social, cultural, political and ideological turn.

Teacher Sue Palmer has attempted to make sense of this modern global life in a bestselling work called Toxic Childhood: How The Modern World Is Damaging Our Children and What We Can Do About It.7 And in a half-hearted way UK schools have made some response to her critique by, for example, reintroducing outdoor play as an early years learning activity, albeit still tied to prescriptive outcomes and tests. But her remarks about the real impact of marketing, “screen time”, celebrity culture, sleep, diet, exercise and more remain unaddressed by politicians.

Education is now a global battlefield because it is a global marketplace of increasingly private sector or philanthropic competition. Mary Compton’s Teacher Solidarity website logs daily strikes, protests or policy initiatives by unions and other resistant forces which gives evidence of this.8

Stephen J Ball has done much to map a sociology of the highly complex relationship between public education systems and the mushrooming, multinational, corporate and philanthropic agencies competing to pressurise nation states for a share of the global education action in terms of policy, provision and, of course, profit.9 Whether it is from global giants such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or England’s academy school chains, public service values are under attack. Ball is so forensically meticulous about the webs of ownership, control, merger and conglomeration of global edu-business, “philanthropocapitalism”, charities engaged in developmental rather than palliative giving, the physical networkings of individuals, that it reads like a sci-fi adventure. But his book exposes the drive to normalise market-based social relations within schooling as a prerequisite for commodification, capital accumulation and profit making, which actually penetrate the discourse and practice of every single aspect of our lives. For a primary school teacher in England and Wales it means forcing her class through the prescribed National Curriculum sub-levels in three subject areas by imposed deadlines so as to secure the performance related pay necessary to pay her rent. But that level of alienation is a global classroom phenomenon.

In England Gove is an energetic missionary of this process. The core ethos of comprehensive schooling—equality, cooperation, care and creativity—has to be ousted by competition, possessive individualism and a compliance with authority however arbitrarily exercised. To do this he has to denigrate unions and local authorities, establish the ever present spectre for schools of Ofsted inspection at three-days notice, and villify communities and academics that stand in his way. Teachers and learners are blamed for unemployment and what some call “anti-social behaviour”. He steers into the future constantly looking backwards to when grammar schools flourished and oiks knew their place. He has even tried to rewrite history as his very own “Island Story” for his new National Curriculum.

But the Achilles’ heel of Gove’s general rhetoric is also the fundamental deceit of market capitalism in its general and global relation to democracy—a focus on individualism. Yes, indeed, anyone can succeed under capitalism—but not everyone. Meritocracy will reward the lucky, plucky few but systematically fail to enhance the opportunities for, or achievements of, the majority. Inequality is built in and is worsening. Global policies of austerity fall on the already poor as well as an increasingly impoverished middle class.

A newly appointed prime ministerial adviser, Jesse Norman, gave this game away in a very silly attempt to claim that only Eton schooled adults know the real meaning of public service. He explained in the Times of 27 April 2013 that “the whole point of what Michael Gove is trying to do is to recover that independent school ethos within the state system, so that people from whatever walk of life can feel that they can take a proper part to the maximum”.10 No. What Gove is doing is recalibrating the general public good for specific, longer-term, globalised private gain.

Given all this, the question is why any government would then risk retaining the leading services of Gove if he wasn’t actually prized by them for doing the right thing—their right wing thing?

Gove’s biography and style

Gove’s biography and style are illuminating about his rhetorical motifs and help explain the prime minister’s support. Gove is not like David Cameron or chancellor George Osborne. His family is not loaded. Gove is able to feign passion about the fate of any poor kid because he was that poor kid. Born in Edinburgh in 1967 and named Graham, he was adopted and renamed by a prospering Aberdeen family at four months old.

It seems like he was a swot from the off. Aged 11 Gove moved on to the private Robert Gordon’s School, excelling in everything but sport. His mother Christine claimed: “His teachers told us they used Michael to educate the other pupils. They said they’d love to be able to tell Michael he had got something wrong but they were never able to catch him out”.11 Later Gove preferred the status of president of the Oxford Union (the university’s debating society) to the Bullingdon Club debauchery of his current cabinet colleagues.

Thus education has clearly been Gove’s own springboard from humble beginnings to a position of prestige as an adult. Cameron can spin a narrative of triumphant will and wit around Gove’s pedigree when he sends him eagerly in to bat. Gove himself repeats ad nauseam that his own life story legitimises his policy statements.12

Then there is Gove’s style. In the highly mediated world of modern politics, superficial qualities of appearance and personality achieve greater significance than substantial matters of policy and action. Every spin doctor’s obsession with televisual qualities has produced the triplets of David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, separable only by tie colour, as cloned figureheads of party ships sailing in the same Westminster straits.

Gove is different. He is not such an identikit figure. It is difficult to find a still image of him where he doesn’t look odd. His vocal tones are patrician but not southern posh. His rushed sentences rattle with perfect articulation but end with a hint of condescension. He comes across as the class know-all, eager to promote himself as a clever dick. TUC leader Frances O’Grady quipped that he was at least half-right about that!13 But too many critics only focus on Gove’s stylistic difference. An Ealing MP described him to me as a “meerkat on speed”. Funny yes—but inadequate.

Other naifs demand that Gove serve time in a normal classroom to cure him of his follies, as if an empirical deficit is his root problem. It isn’t. He knows exactly what he is doing. We should search for substance beyond mere style in defining what Gove really does represent, whilst acknowledging that his style is an element of popular irritation.

So what are the characteristics of Gove’s era as education secretary? The initial and obvious point is that there has been a fundamentally seamless transition between governmental policies since 1979. Tories and Labour alike have kowtowed to an increasing philistinism and neoliberalism in education policy. But as far as Gove represents a particular intensification of that continuity we can note four broad traits of his time in office—goading the left, “globaloney”, reactionary pedagogy and bogus autonomy.

Goading the left

Gove relishes goading the left as no previous secretary of state for education has—even the likes of Thatcher, Sir Keith Joseph and Sir Kenneth Baker. He is exceptionally belligerent in his persistent attack, caring little for accuracy or truth. He commented earlier this year:

Labour, under their current leadership, want to be the Downton Abbey party when it comes to educational opportunity. They think working class children should stick to the station in life they were born into—they should be happy to be recognised for being good with their hands and not presume to get above themselves.14

And he has fatuously insisted: “It’s the bigoted backward bankrupt ideology of a left wing establishment that perpetuates division and denies opportunity”.15 Gove especially uses a mantra of universalism of opportunity for the poor, both to attempt some veneer of nobility in his actions and to wind up the left. Yet his every action serves to ration the opportunity for poorer students to be safe and happy at school, do well, stay on or get to university.

In a bizarre speech Gove even quoted Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci in defence of his own policies.16 Gramsci was writing from a fascist prison cell about the possible ways in which workers could then organise to overthrow capitalism. By contrast Gove is desperately trying to entrench capitalist social relations in education.

He taunts the education unions as “happy with failure” and “enemies of promise”, and dismisses dissenting academics as “The Blob”.17 Globally recognised school improvement expert Andy Hargreaves was sufficiently provoked to tweet the slogan “Profs Not Toffs!” on hearing of this particular sortie by Gove’s hacks on his academic colleagues.

The same applies to his references to the achievements of schools in Finland in his 2010 White Paper.18 Finland’s educational excellence deserves global replication, but none of it resembles anything Gove has in mind for UK students. Its chief architect Pasi Sahlberg rails constantly against GERM—his acronym for the “global education reform movement”, of which Gove is an ardent disciple.19 Finland’s schools have no testing or private sector, excellent nutritional standards, small class sizes, all-through age groups from seven to 16, excellent kindergartens, plus highly trained and well paid staff unhindered by constant inspection. Children don’t start formal education until the age of seven. Theirs is a model we can all applaud, yet Gove has ratcheted up testing of our five year olds while their Finnish counterparts are playing in the woods.20

Gove’s imagination can carry him to ridiculous lengths. He recently claimed: “Classical Marxists support free schools because they embody the ideal of the soviet, a self-managing institution run by workers in the wider public interest”.21 This is rubbish. Free schools are not in any sense “self-managing” or “soviets” for their employees or students, and I know of no Marxist group or individual that makes such a claim.

Reflecting on his start in cabinet, Gove addressed the National College for Teaching and Leadership on 25 April 2013 insisting:

Our first legislative act as a government, the Academies Act, was designed to put teachers back in control, or more fully in charge, of their schools. The rapid growth in the number of academies (from just 203 when the coalition government was formed to 2,886 now) was not driven by ministerial fiat but by teachers, many in this room, taking control. Amazing things have been, and are being, achieved by the academies movement. But all politicians—and commentators—should realise those amazing things are being achieved by teachers in a teacher-led movement.22

How absurd was this claim by Gove?

The Academies Act was rushed into statute in record time in July 2010. So it definitely qualifies as a work of “ministerial fiat”—Gove’s own! To also claim the spread of academies as a “teacher-led movement”, “to put teachers back in control” is delusional. Thousands upon thousands of classroom teachers will be howling with laughter or rage at the suggestion that they have greater control over their work since the Academies Act was passed. But it was an unambiguous statement of intent that Gove was going to barnstorm through the door left ajar by his Labour predecessors, and try to irreversibly shift the balance further from public to private sector control of education.

A “Gove vs Reality” online video logs several key misleading claims.23 One of his favourite riffs is the lie that education unions believe poor kids cannot succeed because of their a priori social status. The Times Education Supplement of Friday 10 May 2013 regurgitated Gove’s speech to the Social Market Foundation as a sample of this: “On the left are people—including leaders of teaching unions—who argue that children from poorer homes are so economically and socially disadvantaged that their fates are fixed before they even reach school”.24 There is no evidence whatsoever for this accusation. It merely reflects Gove’s obsession with the triumph of his own will.

Nevertheless unions and others are right to challenge Gove’s simplistic faith in educational opportunity as the prime factor in social mobility. Rising levels of child poverty, youth unemployment, poor health and hopelessness are not created by teachers—or their union leaders! Terry Wrigley has delineated why and how poverty impinges on school achievement: “It is easy for politicians to scapegoat schools while their policies cast people into poverty”.25

With public services decimated, schools are having to do much more for children than just teach. Anecdotally I know of a primary school near Oxford where staff club together to buy pupils dry footwear, west London high schools where the breakfast clubs provide the only meals some kids ever get, and countless teachers who loan or give students resources paid for from their own pockets. Yet, as with US charter school propaganda, anyone pointing out the reality of child poverty is branded an excuser of failure. “No excuses!” chant neoliberals everywhere.

Some insight into Gove’s media profile comes from an unlikely source, the pilot of the 2003 “sexed-up” “dodgy dossier” on Saddam Hussein’s apparent stocks of weapons of mass destruction and No 10 press secretary of the day, Alastair Campbell. After appearing on a panel with Gove for BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions? in mid-December 2012, Campbell blogged that the programme demonstrated a crucial difference between “media opinion” and “public opinion”:

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.

He continued with reference to Gove’s persistent attacks on teachers: “Instead of supporting, he undermines. Instead of building up, he knocks down. Instead of valuing, he devalues. The 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”.26

So, like any good salesman, Gove will badger us relentlessly with his patter. We have to be equally unrelenting in challenging its accuracy and meaning.


A tributary of Gove’s propaganda torrent is his gushing generalisations about various global trends. He is interested in ostensible links between education data and employment outcomes, and a general doffing of his cap towards the inviolability of global markets. In another context geographer David Harvey calls this “globaloney”.

Gove cherry-picks facts and figures that suit his passing whims. References to the Far East, for example, nearly always compare education to data about jobs and economic progress without commenting on the labour laws, investment levels, population growth and robotic rote-learning schooling systems of, say, Singapore or South Korea. When such countries actually start to become more flexible and diverse, as in Singapore, we never hear about it from Gove.

Sweden is a favourite of Gove’s because it is where he lifted his idea of Free Schools from. One alarming example due to open in 2014 will be The Phoenix in Oldham. Its founders are ex-military personnel wooed by Gove’s “Troops Into Schools” appeal.27 Their website promises that they:

are still committed to creating a school that will combine all the best features of a traditional grammar school or an independent school with the military virtues of Courage, Discipline, Respect for Others, Integrity, Loyalty, and Selfless Commitment.28

The record of such schools in Sweden is poor, and ethnic segregation has increased. So again the spin about quality and choice from Gove is as hollow as a drum.

But most of Gove’s globaloney stems from the US. Much of his inspiration is based on actions by federal or state governments and philanthropists there. President Obama’s schools chief Arne Duncan spearheaded a facetious “Race To The Top” system of state competitions to win federal funding, now in its fourth year. Schools in all states have to win on a range of factors that teacher unions dub “Race To The Bottom” because of the rat-race focus on test scores based on low-level learning. Duncan has relied on demagogic city and state enforcers to get schools competing with each other for this money. There is an increasing imbalance between social justice and profiteering by commercial Charter organisations.

Gove has hosted UK visits by the ex-head of Washington DC schools Michelle Rhee. When interviewed on the BBC’s Daily Politics show in June 2012, Association of Teachers and Lecturers general secretary Mary Bousted neatly probed Rhee’s union bashing reputation and actual record as an administrator, especially her choice to take a network TV crew with her when she went in to sack a school’s head teacher. The head teacher’s humiliation was broadcast live.29

Such humiliation is far from exceptional. For radical Canadian academic Henry A Giroux it typifies:

The symbolic dimension of power—that is, the capacity of systems of meaning, signification, and diverse modes of communication to shield, strengthen, and normalise relations of domination through distortion, misrepresentation, and the use of totalising narratives. The hidden order of such politics lies not just in its absences but in its appeal to common sense and its claim to being objective and apolitical.30

Gove tries this on constantly, feigning a commoner’s outlook on school issues. Bousted exposed the fact that Washington DC students made negligible progress academically under Rhee’s leadership. Yet without a shred of irony or regret in her voice Rhee spoke of two kinds of school: “good schools” and “black schools”. This de facto racial descriptor may be shocking for UK readers but not in a nation where so many black boys are in prison. As P L Thomas puts it in a review of a work by author Michelle Alexander:

Just as mass incarceration from the war on drugs continues institutional racism once found in slavery and Jim Crow, education reform, especially the “no excuses” charter school movement, resurrects a separate but equal education system that is separate, but certainly isn’t equal. The masked racism of mass incarceration and education reform share many parallels…more disturbing is that current education reform also shares with the war on drugs evidence that the United States is committed to the new Jim Crow.

Alexander quotes Martin Luther King: “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity”.31

One of the tactics Gove has imported from the US has been to try to drive a wedge between teachers and their unions. There are countless instances of flattery directed at teachers, contrasting with Gove’s highly offensive attacks on union leaders and activists. “Flattery and battery” could be the name of this game.

Gove’s confidence in this ruse, however, comes from the real defeats that US teacher unions have faced in recent years, most bitterly in Wisconsin where Governor Scott Walker engineered a serious reduction of union rights and imposed increased pension and health service costs on public employees. Despite some very militant protests in 2011 Walker not only held on to implement his proposals but also survived a recall state election on the issues forced by Democrats and unions.32

Gove also remains very close to Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch’s plans for online, pre-packaged education interest him more than his historic press empire. In 2010 Murdoch bought US educational technology firm Wireless Generation for $360 million. As Gove told the Guardian in February 2012:

Murdoch’s vision was that he would digitise the world’s so far unexploited classrooms. He told investors: “We see a $500 billion sector in the US alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs.” He envisaged some of News Corporation’s large library of media content being beamed to pupils’ terminals.33

The package from Murdoch is ready to roll. It’s called Amplify.34 Pearson Education is ready too, as its Orwellian promotional video shows.35 So don’t be surprised if we see real developments in this direction as Gove seeks to stamp some indelible mark on UK educational history before the 2015 general election.36

Reactionary pedagogy

In contrast to this futuristic but dystopian ambition, Gove also wants to turn the clock back in terms of what is taught and how. It is a political necessity, demanded by rabid backbenchers. In this way Gove mediates within Tory ranks between the cabal led by Cameron and Osborne, and the wider Daily Mail readers constituting core Toryism.37 The appeal to nostalgia is a key move. For example, Gove sidelined the advisory panel set up in 2012 to redesign the history curriculum and drafted his own litany of names, dates, places and events that he views as core history knowledge. A clear critique of his cavalier disrespect for even establishment advisers came from Simon Schama at the 2013 Hay Festival. Schama rightly says, “The proposals were too focused on white males, with too much emphasis on ‘how Britain influenced the world’ rather than vice versa,” and, against Gove, argues, “History is meant to keep the powerful awake at night and keep them honest”.38

By late June 2013 Gove had revised his plans and conceded his excesses, a notable oppositional success, much credit for which goes to the Defend School History campaign. But we also need to expose Gove’s reactionary attitude to the actual practice of teaching—pedagogy. Arts educator Ken Robinson highlights another feature of Gove’s rhetoric:

We shouldn’t be surprised when a politician says one thing and does another. The important issue here is that when he talks about creativity, Gove seems to mean what he says but to misunderstand what he’s talking about. His views also suggest some serious misconceptions about teaching and learning in general.39

Gove wants more pedagogic monologue and much less dialogue in classrooms—in a speech in May 2013 he praised the current chief inspector of Ofsted:

Sir Michael Wilshaw…has also made luminously clear that the explicitly didactic and determinedly academic teaching methods which—shamefully—were considered poor teaching practice by Ofsted in the past are now welcome back… I have myself seen far too many lessons where teachers have felt they need to conform to an outdated model of how children learn. Teachers have felt they need to organise group work in which students talk to each other rather than learn from their teacher or texts. Worksheets, extracts and mind maps replace whole books, proper sources and compelling conversation. Young people on the verge of university study are treated as though they have the attention spans of infants.40

It seems that his few classroom visits justify Gove’s expertise in pedagogy. (And what an illuminating insult to infants this is—how can he account for the marvel of their acquisition of language if their attention is so poor?) Gove has clearly never considered the Confucian motto beloved of so many good teachers: “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.” “Active learning” is no cliché. It is the way we all learn best.

Arch-reactionary Melanie Phillips ran to Gove’s aid in the Daily Mail on 20 May claiming that, with enemies like the headteachers who had voted no confidence in him two days earlier, Gove must be doing the right thing:

Many teachers have no understanding of how so much teaching became—as Mr Gove himself so memorably commented in another context—”bonkeroony”. The cause is the doctrine—which has been the education orthodoxy for at least four decades—of equality of outcomes, that no one must be seen to fail and that all must have prizes instead.41

This represents yet more of the mendacious imputing of false views to opponents. Most teachers actually believe in equality of opportunity and diversity of outcomes—but Phillips and her ally have vested interests in spreading disinformation.

Bogus autonomy

Another interrelated theme of Gove-speak encompasses a drive to increase schools’ autonomy by decreasing governmental bureaucracy. This is the area where Gove most redefines the word hypocrite. What is actually going on is increased authoritarian centralisation.

When he brags that 2,886 schools are now academies, Gove actually means that these schools are run directly from Whitehall. Each statutory funding agreement to run any academy is signed off and monitored by a civil servant in Sanctuary Buildings, John Smith Street, Westminster—not the school’s local town hall. The Department for Education is now by far the single biggest provider of schools, the previous largest being Birmingham with around 450. Gove’s staff do little else now than administer academies.

Stephen J Ball insists that “it is a misrecognition to see these reform processes as simply a strategy of devolution and deregulation—they are processes of re-regulation, not the abandonment by the state of its controls over public services but the establishment of a new form of control”.42

Where Gove and his advisers were clever in framing the 2010 Academies Act was to make the process optional rather than mandatory. Schools can choose to opt out of local authority relationships. But having legislated in this way, his every subsequent act has exerted incredible pressures to academise, including extra transitional money, pressure from Tory-controlled local authorities and roving teams of pro-academy organisers paid exceedingly well for doing so—£1,000 per day with tax breaks.43

Above all, engineering “failure” is a crucial strategy. Gove has raised the bar for passing Ofsted inspections: “satisfactory” has now been redefined as “in need of improvement”, with consequent threats. He has set new “floor-targets” of SATs and GCSE scores to increase the number of schools “causing concern”, which will then be set upon by the academy sharks smelling blood. Impossible demands on young children are being set by Gove’s new primary National Curriculum.44

Gove does not actually want to give teachers and students more control over the “what” or “how” of teaching. But he is very interested in the notion of autonomy for companies to move in. He is interested in levering open profit opportunities, and is busy doing so. Here’s a case in point:

An academy running four schools is paying its US parent company £100,000 a year to use its patented global curriculum, which has been criticised by Ofsted for lacking a “local” focus. Aurora Academies Trust insists that the Paragon curriculum is transforming the fortunes of the primary schools in East Sussex. But unions and local Labour activists question whether the licensing deal represents the first step in plans to allow private companies to run schools for profit.45

Gove has also been running down teacher training courses in universities, handing the job over to schools and private companies. Foremost among the latter is Teach First, which throws graduates into the deep end of teaching with little classroom support and minimal pre-training. Believe it or not, they would actually like you to sponsor their teachers and their lessons as an additional profit source to the generous handouts from the Treasury.46

So what do we say and do about Gove?

It is crucial first of all to grasp the economic context because beneath all of his restless dilettantism Gove is a capitalist boot boy. In the face of the failure to recover the post-war general rates of profit, increasing the exploitation of labour is the only alternative for the capitalist class as a whole. Business has been on an investment strike despite generous quantitative easing until politicians reduce wage and benefit norms.

Since an increasing percentage of the total wage comes from either non-wage compensation or state provided benefits, that is where Tory raids must occur, cutting social benefit payments across the board and offloading non-wage variable capital costs such as public sector workers’ pension benefits onto individuals’ income. Therefore on his particular beat Gove is reducing the overall state cost of teachers’ income through both a pay freeze and a pay restructuring. This gives local managers greater freedom to depress pay progression in a coming era of decreasing central government funding and rapidly rising school rolls, using the whole panoply of workplace bullying—performance management, Ofsted, league tables and the bribery of performance related pay—to clamp it all into place. In order to speed up the political credibility of this project, Gove is also raiding the public purse to create new kinds of schools to conjure a fallacious, post facto proof that private is better than public when it comes to managing learning and quality assurance.

Secondly, Gove’s ideas and motives are not innovatory. They comprise old fashioned Thatcherism. Though much reflection at the time of her recent death focused on other matters, Thatcher’s education policies remain largely in place. Her introduction of SATs tests was a historic defeat for public education that we have yet to fully redress. Its impact is lastingly two-fold. SATs results provide the crude currency for league tables, which have motivated an ethos of competition between students, teachers, schools, parents and local authorities at the expense of cooperative, planned equality of provision. But more perniciously, SATs combined with performance related pay have prostituted the relationship between teacher and learner. Learners are now a teacher’s meal ticket. The primary curriculum has shrunk to the rote learning of core subjects.

But students being taught mainly in preparation for crude tests develop a catastrophic default passivity. They are expected to keep quiet, leave their social knowledge and expertise at the school gate and, at secondary level, compartmentalise learning according to exam subjects, not the underlying knowledge and skills. The servitude of too many young people, conned into thinking accreditation will work for them one day, is daily rooted in being taught rather than actively learning, being the objects of a process, not its subjects. Learners are being bred as passive consumers of knowledge, meaning and skills—not active producers.

Thatcher in her own time was viewed as excessively ideological, even mad, by critics. Jane Hardy notes:

There were those who saw Thatcher and her cronies as “a bunch of wild and fanatical ideologues who hijacked the Conservative Party”. They argued that Thatcher constituted a decisive break with policies that had characterised the long post-war boom and had been pursued by Labour and Conservative governments alike. But it is not the case that monetarism and the abandonment of so-called Keynesian economics were an innovation by Thatcher. These had already been put in place by her predecessors in the Labour government.47

The annoyingly frequent accusation against Gove that he is “ideologically” motivated is a bit like complaining that sand is dry or water wet. “Ideology” is politicians’ lingua franca and class warfare is what Tories do. We need to expose the logic and bias of his ideology, not bleat about its omnipresence or concede its ground rules. Even then we have to precisely identify that Gove’s bluster about academic rigour, core knowledge and high expectations is not only an intellectual game he plays with professionals but also the velvet glove within which the iron fist of monetarism manages to destroy the real life chances of most learners.

Gove’s curricular neoconservatism is designed to set schools up for failure and to justify the neoliberal advance of academies and free schools, staffed by cheaper workers. It is Gove’s economistic ideology that is crucial to focus on when he liberally speculates on epistemology, pedagogy or child development. This is also why the challenge to his attacks on workers’ pay, pensions and conditions is of prime importance and which, revealingly, provokes the most illiberal of responses from Gove in correspondence with unions. Thus Gove is fallible because he is elitist in both his educational and economic ideology.

The drive to institute an English version of the continental Baccalaureate approach to the secondary curriculum, which Gove has twisted to exclude the arts, languages and technology, and an obsession with students developing computer coding as opposed to exploiting new media’s creative or informational potential, is designed to achieve minority success and majority despair.

His rhetoric of universalism of opportunity and shrinking of bureaucracy is about as substantial as candyfloss. He is probably the only education minister on the planet who is actively seeking to suppress student levels of success by making it harder to get top school exam grades or afford to go to university. The slight dip in overall achievements represented by August 2013’s national GCSE results will please Gove enormously. So despite his wacky appearance, hectoring tone and misfit policies Gove is not mad. Nor is he an imposing foe. But Gove definitely knows what he is doing. He does absolutely the right things for his class—right wing things. Gove is bad—very, very, bad.

He has, so far, got a lot of his own way on academies, especially by getting secondary schools to convert without a sponsor in the hopes of some kind of autonomy. The myopia of this development is that, when he perceives a critical mass no longer in a relationship with their local authority, Gove will hand the lot over to a corporate shark to run.

So we must make major demands on Gove and his ilk. Any politician seriously concerned about improving schools could start by scrapping SATs, Ofsted and performance related pay and other machinery of social control masquerading as quality control. We must also challenge the myth of education being a reliable route to social mobility. No matter how many GCSEs and A levels are accrued in schools there are fewer and fewer well paid and secure jobs for them. Post-school education itself is now increasingly unaffordable.

As long as the labour movement acquiesces in neoliberalism in general, causing the destruction of public services, duty, space, buildings and bodies in particular, Gove may stay around far longer than he deserves. The pity is that in addition to Finland’s exemplary schooling system there is no shortage of global good practice and theory to draw on.48

Thirdly, it is vital to say loud and clear that Gove isn’t getting the same traction as Governor Scott Walker has in Wisconsin state or Arne Duncan gets across the federal US. His policies are breeding greater resistance. The two major teacher unions—the NUT and National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT)—launched a minimal campaign of industrial action short of strike action over pay, pension contribution rises and worsening conditions of work from September 2012. When Gove wrote to every head teacher advising them to dock the wages of any teachers actively pursuing this campaign as if they were on strike only one school (out of a possible 23,675) did this. Even there, in Newham, east London, a campaign of strike action with vocal parental support reversed the penalty and staff were reimbursed.

In addition, the NUT and NASUWT have an agreed strike plan for 2013 involving joint one-day regional strikes and a joint national strike in November. So Gove still has a fight on his hands, even if it has taken the school unions an awful long time to wage it and the bigger public sector unions have opted out of struggle for now. Two NUT one-day strikes in June and November 2011 won a technical concession from Gove on his pension restructuring worth £800 per annum for life that future retiring teachers would not otherwise be getting. So militancy does bring some results.

Strike action is not an end in itself. But it focuses the crisis for the public who expect their children to be getting on OK despite cuts to funding and harassment of staff. It is a political demand on society to wake up to the realities of what is being done badly with their money by vested interests. It also gives students a different lesson in life’s realities. It empowers rank and file teachers to take more control of their working lives and educates them about the roles of the police, media and politicians.

However, teachers are not just workers in an economistic sense. We are both in and against the state, expected to police young minds while wanting to liberate them. The NUT was founded 143 years ago to resist payment by results and played a major part in overturning that system. This has come full circle now that surveillance of our performance gets ever more crude and intolerable, as with most other workplaces. But we also model human social relations. We are expected to set standards for a future society of not just levels of academic achievement but also how we relate to each other as human beings. The Pavlovian term “Behaviour Management” is both a core Ofsted inspection criterion and the job description of many school managers. Any school or teacher can be damned as failing on this alone by Ofsted.

Not that we absent ourselves from intervention on what is sometimes called “the hidden curriculum”. It matters to us, for example, how ethnic minority, disabled and LGBT students and staff integrate with the wider body of the school. It also matters, for example, that despite whatever fluffy flora or fauna names their group tables are given, so-called “ability groups” of young children will teach them that they exist in a pecking order of failure, unless their teachers can subvert it with just alternatives.

Thus dissident resistance sets all kinds of alarm bells ringing in Tory minds about what a transgressive act striking is for supposedly dutiful head fixers to model. Tories actually seem to understand this facet of education more than their opponents, because representing a minority class they have to work harder at ideologically justifying the unjust fact of ruling class power. Not that Ed Miliband will be supporting teacher strikes either!

It is no wonder therefore, in such times of deep crisis and the struggles of global citizens to attain the slightest dignity and sustainability in their lives, that Gove strives to lock down dissident thought and action; that he prescribes increasingly authoritarian pedagogy, raids public wealth for private gain, prices ordinary students of all ages out of quality access. It should also come as no surprise that, like some of his international counterparts, he treats teachers as public enemy number one.

Gove must indeed go—but so should the rotten system he is in thrall to.


1: This article is based largely on my work as a National Union of Teachers (NUT) branch secretary and national executive committee member. Thanks to Jane Bassett, Jo Lang, Terry Wrigley, Chris Blakey, Paul McGarr and Alex Callinicos for their comments on its earlier drafts.

2: For example, “as Tories measure their leader up for his coffin the would-be heirs begin to flash their Iron Lady panties at the gallery. None more so than the Man With The Face Of A Startled Haddock (Michael Gove) who aims for the blue-rinse brigade’s G-spot by venting spleen at two of their most detested targets: Europeans and teachers”-Reade, 2013

3: IPSOS-Mori, 2013, www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3133/Politicians-trusted-less-than-estate-agents-bankers-and-journalists.aspx

4: A short history of the NUT is at: www.teachers.org.uk/node/8515#1. See Seifert, 1987, for a detailed description of militancy from 1896 to 1987.

5: Roberts, 2013.

6: By 2011 Barber had progressed (complete with knighthood) to a similar role for the world’s biggest private edu-business corporation, Pearson Education.

7: Palmer, 2007.

8: http://www.teachersolidarity.com/home

9: Ball, 2012.

10: Sylvester and Thomson, 2013.

11: Johnson, 2010.

12: For example when interviewed on The Andrew Marr Show on BBC 1, Sunday 12 May 2013.

13: In a speech to NUT conference on 1 April 2013.

14: Paton, 2013.

15: Gove, 2012.

16: Gove 2013a

17: Gove, 2013b.

18: In particular see Gove’s Foreword to this wish-list document, which promises all kinds of changes that have never been followed through: Department for Education, 2010.

19: Sahlberg, 2010.

20: The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has published triennial data on the attainment of 15 year old school students in reading, maths and science per nation since 1997, known as its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Go to www.oecd.org/pisa/aboutpisa/

21: Gove, 2013e. This was part of a scattergun assertion that free schools have support from across the whole UK political spectrum, yet referred to no evidence whatsoever to substantiate his claims apart from a partial reading of initial Ofsted reports on 24 schools. The plain truth is that in the case of the new schools needed to cope with rising birth rates local authorities have no legal option from Whitehall other than to consent to these being opened as free schools or academies.

22: www.gov.uk/government/speeches/michael-gove-speech-to-teachers-and-headteachers-at-the-national-college-for-teaching-and-leadership

23: Go to www.goveversusreality.com

24: Gove, 2013d

25: Wrigley, 2013; Smyth and Wrigley, 2013.

26: www.alastaircampbell.org/blog/2012/12/15/the-media-love-michael-gove-but-the-any-questions-audience-was-not-so-gullible/

27: Levy, 2013.

28: http://phoenixfreeschool.org.uk

29: www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-18592185

30: Giroux, 2012, p14.

31: Alexander, 2012, reviewed here in Thomas, 2013.

32: Sustar, 2012, offers a sober assessment of Walker’s success.

33: Leigh, 2012.

34: www.amplify.com/company

35: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZpQCEgEfRyc

36: Anyone wanting to monitor an ongoing critique of US schools policy should at least keep an eye on Diane Ravitch’s blog: dianeravitch.net; and the website of the Rethinking Schools collective: www.rethinkingschools.org

37: His symbolic function parallels to some extent that of John Prescott as Tony Blair’s deputy.

38: Furness, 2013.

39: Robinson, 2013. For anyone wanting to know what a wholly superior approach to education than Gove’s might be see Robinson’s wonderful exposition here:

40: Gove, 2013c

41: Phillips, 2013.

42: Ball, 2013, p50.

43: Holehouse, 2013.

44: See the “Too Much too Young” letter from 100 education academics, http://tinyurl.com/btkqezh, also www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-23243985

45: Doward, 2013.

46: https://everychildcan.teachfirst.org.uk/sponsor-lesson

47: Hardy, 2013.

48: See Fielding and Moss, 2011, Sahlberg, 2010, or Wrigley, 2006, for example.


Alexander, Michelle, 2012, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press).

Ball, Stephen, 2012, Global Education Inc. (Routledge).

Ball, Stephen, 2013, The Education Debate: 2nd Edition, (Policy Press).

Department for Education, 2010, “The Importance of Teaching: The Schools White Paper 2010”, www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/175429/CM-7980.pdf

Doward, Jamie, 2013, “Sussex academy pays £100,000 to use ‘patented’ US school curriculum”, Guardian (18 May 2013), www.theguardian.com/education/2013/may/18/academy-pays-for-us-curriculum

Fielding, Michael, and Peter Moss, 2011, Radical Education and the Common School: A Democratic Alternative (Routledge)

Furness, Hannah, 2013, “Hay Festival 2013: Don’t sign up to Gove’s insulting curriculum, Schama urges”, Telegraph (30 May 2013), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/hay-festival/10090287/Hay-Festival-2013-Dont-sign-up-to-Goves-insulting-curriculum-Schama-urges.html

Giroux, Henri, 2012, Education and the Crisis of Public Values (Peter Lang).

Gove, Michael, 2012, “Michael Gove speech on academies” (4 January 2012), www.gov.uk/government/speeches/michael-gove-speech-on-academies

Gove, Michael, 2013a, “The Progressive Betrayal”, Speech to the Social Market Foundation, (5 February 2013), www.smf.co.uk/media/news/michael-gove-speaks-smf/

Gove, Michael, 2013b, “I refuse to surrender to the Marxist teachers hell-bent on destroying our schools”, Daily Mail (23 March 2013), http://tinyurl.com/q76wecn

Gove, Michael, 2013c, “What does it mean to be an educated person?” (9 May 2013),

Gove, Michael, 2013d, “Teachers are doing it for themselves. Good”, Times Education Supplement, (10 May 2013), www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6333661

Gove, Michael, 2013e, “Free schools are a success—but will Ed Miliband dare admit it?”, Guardian (31 July 2013), www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jul/31/free-schools-success-ed-miliband-admit

Hardy, Jane, 2013, “Thatcher’s Economic Legacy”, Socialist Review (May 2013),

Holehouse, Matthew, 2013, “Tax questions for Michael Gove’s £1,000-a-day advisers”, Telegraph (24 April 2013 ), www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10014723/Tax-questions-for-Michael-Goves-1000-a-day-advisers.html

Johnson, Simon, 2010, “Teenage Michael Gove Supported Labour”, Telegraph (16 May 2010), www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/7730573/Teenage-Michael-Gove-supported-Labour.html

Leigh, David, 2012, “The schools crusade that links Michael Gove to Rupert Murdoch”, Guardian (27 February 2012), www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/feb/26/schools-crusade-gove-murdoch

Levy, Andrew, 2013, “I want more army-style free schools that instil confidence and self-discipline, says Gove”, Daily Mail (22 May 2013), www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2329137/Troops-classroom-Britains-military-style-free-school-gets-ahead.html#ixzz2e6uOUduA

Palmer, Sue, 2007, Toxic Childhood: How The Modern World Is Damaging Our Children and What We Can Do About It (Orion).

Paton, Graeme, 2013, “Michael Gove hits out at Downton Abbey-style education”, Telegraph (5 February 2013), www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/9850916/Michael-Gove-hits-out-at-Downton-Abbey-style-education.html

Phillips, Melanie, 2013, “The more abuse Mr Gove gets from the teachers, the more you know he’s right”, Daily Mail (20 May 2013), http://tinyurl.com/qaf9uux

Reade, Brian, 2013 “Michael Gove teaches us right is wrong with his crude concoction of spin and lies on education”, Mirror (16 May 2013), www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/brian-reade-michael-gove-teaches-1891485

Robinson, Ken, 2013, “To encourage creativity, Mr Gove, you must first understand what it is”, Guardian (17 May 2013), www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/17/to-encourage-creativity-mr-gove-understand

Roberts, Michael, 2013, “Thatcher: there was no alternative”, (9 April 2013), http://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2013/04/09/thatcher-there-was-no-alternative/

Sahlberg, Pasi, 2010, Finnish Lessons: What Can The World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? (Teachers College Press).

Seifert, Roger, 1987, Teacher Militancy: A History of Teacher Strikes 18961987 (Falmer Press).

Smyth, John, and Terry Wrigley, 2013, Living On The Edge: Rethinking Poverty, Class and Schooling (Peter Lang).

Sustar, Lee, 2012, “The Lessons of Wisconsin” (21 June 2012), www.socialistworker.org/2012/06/21/the-lessons-of-wisconsin

Sylvester, Rachel, and Alice Thomson, 2013, “’Eton is dedicated to public service’, says No 10 adviser Jesse Norman”, Times, (27 April 2013), http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/politics/article3750208.ece

Thomas, P L, 2013, “Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era”, Truthout (17 May 2013), http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/16406-education-reform-in-the-new-jim-crow-era

Wrigley, Terry, 2006, Another School Is Possible (Bookmarks).

Wrigley, Terry, 2013, “Poverty, Class and Education”, Education For Liberation: Journal of The Socialist Teachers Alliance, issue 7 (available by post from 1, Shrubland Road, London E17 7QH).