Gove and Laws scrap it out on front pages over sacking of Ofsted head. Here’s what the row is all about.

Today’s newspaper front pages are full of the scrap taking place at the heart of the Department for Education between Conservative secretary of state Michael Gove and Lib Dem schools minister David Laws:

gove laws - papers

  • Ofsted row: Lib Dems furious at Conservative plan to ‘politicise’ classrooms (Independent on Sunday)
  • Lib Dems savage Gove over sacked schools boss (The Sunday Times, £)
  • Angry Lib Dems accuse Michael Gove of bid to politicise education (Observer)
  • Why is there a row?

    On Friday night, The Independent broke the news that Baroness (Sally) Morgan, the Labour peer appointed by Michael Gove as Chair of schools inspectorate Ofsted since 2011, is being sacked. (Technically her contract’s not being renewed, but as she wants to continue in the role it amounts to the same thing.) Baroness Morgan popped up on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme on Saturday morning arguing her despatch is politically motivated: “There is an absolutely determined effort from Number 10 that Conservative supporters will be appointed to public bodies.”

    Isn’t this something all governments do? Push their favourites into positions of power?

    Yes, ‘fraid so. The irony of Labour peer Baroness Morgan’s complaint hasn’t been lost on many. Labour did it for years, as Fraser Nelson has graphically highlighted in The Spectator – “Exhibit A is the egregious Chris Smith, a former Labour Culture Secretary who has somehow ended up chairing the Environment Agency” – with more than half of all quango appointees who declare political activity aligned to Labour.

    So why do the Lib Dems have a problem with it?

    Well, there’s the principle – not just that public appointments should be made on the basis of merit, but also that in a Coalition Government big decisions (such as sacking the head of the schools inspectorate) should be discussed first. It’s clear from the briefing given to the papers that David Laws was not parti pris to Michael Gove’s sacking of Baroness Morgan. Here’s The Observer:

    A source close to Laws issued a statement expressing the minister’s fury at Gove’s move and making clear that the Lib Dems would do all in their power to block actions that they believed would jeopardise Ofsted’s independence.

    The source said: “David is absolutely furious at the blatant attempts by the Tories to politicise Ofsted. The decision to get rid of Sally Morgan had absolutely nothing to do with her abilities, or even education policy, and everything to do with Michael Gove’s desire to get his own people on board.

    “David Laws is absolutely determined not to let Michael undermine the independence of this vital part of the education system.

    “David’s primary concern now is not to let Conservative game-playing destabilise Ofsted and he’ll be working closely with them as schools minister to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

    What will happen next?

    The post will be advertised and will be open to anyone to apply, including Conservative donor Theodore Agnew, who it’s rumoured is Michael Gove’s favoured candidate. Gove announced on BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show this morning that it was highly likely Paul Marshall – a non-executive director at the Department for Education, chair of ARK academy schools and former Lib Dem donor who chairs liberal think-tank CentreForum – would be likely to chair the appointments panel for Baroness Morgan’s successor. Whether that announcement was in response to the row or was his intention all along, I don’t know.

    Is this row about more than just Sally Morgan’s dismissal?

    Yes, it is. For a start, the Lib Dem leadership has long been suspicious of Michael Gove’s agenda, dating back (at least) to his impromptu announcement in June 2012 that he wanted to bring back O-levels. Nick Clegg, who was at a conference in Brazil, issued a swift repudiation (“self-evidently not policy that has been discussed or agreed within the coalition”). Compromise was eventually reached, but tensions remained. It’s no coincidence, though, that trusted lieutenant David Laws was controversially drafted in by Clegg as the Lib Dem schools minister shortly after, as his eyes and ears in the department.

    You’re saying the row is about who runs the education department, then?

    In part. There’s another aspect, too. Michael Gove is highly regarded in some Conservative circles – not just for his policies on free schools and academies, but also for his hardline advocacy of overseas intervention (witness his emotional outburst on the night of the Syria vote, shouting “You’re a disgrace!” at MPs who’d voted against military action) and his pro-Murdoch / pro-free speech (delete according to taste) views at the Leveson inquiry. If he wasn’t so publicly insistent that he didn’t want to become Conservative leader, he would probably be favourite to succeed David Cameron. But his ratings among the public at large are much less favourable, and both Lib Dem and Labour strategists have recognised that he is a weak link among voters in what could be termed the ‘progressive centre’.

    So it’s about politics, then, not education?

    Good luck if you think you can keep the two separate. In reality, there’s a high degree of consensus between Gove, Laws and Labour’s Tristram Hunt on school structures (academies, free schools and the like). Which leaves them picking fights on issues like the curriculum, exams, teaching qualifications, and so on. And who gets to be head of Ofsted.

    * Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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    • Call me cynical, but I can’t help suspecting this has a lot to do with ‘differentiating’ the Lib Dems from the Tories ahead of the election. If so, I think the choice of the issue on which to take a stand is very poor – this kind of ‘Westminster bubble’ squabble isn’t going to resonate with the voters, and I can’t see that there’s much there for even the broadsheet papers to get their teeth into.

    • So, what is David Laws going to DO about it apart being angry?

    • Judging from the number of comments here, the issue doesn’t seem to resonate very much even with LDV readers.

    • Tony Greaves 2nd Feb '14 - 3:52pm

      An odd thing is that Sally Morgan has had to be given a three month extension when they decided not to extend her term of office. Presumably Gove and she had been expecting she would get another term, or why do it all so late?

      Still, the row probably means that Theodore Agnew will not now be shooed into the job. (Though with Paul Marshall apparently in charge, who knows what may happen).

      Another curious thing is that it allows David Laws, for once, to shine in his armour as a goody! And another – that Sally Morgan gets sympathy from Liberal Democrats!


    • Mack (Not a Lib Dem) 2nd Feb '14 - 4:33pm

      Wonderfully entertaining to watch Michael Gove on the Marr show and listen to his lavish encomium for Sally Morgan; then to hear him justifying her sacking on the grounds that when a person has been in post for a few years they need to be replaced by someone who has fresh eyes and can bring a new perspective to the job. Presumably this equally applies to Education Secretaries?

    • jedibeeftrix 2nd Feb '14 - 5:58pm

      how to keep lib-dem’s quiescent; say nasty things about gove:


    • Eddie Sammon 2nd Feb '14 - 7:14pm

      This is good stuff. We need to get teachers on board for any reforms and Michael Gove appears to have failed completely.

    • Stephen Donnelly 2nd Feb '14 - 10:38pm

      Whatever next……….we may see Normal Lamb taking a wider (within is sphere he is doing a good job) interest in the NHS reforms and curbing the excesses of Mr. Hunt.

    • I think there was a real frustration with ofsted by nearly everyone involved in education policy. I believe this was a particularly clumsy shot across its bows to kowtow to the Government’s plans going into the election, and stop undermiing them by er.. Doing their job.

    • I forgot to add one more thing. There is an underlying risk now that there will be a total lack of confidence in the system for public appointments almost as one has emerged in the honours system.

      There is a problem here for all parties to be sensitive to. After all, it is an erosion of the legitimacy to govern. Conferring privileges onto your donors is seen as rewarding your own, and to my mind, just grubby politics.

    • People should carefully consider this pointer from Tony —
      Tony Greaves 2nd Feb ’14 – 3:52pm
      …. … curious thing is that it allows David Laws, for once, to shine in his armour as a goody! And another – that Sally Morgan gets sympathy from Liberal Democrats!

      If people do not immediately remember Sally Morgan, they might remember Southern Cross and the care home scandal of a couple of years ago.
      Closer inspection of this story also brings to light a statement by Gove that her replacement would be appointed by some committee chaired by Paul Marshall.
      If people do not remember Paul Marshall he was the co-editor of a book ten years ago. The other co-editor was called Laws. The book was called The Orange Book.
      Want to know more – it is all public knowledge you just need to look beyond the immediate media hype. I recommend Google or the interesting website Powerbase.

    • Sally Morgan former political secretary to Blair, former £53,000 pa director of Southern Cross, enthusiast for academies replacing traditional schools, and one or two other roles in addition to Ofsted.

    • Given Paul Marshall is the senior Non-Executive Director on the Board of Ofstead isn’t what this row has highlighted is that whatever political party members of Ofsted board belong to or not they are all committted to making sure that our democratically elected councils don’t have a role in education.

    • Education is, and has always been, a ‘political’ subject, in that it is subject to the whole subject of ‘values’. We might wish that it could be nice and neutral, but the reality is that the content and the delivery of education is, and is bound to be, political in character. All sorts of people – parents, teachers, employers, politicians local and national – want to influence what is taught, by whom and how. What matters is that the inter-action of these various influences should be transparent and that, over a period of time, the outcomes should be fairly assessed according to clear criteria.
      The particular role of the Chair of Ofsted is just part of the jigsaw.

      Paul King, Chesterfield

    • We need to get teachers on board for any reforms

      Do we? Surely you can’t be implying that in all cases the people operating the systems being reformed should have a veto over what reforms are implemented? that clearly can’t work: the people operating the systems have an obvious vested interest in resisting reforms.

      If you want to see the mess of compromise that happens when you decide you have to get the people being reformed on board for any reforms, well, just look at the House of Lords.

    • Is this the only way to see the ‘process’ of education, as that of competing interests?

      It’s how everything works, though, isn’t it? To think otherwise is naive dreaming.

      Schools are workplaces, just like factories, local councils, IT firms, and call centres. And all workplaces have differing groups with conflicting interests: the interests of customers are not the same as the interests of workers, the interests of management are different from both. That’s why there are trades unions in some workplaces, to look out for the interests of their members against the interests of customers and management.

      Why would you think schools were any different? There is no special aura that surrounds schools and makes them magically different to other places of work. There is no fairy dust that makes teacher’s unions somehow not like other trades unions — indeed there wouldn’t be much point in them if they weren’t in the business of protecting their members’ interests against the competing interests of, for example, pupils, parents, and management.

      If you cling to the idea that education is some kind of prelapsarian wonderland of co-operation, somehow immune from the issues that arise in every other workplace because teachers are some kind of special human beings who do not have interests in the way other human beings do but exist solely and selflessly to further the education of the pupils, then honestly you will never get anywhere.

    • The point is that teachers are not against Gove’s reforms because they, through their unions, do not like change

      The teachers currently in the system are clearly the ones benefiting form the system, and therefore it is clearly in their interests for the system to continue roughly as it does.

      For instance, it is clearly in the interests of those who have a teaching qualification that such a qualification remains a necessary requirement for a teaching job, as it reduces potential competition, just like it was clearly in the interests of barristers that advocacy not be opened up to solicitors.

      Now, that doesn’t mean that allowing ‘unqualified teachers’ is necessarily a good thing, or a bad thing, but it is a fact that it is against the interests of current teachers.

      And so it is clearly true that the people currently operating the system which is being reformed, cannot be granted a veto over any reforms, as they have a clear conflict of interest (if barristers had been given a veto over reforms, we would never have seen solicitor-advocates).

      None of this is supposed to be about any particular reforms, which must be judged on their own merits. It’s just saying that teachers don’t need to be ‘on board’ with reforms any more than barristers needed to be ‘on board’ with the reforms that gave us solicitor-advocates.

      Teachers are not magic, and their interests and the interests of the pupils do not necessary coincide. An example: imagine (just imagine!) a system where teachers’ performance, and therefore pay and promotion, was entirely judged on the proportion of their pupils who gained a ‘C’ grade or above. Now, this means it is in the teacher’s interest to concentrate most effort on pupils heading for a ‘D’ but who can be coaxed into a ‘C’, and neglect both those who are heading for a ‘B’ but could with some extra teaching be pushed into an ‘A’, and those who will never get anything higher than a ‘D’ but without a lot of teaching effort will get an ‘E’.

      In this case the teacher’s interests are clearly in conflict with the interests of the pupils who get ‘B’s and ‘E’s because the teacher, entirely rationally, is spending all their time with the pupils on the ‘C’/’D’ boundary.

      I don’t understand what’s hard about this. Teachers have their interests, and they will resist reforms which threaten those interests even if the reforms would make things better for pupils. Of course they will: so would you and so would I, and so would everyone. That’s why no one group with a stake in the system must be ‘got on board’ with reforms: not teachers, not school management, not pupils, not parents.

    • Peter Watson 3rd Feb '14 - 11:35pm

      Whilst I understand your point that teachers have vested interests, I can’t agree with your conclusion that “no one group with a stake in the system must be ‘got on board’ with reforms: not teachers, not school management, not pupils, not parents.” Leaving aside the practicality that reform is easier if those involved can be persuaded that change is good rather than coerced into accepting it, all of those people are voters (or future voters) who elect the politicians (who also have “a stake in the system”), so who would be qualified to reform the system?

    • Eddie Sammon 3rd Feb '14 - 11:58pm

      Just seen my comment about teachers picked up by Roy. OK, maybe we don’t need to get them on board, but I would want at least neutrality with a group as important as teachers.

    • @ Roy:>>If you want to see the mess of compromise that happens when you decide you have to get the people being reformed on board for any reforms, well, just look at the House of Lords.

      I’m not sure the analogy is a good one. No-one wants schools abolished…

    • Mike Smithson highlights a striking YouGov finding – since March 2010 Lib Dem support among teachers has decreased from 27% to 8%. That’s an even bigger drop than for Tory support among teachers, which has decreased from 33% to 16%:

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