Michael Gove: The Case for the Defence. And also the Case for the Prosecution.

Michael GoveUnlike most Lib Dems, I am not a Gove-hater. But nor do I share the adulation those one on the Right bestow upon him. The man we must now call the former Education secretary was more complex than his critics allowed and more flawed than his fans admitted.

No-one should doubt Michael Gove’s passion for schools reform, nor his sincerity. For him it is much more than political: it is also personal. Two men have shaped much of the education agenda in the last 15 years: Gove and Labour’s Andrew Adonis, the father of the academies programme. Both were adopted at birth; both feel education gave them everything they have; both are driven, restless individuals.

Here is my case in defence of Michael Gove, one I think Lib Dems should think twice about before jerking their knee to kick it into touch.

First, he has been a passionate advocate for social mobility, believing there is nothing about a child’s background that means it’s impossible for them to achieve in life what they wanted – if they are given the right opportunities. To that end, he urged a relentless focus on standards and a more academic curriculum so that not only the brightest (who are disproportionately from wealthier backgrounds) would get the grades they need for whatever they want to achieve in later life, whether in work or further study. He was, in my view, right to do so (even if, like most Tories, he under-estimates the need to achieve broader social equality for those opportunities to become the norm). But equally he was wrong to urge the resuscitation of O-levels – dividing children aged 14 into the academic and non-academic – a reform which flew in the face of the educational equality he so often espoused. It’s just that kind of schizophrenic approach to policy-making which was leaped on by critics as proof of his baleful influence on schools.

Secondly, his was the government department which, above all others, has stressed the importance of evidence in formulating policy. It was Gove, after all, who (at the urging of his special adviser Dominic Cummings) brought in Bad Science writer and academic Ben Goldacre to head up a major report on how the Department for Education could help make teaching a truly evidence-based profession. Critics will say this evidence didn’t always inform the policies Gove pursued – true enough in some cases – but the legacy of the Goldacre report will live on and has already inspired grassroots teaching movements such as ResearchED to organise themselves as professionals, rather than rely on the Department for Education. That’s the kind of development liberals should welcome, and in doing so recognise Gove’s contribution to the environment in which it has happened.

Thirdly, Gove has, almost single-handedly, cured the Conservatives of their obsession with grammar schools (and to a lesser extent private schools), those enemies of educational equality. Let’s remember why he was appointed to the role of shadow education secretary in the first place in 2007 – David Cameron was forced to shuffle David Willetts out because Willetts (himself the product of a grammar school) had made a speech strongly defending the Conservative policy of not re-introducing grammar schools. The Tory grassroots exploded, roared on by the Telegraph and Mail. Yet when was the last time you heard a senior Conservative assert that more and new grammar schools are in any way an answer to social mobility? Whatever you think about his free schools – which have their Lib Dem champions such as David Boyle – Gove has rescued the Tories from their hopeless 1950s’ nostalgia. As the Labour-supporting teacher-blogger Andrew Old puts it:

The one place where Gove may have made permanent change is in the Conservative Party. There used to be little interest in state education there, beyond ideas about increasing selection, rooting out leftist influence and reducing the power of local authorities. Gove has made it possible for a Conservative politician to espouse the comprehensive principle and argue over the education of the worst off.

There rests the case for the defence.

There is also, of course, a strong case to be made for the prosecution. I’ll make it briefly here; others will, I have no doubt, add to it in the comments below-the-line.

The academisation of schools has torn asunder local education authorities – some of which were very good, some not, and many inbetween – with nothing to put in their place. No local accountability, nothing standing between thousands of schools and the Men in the Ministry. Mass centralisation combined with 24,000 atomised schools are not strong foundations on which to build a successful system.

Add to that the skewed preferential funding arrangements for free schools at a time when the education budget is under strain; the odd belief that teachers shouldn’t be professionally qualified; his mis-judged over-reaction (and worrying politicisation of Ofsted) to the so-called Trojan Horse affair; his tendency to lump together and rub up the wrong way even his constructive critics; and the charge-sheet starts to add up.

Michael Gove’s record is a mixed one: some genuine achievements mixed with some major errors. His fans see only the former, his critics only the latter. There should be space to acknowledge both.

* 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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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Alisdair McGregor 16th Jul '14 - 3:37pm

    The problem I have with Gove is that while the overall framework of free schools is a decent idea – and fairly in line with LibDem policy – as I’ve said on LDV in the past (here: https://www.libdemvoice.org/gove-29128.html & here: https://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-42-30273.html), the curriculum that has been hung upon that framework is a dreadful one.

    Thankfully, this means that there shouldn’t be a need to redo the underlying framework on schools now Gove is gone (or if, in a future Coalition, we are leading the Ministry of Education), but it does mean we have to be ready to make proposals on the curriculum – especially, with the Tories new choice of Education Minister, on Sex Education & Sexual Health.

  • One thing I never really got … if freedom to employ unqualified staff and to deviate from the national curriculum are such brilliant ideas, why not allow all schools that freedom? Or is the idea to leave non-free schools hobbled so that they can sink into special measures then be resurrected as free schools?

  • Gove’s free schools are just a variation on America’s Charter school movement. The real aim is to privatise education. That is the long term agenda. The right wants schools to be able to make a profit and wants them run by their rich business chums in the City. Gove is a former employee and staunch defender of Rupert Murdoch. And Murdoch is a strong supporter of the Charter school movement. He pointed out last year that there was as much as $500 billion to be made out of education in the US. And has funded many campaigns at a local level for politicians who support his agenda.

    Privatisation is just one part of the agenda. Destroying teachers unions is another. Now big business wants to make money out of education they don’t want teachers paid so well or with so many rights. Hence the numerous law suits funded by 1%s in the US courts to break the unions. The Americans have a word for all this public money flowing into the pockets of the rich. It’s called the GRIfT. And all the usual grifters have got their snouts in the trough. No surprise to see Murdoch involved. (Although you would think he would not approve of taking all that tax payers money seeing how he hates welfare for the poor) even the Bush family is in on the Grift . With GW Bush’s brothers behind companies that provide “educational aides”

    All of this is what is being created slowly by Gove. Of course he can’t get it it all done in one go. It is a piece by piece process. The worst part is there is no evidence that it even works. But once the corporations get involved so does the corruption. for example in Indiana where the politicians were all on board with the Charter schools they started hiding the results when it was clearly showing that pupils were not improving. The priority was to protect the corporations running the schools and who funded the politicians. And of course we are already seeing the kind of crazy claptrap taught in religious schools funded with tax payers money.

    And before you all say Ah but Blair started all this ; please remember who backed Blair? Namely Murdoch. The idea that Blair is a lefty labourite I think been well and truly debunked. Lib Dms can support what they want but they should make clear to teachers and people in education what their policies are.

  • I have no issues with Gove’s sincerity or his commitment. What I have issues with is his utter inability to not cherry-pick evidence. Anything that fits his biases is praised to the high heavens and anything that doesn’t is denigrated. The man is a fanatic who refuses to listen to reason; this is of course the SOURCE of his commitment and sincerity, as well as his flaws.

  • Tony Greaves 16th Jul '14 - 4:48pm

    Sally is very right.

    As for the lead article – Gove – evidence based? Pull the other one.

    As for social mobility. Promoting social mobility for more than a tiny minority in an ever more unequal society is a chimera. Greater social mobility will come if and when we start to take the level of economic and social inequality more seriously.


  • Jenny Barnes 16th Jul '14 - 5:04pm
  • David Evershed 16th Jul '14 - 5:18pm

    International comparisons of educational attainment show Britain doing poorly compared with countries like Hong Kong, Finland or South Korea.

    It is accepted by most people that it has suited teachers and politicians to have inflation of exam results in the UK so they justify their performance. But this lets down children.

    Gove has faced up to our failures and has implemented programmes to put them tight. Not everything will work but at least we are no longer in denial about the general low standard of education. in the UK compared with other countries.

  • Julian Critchley 16th Jul '14 - 5:21pm

    Sally and Jenny Barnes are correct, and nobody should be praising Gove for anything until they’ve fully understood the murky links between large Tory Party donors, and hundreds of millions of pounds of school budgets in the academy chains they control. There is also now a very significant amount of evidence that Gove destroyed the independence of Ofsted in order to further his privatisation agenda in dozens of cases of schools being forced into academy chains against the wishes of their parents, governors and staff.

    However, others can deal with that. I want to take issue with something Stephen makes a big deal about. Gove is often lauded on the right (of the LibDems, as well as the Tories) as being a man “passionate about education”, “committed to raising standards”, “determined to provide the best education for our children” etc etc.

    It’s a really good rule in politics that if you take a statement and reverse it, and the reverse is clearly nonsense, then what you have there is vacuous, meaningless soundbites : the political equivalent of saying “I am passionately in favour of not killing innocent children.”

    Try it with all those statements about Gove which his right-wing supporters are currently pumping out. Have you ever met a politician – or anyone, for that matter – of any political hue, who has said “I don’t give a stuff about education”, or “I’m committed to lowering standards”, or “I’m determined to provide a worse education for our children” ?

    No, of course not. All that acreage of guff about Gove’s ideals and passions and whatnot is designed, and has always been designed, to achieve two goals :

    1) To paint his opponents as people who do not support raising standards and better life chances for children. After all, if Gove says he’s for those things, then anyone who opposes his policy must be against them, right ? “Enemies of Promise”, perhaps ? Or as he famously said only last week : “outstanding teachers agree with me, only bad ones disagree”. This is immature slapstick politics, and I think it’s tragic that so many otherwise intelligent political commentators have fallen for it. The clue is that if an entire profession, of half a million people, is united in opposition to what one man is doing, and if the only people in that profession willing to utter even half-hearted endorsements are those who have benefitted from his patronage, then the solo guy is wrong.

    2) To obscure the real agenda. Behind the verbiage of raising standards, and manufactured fights with teachers, the real agenda is, was and always has been, the privatisation of the education system. That’s what the academy chains are intended to be, it’s what Multi-Academy trusts are intended to be. Local democracy and accountability has been stripped away, and our schools delivered into the hands of unaccountable rich men.


  • An appaling high % of children leave school without the basic skills necasary to get on in life. This is particularly a problem for the white working class – we should look at anything which can help adress thst problem. If you want to seecwhat happens when teachers set the agenda look at Wales.

    @sally given that the Us spending on education was just over $600bn a couple of years ago i doubt Murdoch said there was $500bn a year to be made out of it.

  • Helen Tedcastle 16th Jul '14 - 6:15pm

    @ David Evershed:
    “International comparisons of educational attainment show Britain doing poorly compared with countries like Hong Kong, Finland or South Korea.”

    Which ones are you referring to – PISA which takes a snapshot view of a random sample of children or Timms, which tracks children through time? Of course Gove always press released PISA not Timms, while continuing to borrow ideas from the USA, one of the worst performing countries in every league table measure. You pay your money – you choose the league table best suited to your neo-con agenda.

    Finland is at the top of every European league table – Gove never looked at it because they do not have a national curriculum or base their learning on frequent national testing, nor do they have performance pay by test results for teachers.

    “It is accepted by most people that it has suited teachers and politicians to have inflation of exam results in the UK so they justify their performance. But this lets down children.”

    No it is not. The grade inflation – if it happened at all – occurred because of competing and deregulated exam boards – introduced by new Labour – nothing to do with teachers at all.

    ” Gove has faced up to our failures and has implemented programmes to put them tight.”

    Now this is becoming silly. Gove was a disaster according to most sensible people (right-wing Conservatives/Toby Young) and the only reason he wasn’t sacked, was because he’s Dave’s friend and is on the inside track in the Murdoch press.

  • Helen Tedcastle 16th Jul '14 - 6:17pm

    Correction to previous comment: (so not right-wing Conservatives/Toby Young)

  • Eddie Sammon 16th Jul '14 - 6:33pm

    First of all I think the article shows that we need more people who think like Stephen in the party. I’m not terribly fussed about ideology, it’s the ability to listen to both sides and show a sense of proportion that is important.

    Secondly, when it comes to Michael Gove, I’m always partial towards pro freedom ideas, but unfortunately he represents the type of politician I would not vote for: someone who takes a radical position, makes people angry and then fails to listen to them. It’s basic social skills to listen to people who are angry. It’s not only education policy either, his foreign policy views rub people up the wrong way too.

    Other people will be better at talking about specifics, but Gove has made far too many people angry, even those who aren’t really interested in politics.

  • Julian Critchley is dead right, don’t believe the hype from Gove and his mates. I don’t think for one minute that raising standards is the number one issue. (There is growing evidence from the US that it is not happening) Sure he will take it if it happens. But Gove is a right wing grifter. He is typical of so much of the Right these days. It is all about emptying the treasury into the pockets of right wing businessmen. Health care is the same cash cow to be milked. Look at private prison complex in the US. It becomes a never ending circle of treasury looting. Businessmen own the prisons who fund the politicians who agree to send ever more people to jail. Surprise surprise America suddenly has the largest prison population in the world. Not even China comes close.

    But it isn’t just about money. There is also the issue of control and Ideology. Eddie Salmon says he doesn’t care about ideology. Well he should care because the other side do. Money and total control of every aspect of our lives will be controlled by a small bunch of pro Tory businessmen. And now they can preach that ideology in their own schools (with our money) in the US all forms of critical thought are being removed from the curriculum. American university’s are going the same way. As they rely on big business for money arts and humanities are being faded out. And economics are only backed if neo liberal supply side theory is the dominant ideology. Not that it will bother Lib Dems but it will also see the end of trade unions who fund left of centre parties. A double whammy for the Tory elite.

    The greatest myth in politics is that the right don’t like spending tax payers money. Not true. They love spending tax payers money just as long as it goes into the pockets of their rich chums. What they don’t like,is tax payers money going into the pockets of the poor and lower middle class.

  • Stephen Donnelly 16th Jul '14 - 8:19pm

    I am willing to accept that Mr. Gove genuinely wanted to reform education, and that he thought introducing choice was a good way to do that. The Tories genuinely do believe that any new thinking in education will be resisted by the vested interests, and there may be something in that. They see left wing plots, some on here see right wing plots. I really don’t believe either of these conspiracy theories and it is depressing to think there are liberals who prejudge on that basis.

    Any leader who wants to bring about reform needs to gain the trust of those he is reforming and communicate clearly the reasons for change. Mr. Gove failed to do that.

    At the end of the day Mr. Gove had to go because he was not very good at his job.

  • Keith Browning 16th Jul '14 - 8:56pm

    … and to show the lack of understanding by the ‘posh school brigade who run the government – we now fine and criminalise parents for taking their children out of ‘state’ school.s

    so…. a parent of child from Eton takes them to Australia in first two weeks in July… no fine.

    Parent of child from Bash Street Academy takes them to Australia first two weeks in July… parents fined and story plastered over press.

    Why… Eton summer term finished at end of June……. again one rule for the rich and another for the poor.

  • Keith independent schools tend to have longer days and shorter holidays, Eton has Saturday morning school. What point are you tryting to make – that. All schools shoud have the same holidays ?

  • Chris Manners 16th Jul '14 - 11:34pm

    “the legacy of the Goldacre report will live on and has already inspired grassroots teaching movements such as ResearchED to organise themselves as professionals, rather than rely on the Department for Education. That’s the kind of development liberals should welcome, and in doing so recognise Gove’s contribution to the environment in which it has happened”

    I think you’re trying a bit hard to find “liberal” succour here.
    Compared with the battering big state Ofsted, and the quasi-commercial academy chains, this liberal movement counts for very little indeed.

    ” he urged a relentless focus on standards and a more academic curriculum so that not only the brightest (who are disproportionately from wealthier backgrounds) would get the grades they need for whatever they want to achieve in later life, whether in work or further study”

    And made thousands of academies exempt from this curriculum, all the while praising them while they racked up the very soft subjects he derided.

    As for grammar schools, Thatcher and Major reopened precisely zero. They were never coming back.

  • Will Jackson 18th Jul '14 - 10:42am

    Surely a liberal aim must be the abolition of the monstrous Ofsted? There needs to be an inspectorate of some kind, but surely a more intelligent and constructive way can be found. Tory policy and Ofsted work very well together undermining state schools of all types. Has anyone ever counted the number of teacher dismissals, resignations, suicides, mental collapses, since the dawn of the Dark Age now known as Thatcherism?

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