Michael Gove’s enemies will have savoured his defeat yesterday, and enjoyed every second of his Commons speech admitting that his pet project, the EBacc, was ‘a bridge too far’. Gove is fighting a war on many fronts — and he lost a battle. It doesn’t happen often, which is precisely why it’s memorable. I look at this in my Telegraph column today. Here are my main points:
1. The passion of Gove — and Adonis. Gove is just as passionate about the transformative power of education as Andrew Adonis and, I suspect, for the same reason. Both were born in modest circumstances: Adonis to a single father in Camden, Gove to a woman in Edinburgh who gave him up for adoption. Both had the very unusual opportunity of a first-class education. Adonis was sent to boarding school by Camden Council. Gove was adopted by an Aberdonian fishmonger who went without holidays to send him to the fee-paying Robert Gordon’s College. Both went to Oxford, and on to the highest offices in the land. Both will be mindful that the circumstances of their birth would have suggested very different outcomes. So what do you do, once you have acquired the power to change things? Thank God for your good fortune and keep climbing the greasy pole, or try to move heaven and earth to make sure more children enjoy the opportunities that you did? Both chose the latter course. If they come across as people who are on a mission, rather than just doing a job, this is why. Both declared war on the Comprehensive system, which Gove has called the greatest betrayal of the working class and Adonis has recently written a book to condemn.
2. But they differ on the curriculum. Adonis always regarded curriculum and exam reform as a massive time and energy trap. Yes, the GCSEs have been getting easier — as both Durham University academics and the OECD have shown — but the problem with the English system is that 40 per cent of pupils still leave school without the basics: five GCSEs at A*–C including English and Maths. For children on free school meals it’s a scandalous 63 per cent. You need to be Polly Toynbee or Ed Miliband to be relaxed about a system that fails the poor so badly.
3. Exam reform is a minefield. Gove’s proposed EBacc Certificate, a tough exam that he wanted pupils to sit for, always seemed to be to be doomed. Top-down reform does not work in the English system: it doesn’t respond to orders. Thatcher was the first PM to set up a national curriculum (Churchill baulked at the idea and Callaghan was told by the unions that it was a power-grab worthy of 1930s Germany). As The Lady says in her memoirs, it grew into a monster. Once the bureaucracy got going, it proved unstoppable. Now it’s quite possible that Gove’s new all-England exam board would do precisely what he wanted. But unlikely. His EBacc was not one of his best ideas, and wouldn’t make the top five of his reforms. It was, to me, a good battle to lose. Whenever a politician wants to create a new exam and shape England’s education, we should start to worry — no matter how good their intentions. George Tomlinson, Attlee’s Education Secretary, summed it up: ‘minister knows nowt about curriculum.’
4. Losing battles is a sign that you’re fighting them. As Woody Allen says, if you’re not failing now and again you’re not innovating. And let’s take a look at Gove’s innovations. Even yesterday, he walked away with most of what he wanted to achieve: GCSEs will still be tougher, as the Guardian points out (despairingly) on its cover. Let’s look at the Gove scorecard. A-Levels are back in the control of the universities. National pay bargaining for teachers, a move that poses a direct threat to union power, will happen in September. This is a massive move: it means the best teachers can be paid the most, paid on merit like almost everyone else in society. And the worst teachers can no longer bide time and wait for pay rises. It could be a massive cultural shift. And how many schools may want to avail themselves of this freedom? The below graph shows the number of Academies over the years:
5. Gove is still winning. Most secondary schools are now independent of the council, something I didn’t expect to happen until 2015. And this fulfils the reforms started out by Andrew Adonis (who is now focusing on the lack of apprenticeships, saying they give pupils a chance to study). Gove has his problems (chiefly the slow supply of new schools, not keeping pace with the rise in pupil numbers). And yes, it was embarrassing yesterday. He walked into the Commons chamber with a massive home-baked humble pie, and ate slice after slice to the delight of Stephen Twigg. But Gove can afford to be mocked for a few hours. Yes, he lost a battle — but he is winning the war.