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Exit Right: politicians can no longer be trusted with education

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Writing from a Head Teacher’s viewpoint, Phil Karnavas reflects on Michael Gove’s legacy and considers where recent policy has left the school landscape; concluding that education is too important to be left in the hands of politicians.

Emergency exit to the rightThe new school year has commenced without Mr Gove as Headmaster of The Academy of England. Unexpectedly removed, Mr Gove’s failure, revealed in focus group feedback, was that he was deemed to be an electoral liability – in educational jargon, he had Oppositional Defiance Disorder – described  as ‘divisive’, ‘confrontational’ and ‘strange’.


As penetrating insights and coruscating revelations go, this is a bit like realising that El Cid was good on horseback, William Tell could shoot straight and Charlie Sheen likes to party. Indeed, Mr Gove was to achieving professional consensus what Vlad the Impaler was to achieving liberal democracy.

What then, after 4 years of hyperactivity, has Mr Gove left us?

In many ways, he was remarkable. He demonstrated that a minister with passion and determination could engineer rapid and dramatic change. Clearly driven by a sincere desire to improve the quality of education, he fell into the trap of many conviction politicians  who, believing themselves to be right, inevitably believed that anyone who disagreed with them must be wrong –  part of ‘the blob’. The great mistake, therefore, was to increasingly alienate a large section of the profession  who wanted exactly the same thing as he did.

The obvious legacy will be the rapid expansion of academies and the development of free schools. The corollary has been the emasculation of local authorities. At the risk of heresy, academies and free schools, of themselves, make little difference. The people who work in them do, but that is equally true of local authority maintained schools. Over time, as the shine comes off academies and the hype subsides, this will become increasingly obvious.

Irrespective of what one thinks about how successful local authorities were with regard to education, they did at least have a commitment to their locality. Now local authorities have been replaced by the large academy chains which stalk the landscape looking for schools to take on or take over. These chains are not local and they are not really accountable to anyone. If a parent is dissatisfied, their only real recourse is not to send their child to one.

Regrettably, in many parts of the country, parental choice is a myth. Parents will not get the school that they want; but schools, paying scant regard to the admissions code, can get the parents that they desire. The mission to ‘close the gap’ operates in a system where affluence determines achievement. This is true right the way through the system and the Pupil Premium is a welcome attempt to ameliorate this. But, many of Mr Gove’s reforms actually favour the affluent. The reality is that, unless admissions are controlled by an overarching body, the less well-off will simply not do as well as those with greater financial capital. Indeed, if asked what advice to give to parents about how best to enable their children to succeed in school the answer would be, ‘don’t be poor’.

Free schools, a dubious idea educationally, have served their purpose in the market model of education which was at the heart of Mr Gove’s ideology. Free schools create an additional supply of pupil places leading to increased competition. This has been further exacerbated by allowing popular schools to expand, thus creating a Thatcherite model where the strong prosper and the devil takes the hindmost. This may be acceptable in the commercial world, but one questions whether it is appropriate when dealing with children and communities. Collaboration and cooperation are largely blown out of the water since the system is now driven by competition – competition for resource, competition for students and competition for results.

Mr Gove initiated curriculum change, reformed examinations and revised the methods by which schools are judged, to increase rigour in the system. This brought some success and we have greater rigour. But, making changes mid-course in pursuit of it was little less than disgraceful and it is unclear why returning to 20th century model of schooling, however rigorous, helps educate our children for the 21st century.

We now have a curriculum based upon the primacy of knowledge, possibly to the detriment of skills and competencies. We now have a narrow academic curriculum that is definitely to the detriment of the creative, aesthetic and practical subjects. We now have a more acutely target driven culture than ever in which students, and schools, are judged to be successful because they pass in certain subjects and at certain grades. Yet, there will inevitably be children who do not pass and some schools that will fail. At the risk of oversimplification, if schools are to be judged against the average then 50% will always be below it. Mr Gove’s changes may have ended ‘gaming the system’ but this will be replaced by ‘cramming in the system’ and the love of learning will be distorted by the need to pass terminal written exams: which in their crudest form are little less than glorified memory tests.

There were major gaps in Mr Gove’s thinking. The so called soft skills and attributes, enveloped in provision intended to produce the well rounded individual and which supports the development of those qualities for living a purposeful and worthwhile life as a caring, compassionate, kind, thoughtful person, needed to be recognised and valued. Moreover, digital citizenship in the 21st century instantaneously interconnected world was conspicuous by its absence. Above all, and this reveals an alarming degree of educational myopia, there really needed to be much greater consideration given to children whose gifts are not academic.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Mr Gove’s vision of education was a conflation of that which he successfully enjoyed at school years ago and right wing ideology. The great lesson that Mr Gove has taught us is that conviction politicians can make a difference and it is precisely because of this that education should be taken out of the hands of politicians. The country needs an independent body comprised of the brightest and the best thinkers, free from political interference, to determine how education will best meet the needs of its children and their country’s future.

Mr Gove’s real legacy, therefore, should be the recognition that education is too important to be left in the hands of politicians.

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2 Responses to Exit Right: politicians can no longer be trusted with education

  1. Chris Carpenter
    Chris Carpenter Thursday, 25 September 2014 at 16:37 #

    I found this an interesting contribution to the discussions but I am not sure I am with you in all respects. I have responded to three of the points that you made.

    Firstly, Mr Gove as man of sincerity? I feel that this may have been the case or it may not. I am personally not convinced that he was not a career Politian who saw that making his mark on education might be the route to higher political office. I do think that he skillfully rode the zeitgeist and there can be little doubt he did make his mark. One of the factors here is that I think he fell into that post Education Reform Act (1988) way of trying to instill a sense of panic as a means to open the way for this policies. E.g. we are not competitive on a world stage; exams are not rigourous enough; teachers are not good enough.

    Secondly, he did indeed bring about rapid change, although it may be that in some cases it was as Penny and Evans (1999) argue a case of the more ‘noise’ there is at policy making level the less things change in the classroom. However, I feel that much of this was carried out in a deeply undemocratic manner. I think there is a case to be made that genuine and authentic change is more a process of ‘gradualism’ where the change is ‘owned’ by the people it will directly affect and proceeds by consensus. Slower for sure but more likely to bring about a lasting evolution?

    Of course one of the ironies of neo-liberalism is that on the one hand the government de-regulate and hand power away from the centre but it seems that this de-regulation actually needs a strong government to police it and the ratcheting up of Ofsted inspections this term can be seen as a symbol of this in education?

  2. Gregory Dimmock Friday, 12 December 2014 at 19:06 #

    In relation to the argument that Phil Karnavas puts across; education should be put in to the hands of bright people ‘an independent body made up of the best thinkers’.

    My question is firstly would these ‘thinkers’ be a cross section of our society politically and socially? Or are they more likely to be the privelaged few who often end up with the title the ‘best thinkers’. Would they be apolitical or would they have left wing ideologies?

    If education is too important for politicians then what about the economy and foreign policy? Surely they are just as important, so if we adhere to your suggestions wouldn’t we have to do away with politicians all together? I would argue Gove made mistakes for which he is widely criticised, but as Mr Karnavas alluded to he had good intentions.

    Putting forward a simplistic argument as Mr Karnavas that raises more questions that it answers is a bit like the blog I have just written.