The Legacy of Michael Gove – the Fast Food Education System

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After four turbulent years in charge, Michael Gove is no longer the Secretary of State for Education. In this piece, Graham Birrell considers his legacy and asks whether his numerous reforms will stand the test of time.

Michael Gove in classroomIn what must surely be seen as a significant demotion, Michael Gove has been moved to Chief Whip. Given he is such a big fan of ‘discipline’ and ‘rigour’, he may be perfectly suited to the role – only time will tell though whether MPs will be as difficult to keep in line as teachers.

So after four years in charge of education, what is Gove’s legacy? A list of his reforms is dizzying: the number of academies has risen from 203 to 4095 (with 56% of English secondaries now converted); 174 free schools; a brand new ‘core knowledge’ national curriculum; reform of GCSEs including the ending of modular assessment; the scrapping of national pay frameworks for teachers and the introduction of performance-related pay; the ending of the requirement for Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) in academies; radical changes to assessment in primary schools; ‘progress 8’ to replace the 5A*-C accountability measure in secondary; seismic changes to SEN provision; replacement of university-based teacher training with the school-based School Direct programme; reforms of vocational education; massive expansion of the Teach First graduate recruitment programme; effective no-notice Ofsted inspections; and so on. It’s hard to remember them all as they’ve come so thick and fast.

Speed is perhaps the defining factor of the Govian Revolution in education reform in England since the 2010 election and he is more than happy to agree that change has been implemented at warp speed. He was right on both counts when he said recently that ‘the pace of change in our education system recently has been fast — and the reaction at times furious.’

In fact, Dominic Cummings, his now well-known former advisor, has said recently that Gove would have moved even ‘faster, further, better’ had it had not been for “dysfunctional” civil servants and incompetency at Number 10.

It’s hard to imagine what else Gove might have done. But schools and teachers across the country should perhaps be grateful for the various Sir Humphreys who stopped it.

In political terms, what Gove achieved in office was remarkable and makes him possibly the stand out minister of the coalition government. For many Conservatives he is a hero – his policies constituting a long-wanted shopping list of right wing educational reforms.

There is also little doubt that many of the changes will be long-lasting and will permanently change the face of education. Academy policy in England is the most obvious example, but Labour have said that with the exception of the non-QTS policy they wouldn’t change the other reforms either. In historical terms, no education secretary achieved so much in their time of office and long gone are the days when politicians felt education should be left to those who knew what they were talking about.

However, political success must not be confused with educational success. Thanks to his rush, instead of creating the multi-Michelin starred, world leading restaurant he so desired, what Gove built instead (with help from the previous Labour government) was a fast food joint.

Schools and teachers are now obsessed by meeting the short-term numerical targets that his regime created. So much so, that they serve an increasingly limited and impoverished pedagogical menu, designed purely for profit in key exams rather than genuine long-term nourishment of the mind.

The food may meet short-terms craving, but it is ultimately bland, unsatisfying and hollow. Schools know the menu has limited nutritional value, but there is little they can do about it. The pressure to deliver the menu as quickly as they can is creating alarming levels of stress among the employees of the restaurant, nearly half of whom are seriously considering looking for other forms of employment

The speed of the Govian Revolution, however, may ultimately lead to its unravelling. Again, the academies policy is the most glaring example of this, with increasing acceptance that the DfE cannot cope with the number of schools they are now responsible for, something formally acknowledged with the creation of Regional Schools Commissioners. A more thought-out idea may have been to create these before academy policy was turbo charged. The ‘Trojan Horse’ allegations of extremism in some Birmingham schools is unlikely to be the last education story where a sudden lack of oversight causes problems.

What the Gove Fast Food Education Restaurant represents is the apogee of a power-grab by politicians that can be traced back to Jim Callaghan’s famous ‘Secret Garden speech’ at Ruskin College in 1976. Before the landmark Education Reform Act of 1988, the Secretary of State for Education had three direct powers: managing the number of teachers, opening and closing schools and removing air raid shelters from playgrounds. Now the number of powers is over 2,000. The main feature of the past 40 years of school reform is increasing centralisation, with education run more and more at the whim of political ideology and career expediency of the holder of the keys to the DfE; and despite his neo-liberal, free market views, Michael Gove’s four years in charge were characterised by a dramatic speeding up of this move towards Big Government.

Many teachers will feel like rejoicing following today’s news, but history suggests their happiness will be short-lived. It is highly unlikely that Nicky Morgan or her future replacements (from whatever party) as Secretary of State will decrease the number of cards the government now holds, which means that schools and teachers should prepare themselves for permanent revolution. Ironically, when we collectively come to our senses and realise that there are better ways to feed our nation’s young minds than the fast food diet they currently receive, there may be many in the profession who are grateful that actions can be taken quickly.

A version of this article was first published on The Conversation

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4 Responses to The Legacy of Michael Gove – the Fast Food Education System

  1. Jonathan Barnes
    jonathan barnes Monday, 21 July 2014 at 21:51 #

    what a brilliant article …the restaurant analogy is spot on – To extend it a little more…. the essence of the difference between Michelin starred outfits and fast food ones is the kind of values they represent…the first may have its sights on beauty of form and flavour. At its best it will be led by sustainable, caring and creative values – if it fails to keep to and communicate such values it will quickly lose the trust and patronage of its customers. The fast food joint is generally led by…..speed (of course) and quick profit and only espouses ‘higher’ values when its customers force it to. Since we have been bequeathed the education equivalent of a fast food chain it is now up to us (the ‘steak holders?) to put the pressure on to make it the most moral, sustainable, principled, beautiful, caring and exciting chain in the world

  2. Graham Birrell
    Graham Birrell Tuesday, 22 July 2014 at 09:43 #

    Thanks Jonathan. One of the ironies of the enormous drift in education policy in the past 25 years towards ‘choice’ is that in reality children and parents have less and less choice. Because of the over-riding need to hit statistical targets, schools themselves have little choice but to serve up the same sort of pedagogical food, leaving the ‘menu’ in one school pretty similar to the ‘menu’ in other schools. As you say, it is all our responbility for the ‘steak holders’ (nice) to try and create something more nourishing.

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