Wednesday, 13 February 2013
Chronic Political Incompetence
Although his Thatcherite hostility to traditional teaching methods is a jarring note in this, Seamus Milne writes:
By any normal reckoning, Michael Gove is a walking disaster-zone of chronic political incompetence. His ministerial career has been a litany of blunders and apologies. It began in his first months as education secretary, when he botched the coalition's scrapping of Labour's school building programme. Last year, he was at the centre of the GCSE regrading fiasco and the scandal of selling off school playing-fields in the year of the London Olympics.
And last week Gove outdid himself with a string of multiple U-turns. Having been compelled to drop his wheeze to reintroduce O-levels and a two-tier school exam system, he was forced to abandon his fallback plan to replace GCSEs with an English baccalaureate and introduce a single exam board for each subject. He even felt obliged to broaden school league tables to include supposedly "soft subjects", like art and music.
Naturally, he was all self-deprecating humility at the dispatch box. He had "made an error", he declared – even asking for other offences (such as the school building programme) to be taken into account, and conceding he may have tried to cross "a bridge too far". It had been a similar story last month, when Gove grovelled to a Commons select committee about the "incredibly poor performance" of his department in dealing with parliamentary questions.
Disarming critics with politeness is a vital part of Gove's armoury – just as his equally incompetent fellow rightwinger Boris Johnson deflects attacks with jokes and bonhomie. And changing direction when you're wrong is clearly better than the alternative – though if you make a habit of it, it can start to look careless.
But charm isn't the main reason Gove is considered a Conservative success, despite his multiple failures. The education secretary is an ideologue in a government whose Tory base chafes at the constraints of coalition, a neoconservative who believes the Iraq war was a "proper British foreign policy success" and a Thatcherite traditionalist itching to give for-profit companies the right to take over state schools.
Which is why Gove is lionised by the Tory right and Conservative press as a true believer, prepared to transform English education in their own image. While Gove is courteous, a praetorian guard of apparatchiks does his dirty work, seeing off educationalists' resistance to their permanent counter-revolution and running web campaigns against recalcitrant critics.
So after his humiliation over ditching GCSEs, there was no sign of the scorn that would normally meet such backpedalling. Instead, it was only a "tactical setback", the Times insisted, while the Spectator's Fraser Nelson reassured Telegraph readers that Gove might have "lost a skirmish, but he's still winning the war".
They're mainly right. Gove has had to drop his baccalaureate scheme but he's forging ahead with plans to ditch modules and controlled assessment in favour of more traditional exams and 1950s-theme park rote learning. And his new draft national curriculum is a Daily Mail dream.
Out goes most European and world history and critical thinking, for instance. In comes what Gove calls a "clear narrative of British progress with a proper emphasis on heroes and heroines" – Nelson, Wellington, and "Clive of India" to the fore. Imperial barbarity is largely airbrushed out and we're left with what the historian Richard Evans damns as "regression to the patriotic myths of the Edwardian era".
Meanwhile, despite his GCSE climbdown, Gove shows every sign of discouraging students from taking music, art or even economics at A-level in favour of core "facilitating subjects". The education secretary likes to present his reforms as designed to boost the chances of working-class children failed by the system, even quoting the Italian communist Gramsci to support his case.
But it's fraudulent posturing. There's no evidence that disadvantaged children will benefit from Gove's reforms either to the curriculum or management of schools. But there is to show the drive to turn local schools into freestanding academies outside local democratic control is fuelling social segregation, while schools in poorer areas also risk being damaged by the scrapping of teachers' national pay scales.
For Gove, academies are the key to his "supply-side revolution": a huge expansion of the role of private companies in education to match the privatisation of the health service. For-profit firms such as the US-owned K-12, which has funded Tea Party candidates in recent elections, are among those already involved in academies.
Now a leaked memo from Gove's department has revealed that ministers are considering "reclassifying academies to the private sector", allowing them to be profit-making, to deal with the impact of the runaway costs of the academy and free school programme.
No doubt Gove and his supporters are convinced that marketisation and privatisation are the route to transforming English schools for the better, though it must help that a whole "educational services industry" is also gagging to benefit.
But most of all, championing traditional teaching and the breakup of the country's education system offer a powerful boost for Gove's career. When David Cameron is finally unseated, the battle for the Tory succession could yet come to a fight between the incompetent Gove and Johnson. It's a chilling prospect.