Michael Gove is the Secretary of State for Education. Probably the brightest star in the Tory shadow cabinet, Michael Gove is clever, passionate and an accomplished debater and a member of David Cameron’s inner circle.  He appeared to actively dislike Ed Balls,  the former Education Secretary,but was an unabashed admirer of Andrew Adonis, the architect of the Academies scheme. Indeed he wants to extend the Academies scheme and give schools more freedoms.

His main charge against the  Labour Government was that it had demonstrably failed the most disadvantaged pupils and was busy rolling back the Academies initiative that was, in reality, their best hope to succeed and break the cycle of disadvantage.

He’s particularly  keen too that  parents have a greater choice of good schools, are allowed to  set up schools themselves ,  and for teachers to  be  given  more power to keep order in class, to make it easier to secure smaller class sizes ,while  he also wants to  restore  respect to the teaching profession.  Gove also wants a more rigorous   traditional  curriculum and a primary curriculum built around learning key historical dates, syththetic phonics and “proper mental arithmetic”  though some critics say this conflicts with   the Tory philosophy of school autonomy  letting teachers exercise their professional judgement .

Born in Edinburgh in August 1967, Gove was adopted when he was four months old by a family in Aberdeen. His father was a fish merchant and his mother worked as a lab assistant at the University of Aberdeen and with deaf children for Aberdeen District Council.

He was educated at both state and independent schools, in England and Scotland. He studied English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University in the 1980s and during his time there served as President of the Oxford Union. It was at the Union and the English Speaking Union that he  honed  his debating skills which he regularly used to bait Ed Balls.  He is a former Times journalist, and still writes  regularly  for the paper. He also takes some pride in having  co-founded the influential  centre-right think tank Policy Exchange which has had a significant influence on the development of Tory  policy, not least in education.

His main line of attack in Opposition on the Government was that since it has been in office there is little evidence that social mobility has improved, nor that the most disadvantaged have had greater educational opportunity or increased access to the best universities and the best schools  . One of the worst statistics he  exploited is that while more than 23,000 pupils secured three As at A level, the basic passport to a top Russell group university , the number of boys eligible for free school meals countrywide who got three As at A level last year was just – 75. Those on Free School Meals constitute about 15 per cent of the school population. Eton, on the other hand had nearly three times that number of boys getting three As. Gove told the Evening Standard that ‘When one school so comprehensively out-performs the poorest 15 per cent in our society then you know that opportunity remains blocked in Britain. And even these bleak figures don’t tell the whole story about talent squandered. The brightest children in poorer areas are also, increasingly, led to weaker exams, in softer subjects, which compromise their ability to get on the best courses.’ Why are pupils going for softer subjects? First because they are considered easier for both pupils to study and for teachers to teach. Second because every subject counts the same in school league tables, so weaker schools in poorer areas have an incentive to lead pupils to softer subjects in an effort to boost the school’s rankings. Gove points out that among pupils eligible for free school meals, four times as many take drama as physics and three times as many take media studies as chemistry. Indeed, there are two local authorities in England, Islington and Slough, where no comprehensive pupil sat a single GCSE in physics, chemistry or biology. And no student in the whole of Knowsley, or Hackney, got three good A levels that included maths and physics last year.

The last Government could wax eloquent about getting pupils from disadvantaged communities into Higher Education but if they are failing their A levels or not getting the necessary grades for entry into Higher Education or indeed taking the wrong A levels for HE courses, their educational opportunities will not self-evidently improve.  Nor will their social mobility. But there is another problem.

While the top universities have a jaundiced view on the merits of a clutch of what they perceive as ‘soft A levels’, which they believe are not sufficiently rigorous for the demands of higher education, more and more pupils from disadvantaged areas are now taking these so called soft options as schools feel under pressure from league tables.

In short, many pupils are taking the wrong A levels for universities. And they are making the wrong choices at 14, too a fact picked up in the recent OFFA report.  Every A-level is assumed to be of equal value when it comes to measuring school performance, or at least this was  the line peddled by the last  Government ,but universities are explicit that they don’t consider every A-level to be equally rigorous. Cambridge, the LSE and others have warned prospective students that taking “softer” A-levels such as media studies and dance will count against applicants at admission time. Of course pupils on FSM have other options, including  FE ,choosing good vocational routes and Apprenticeships but a key policy aim is to get more disadvantaged pupils into top universities, (not everyone agrees with this by the way) something that the Sutton Trust (Gove is an admirer of  the Sutton Trust) is promoting too, but this cant happen because the wrong choices are being made at school and too many schools are failing to  support pupils in securing the right qualifications..

Gove wants to allow all schools to offer candidates the really prestigious exams, such as the International GCSE (which doesn’t count in league tables) and the newish Cambridge Pre-U, which are effectively mostly the preserve of the independent sector at the moment. There was talk of the Tories introducing the IB in state schools but not recently as the cost implications have struck home. The IB requires more teaching time, so is more expensive to deliver.

Gove is committed to improving the quality of teachers and classroom teaching by insisting that new entrants to the profession have better degrees than ever before, and he has pledged to concentrate cash in the poorest areas, so the best graduates have an incentive to teach in the most challenging schools. The best teachers benefit pupils, whatever their social background, as Professor Dylan Wiliam of the IOE has demonstrated.

Schools autonomy is important too, to Gove, and he approves of the Charter schools model in the States, particularly  the  approach of the not for profit chain  ‘Knowledge is Power Programme  (though  many Charter schools are allowed to make profits-which the Tories are against) .Charter schools operate in disadvantaged areas and are socially inclusive and non-selective  and the best insist on a rigorous traditional academic curriculum, high standards of discipline, real parental engagement and longer school  hours. A former Gove aide Rachel Wolf, has set up the New Schools Network, informed by the experiences of Charter schools and Swedish free schools ,aimed at helping parents and other organisations to set up new schools with real autonomy . The aim is to initially push towards extending the academy template as far and as wide as possible. All successful schools will be given the opportunity of becoming an Academy (this will be interesting, as the Lib-Dems argue  for more locally managed schools within a  local accountability framework).The Liberal Democrats agree that there has to be supply side reforms, school autonomy and less central interference but they want Local authorities to be more involved to deliver greater accountability.

Gove has written on Swedish free schools – ‘We want to establish many more excellent schools following their model, schools that are socially comprehensive in intake but rigorously academic in ethos’

Good, as far as it goes, say some critics, but let them make a profit too within a rigorous regulatory framework so they can invest for the future and up-scale their involvement. After all many special schools in England educating some of the most challenging and vulnerable of our pupils are currently profit making.

Gove shares a belief with the Lib Dems in the Pupil Premium. This means attaching extra money to the most disadvantaged pupils to incentivise good schools to take them. During the election campaign, the Conservatives had suggested they would pay for a pupil premium by restructuring the entire schools budget, whereas the Lib Dems had pledged £2.5 billion for the policy to be paid for by scrapping tax credits for families from above average incomes. The Tories see extra funds also being redirected away from the BSF programme to help this initiative.

There was a delay before announcing that Gove was the new education Secretary, a delay caused by last minute horse trading. The reason for all the horse-trading and bartering was to ensure that most of the Conservatives’ radical policies were allowed through, helped ultimately  by the fact that David Laws moved to the Treasury. Michael Gove was adamant that even if he went (to a different department, which he had offered) most of his policies should stay in, and (David) Cameron agreed with him. The fact that Nick Gibb is Minister for Schools reinforces the view that most of the Tory reforms will be in the new Education Bill. Sarah Teather the Liberal Democrat and Minister of State holds slightly different views ,particularly on school autonomy and the role of local authorities which may cause later tensions.

If Gove has a fault it is more in style than substance. He seems to think, when he has a platform, that he is at the Oxford Union and treats fellow politicians and audiences accordingly. It can make him look smug, patronising and too clever by half. But nothing that a bit of fine tuning cant resolve.

His biggest challenge of course will be to take on producer interests in the form of local authorities and the unions, who are showing  recent signs of increasing militancy.


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