GOVE UNDER PRESSURE
But concentrating on education Bill
The Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove has had to face concerted attack not just from the opposition but in the media and blogosphere too over the last couple of months. The first attacks focused on the ending of BSF, the massive reduction in capital investment to build and refurbish schools. Poor administration meant that the initial list of school projects to be cut was incomplete and wrong. The political fall out was significant. Abolition of the EMA has prompted student demonstrations, the Pupil Premium was smaller than many had anticipated and is being phased in too with no regional variations which has also drawn criticism . Cutting money to schools sports partnerships, followed then by a partial U turn also took its toll, then there was the announcement just before Christmas that the Bookstart scheme was ending almost with immediate effect, but again here pressure forced a partial and very quick U turn .More recently his proposals for an the English Baccalaureate have come under fire as teachers challenge what subjects will be part of the Ebacc and which will not, with accusations that he is being too prescriptive from the centre. Also there is continuous background noises orchestrated by the anti-free schools and Academies lobby seeking to thwart what they see as a divisive initiative that will lead to a two tiered system that will bring little support to the most disadvantaged , although Gove has proved steady under fire on this, and the Academies scheme appears if anything to be gaining significant momentum.
There is nothing wrong with a deft U-turn here or there (but not too often) when a policy is clearly not working or is counter-productive. A minister unable to listen ,to concede ground and move on is a minister heading for opposition, as Stephen Pollard has said. One is reminded of John Maynard Keynes approach when challenged for changing his mind. When the facts change, I change my mind, he declaimed . But there is a big difference between a U-turn that solidifies one’s position and one that could serve to undermine the very foundation of what you are trying to achieve. U turns can often be a seen by both opponents and supporters as a sign of weakness. And critics worry that a pattern may be beginning to emerge in Gove’s and indeed the Governments conduct. The Coalition’s programme of cuts necessarily involves the state no longer funding a host of smaller activities, the impact of which will be felt by those no longer in receipt of tax payers money, who will then make a fuss. Making a fuss seems on the face of it to reap returns. If Gove and the Government gives ground on these issues one wonders where they will make a stand with so many bigger struggles yet to come. So Gove in the eyes of some has been weakened.
It is hard to overestimate the influence Gove has had on Cameron and the Reform agenda. He is close to Cameron, and IS a fiercely intelligent man who easily absorbs new ideas, is a fine writer and debater who was crucial to setting out the education reform agenda when in opposition, building on a framework that David Willetts had initiated. But it is hard not to conclude that he has found the transition from opposition spokesman to Secretary of State challenging and difficult. He is short, of course, on management experience and while he shines well enough in the Chamber of the House, before the Select Committee and in TV studios, he has yet to make his mark as a strong, effective Departmental leader and change manager. He may have underestimated the skills required in not just championing a radical reform agenda but in how to make it happen, motivating sometimes reluctant officials to bend to his will and to ensure that the hard pressed Departments administrative tail catches up with the vision thing. It is important to state your goals in politics but it is also important to explain to stakeholders how you are going to get there and what it means for them in the transition. True, he has been unlucky and at times poorly served but he also appears to have misjudged the requirement to justify and sell reforms, as well as the scale and effectiveness of the oppositition. He also appears to have blind spots, including ambivalence to private enterprise and the profit motive , a lack of understanding or interest in the dynamics of the education market and too much emphasis on the pursuit of academic robustness with perhaps too little emphasis on vocational options and the importance of creativity, sports and the arts to every child’s personal development and education (Dr Anthony Seldon, who is respected by Gove, criticised him recently on this score in the December Sir John Cass lecture)
The political imperative to push reforms through as quickly as possible has made him look off the pace at times. Rumours that David Laws is being lined up for a move back into Government to replace Gove in 2011 are probably well wide of the mark but he does need to raise his game and the fact that the rumours exist is an indication that his reputation is under threat. Laws, by the way, will probably come back, but in some other capacity. Some have suggested that Gove might do better as a Minister overseeing the Reform agenda and the Big Society but he would be reluctant to leave the Department before the key education reforms are fully in place. He is a man used to marching towards the noise of political battle rather than turning on his heel at the first sign of trouble, and his political instincts and absolute commitment to improving the lot of the most disadvantaged learners will probably see him through his current troubles. Indeed he is being urged by the likes of Chris Woodhead, the former Chief Inspector of schools, who is sympathetic to many of the reforms to be more forceful and to take the battle to his opponents . His recent performance on BBCs Question Time which was well received in Coalition circles , looks like the start of a fight back. In the meantime he has much to think about, including a big Education Bill due next week. He probably needs more political ballast on board his team though to see things through. and for him to achieve what he wants to achieve.