GOVE UNDER PRESSURE-BEGINNING A FIGHTBACK?

GOVE UNDER PRESSURE

But concentrating on education Bill

Comment

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.

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One thought on “GOVE UNDER PRESSURE-BEGINNING A FIGHTBACK?

  1. I felt he was sure footed enough on “Question Time” and that he’ll be busy is certainty and he needs to increase his support base. My view is that the Free Schools agenda is littered with Bear Traps: he would do well to think this through carefully before stepping in too deep to soon.

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