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Re Michael Gove: What is Alistair Campbell right - and wrong - about?

Alastair Campbell blogged about Michael Gove this morning. Below, one of Gove's advisers analyses the blog in the context of AC's other blogs on education...

What is AC right about?
  • AC is right that 'media opinion' is very different than 'public opinion.' (Also, swing voters' views are very different to what most people in politics imagine; they are not an 'average', they do not have views 'equidistant between Right and Left'. E.g. swing voters are more hostile to immigration and some basic principles of markets than Westminster collectively realises.) AC is right that the fact that the media thinks of Gove as a (relative)  'success' does not mean the public does.
  • AC is right that many do not trust Conservative motives though this is about the long-term general brand problems of the Conservative Party, not specific education policies.
  • In general, Gove's team has focused on management and trying to get things done. They have not focused on communication and  explaining what they are doing and why. (Westminster also can confuse speeches and strategic communication over time). That is a choice about priorities in the context of the overall political environment and limited time and resources. AC is right that there is a lot of hostility, partly because of the cuts to the school capital budget, though of course he ignores the many teachers who are extremely happy with what Gove is doing.
  • AC is right that Gove's opposition to Leveson has endeared him to journalists.
  • AC is obviously right that a school can be good without being an Academy.
What is AC wrong about?
  • Unions... AC says 'Gove is deliberately trying to provoke teachers into an industrial dispute so that he can have a fight and show his many media admirers and Tory right-wingers that there is a touch of the Thatchers about him.'
Wrong. He is not trying to provoke the Unions into a large-scale extended strike. That would be foolishly destructive. The NUT and NASUWT are encouraging teachers to disrupt education by refusing to do various parts of their job. The Union leaders regard this as reasonable tactics in a political struggle. Gove has informed heads of their legal powers - which are complicated and the Unions lie about them - in order to help heads minimise the damage done by the Unions' action. Gove's team do not want a massive strike; their attitude is 'if you want peace prepare for war'. They think that the public support the idea that 'a great maths teacher deserves more of a pay rise than a duff teacher' and the Unions will, hopefully, reluctantly realise this.
  • Leadership... AC says so often one assumes it is his opinion that Gove's team spends its time trying to promote Gove as a future leader. But Westminster hacks know this is not the case. Some of his friends think about the leadership but his two special advisers do not and do what they can to limit inevitable speculation. Gove does not want to be leader and has said many times that he would not be good at it. His spads know this, agree, and do not waste their time on that. Given the dynamics of Westminster, it is a reasonable default assumption that 'X wants to be leader', and to interpret behaviour from this perspective, but in this case it is wrong. One of those referred to as 'Gove's briefers' by AC - Dominic Cummings - actually spends less than 1% of his time on anything to do with the media; his job is policy and project management of priorities.
  • Standards... The main feature of AC, Fiona Millar and their gang viz education is that they live in a parallel universe on the question: 'have school standards improved?'. AC likes to talk about 'bubbles' of Establishment opinion but in this respect he is very much part of it. Roughly, there is little doubt that some children experienced an improvement from a very low base in their education over the past 20 years. However, there is also little doubt, and huge evidence to show, that standards expected for a C or an A in GCSE or A Level have fallen. A long-term study by King's has shown that basic algebra skills have fallen between 1979-2009. Why does AC think natural science degrees have had to lengthen to four years? Is he aware of the decline of English-to-foreign language composition skills (that have affected even Oxford 'Greats')? With how many professors of maths or physics at Oxbridge or Imperial has he discussed the quality of incoming A Level students? If he were to do so, he would realise that there is widespread worry at the lack of advanced problem-solving skills; many professors will explain to him that students who arrive with an A have been taught to lower levels than 30 years ago. Why does he think Cambridge University Maths department recently asked the DfE to fund them to develop new teaching materials for 16-18? Because everything is better than ever, as Labour and the unions argue, or because they want to revive the teaching of advanced problem-solving skills?
Ironically, this problem in many ways helps the Etonians that AC despises because Eton and other top private schools teach to higher standards which give their students a great advantage in the competition for places at top universities, while many state school pupils, particularly in the poorest areas, are wrongly told that A Levels are as respected as ever and all they need to think about.

AC is very proud of his ability to distinguish between public opinion and media opinion. However, his instincts are a decade out of date. Back in 2000, the public did indeed reject the idea of 'dumbed down exams', particularly when coming from Tories (and many parents who paid vast fees to private schools did not want to be told that '10A*s doesn't mean your child is brilliant'). Now, they know it's true. Labour's inability to accept this - and here Adonis is as wrong as Campbell, hence his opposition to GCSE reform - is their main error in the education debate.

For 150 years, Britain has largely failed relative to other countries on vocational and technical education, partly because of strong Establishment parochialism and resistance to learning from what works abroad. Thanks to the implementation of the 2011 Wolf Report and other reforms, some of these problems are finally being dealt with. Labour, like previous governments, almost totally failed in this area and their main idea, Ed Balls' 'Diploma', was an expensive fiasco.
  • 'Modernity'... Like many with his political opinions, AC seems to equate modernity in education with a kind of happy clappy kumbaya Coke advert in which kids sit around singing and learning to emote. He really seems to think that a focus on algebraic or statistical skills is 'old fashioned'. He - like many in politics - does not realise the way in which applied mathematics is invading almost every field of human endeavour. He also ignores that Gove scrapped Labour's useless IT curriculum and has brought in the likes of Facebook, Google and distinguished professors to develop a computer science curriculum and exams. The DfE is also piloting the use of 3D 'personal fabricators' in education, to see what lessons could be applied in schools from MIT's brilliant Center for Bits and Atoms. Fundamental advanced skills in writing, maths, languages, and problem-solving (e.g. solving mechanics problems) have not been rendered obsolete - indeed, they are the things most in demand from the most high-tech and innovative parts of the economy and academia. Things like 'computational biology' and desktop computational analysis of vast data sets did not exist 30 years ago but that enhances, not diminishes, the need for more students with advanced maths skills and Gove making this a top priority is the opposite of 'old fashioned'.  
It is in the interests of many people - and it is a natural human reaction - to believe that the vast money and effort of the past 20 years brought significant improvements. It is dispiriting to face the fact that many colluded in the subtle undermining of reliable public exams and the desire of many not to discuss this openly lies behind the huge pressure on university academics and others to keep quiet.

AC hates private schools and Tories. He therefore hates the spreading Academies programme. AC believes that he and his political allies should micromanage the school system to engineer a different society, therefore he opposes attempts to give state schools the sort of freedom that the despised private schools have. (Like almost everyone in Westminster, he has an extreme faith in the ability of MPs and the civil service to 'manage' large complex systems.) Because he wants education to be, always, a political struggle, he understandably fears the idea of a truly decentralised and largely depoliticised education system that might emerge from what Gove is doing. Because he and his friends were in charge for a decade and colluded in the corruption of exams, he is not keen on looking at the evidence. Because he understands so little about either advanced academic research or private enterprise, he has nothing interesting to say about what sort of skills we should be trying to develop.

But he should remember the advice, 'never hate your enemies, it clouds your judgement'. Because he can only see things through a political prism defined mainly by internecine leadership struggles, he misunderstands his enemies and fails to take his own advice to escape Establishment orthodoxies.


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