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The martyrdom of Michael Gove

By Paul Goodman

Screen shot 2010-11-24 at 11.32.20 A politician's first instinct is self-preservation.  He or she will also be driven by other motives - ideology, egotism, altruism, and so on - but that reflexive impulse comes first.  If I announce such-and-such a policy, will it come back to haunt me?  Will I be left standing when the music stops?  Does it have consequences that will catch up with me?  The old saying about Chancellors of the Exchequer applies to most politicians: there are two sorts - those who fail, and those who get out in time.

This applies all the more when the politician in question faces a clear challenge - a bar he has to jump.  Let's consider two different examples - both, in my view, brave politicians who are powered, in the first case, largely by a passion for social justice and, in the second, partly by conservative ideas.  The first is Iain Duncan Smith.  I think that IDS has been set a hurdle to leap - namely, the establishment of the universal credit.  The second is Eric Pickles.  I believe that Pickles has no single test to meet in implementing his localist ideas.

It's hard to say how this contrast has come about.  Work and Pensions, after all, is just as wide-ranging a brief as Communities and Local Government, covering pensions, welfare to work, disability, and so on.  But IDS has managed, either by accident or design, to be associated above all with simplifying the benefit system.  And he's won - indeed, he's won doubly.  First of all, there's to be a universal credit.  (He saw off the Treasury doubters.)  Second, it won't be realised until the next Parliament.  So any problems, large or small, will surely be someone else's problem.

Now consider Michael Gove - the other name that's often mentioned when Conservatives are looking for Cabinet members to cheer.  Gove believes, rightly, that the education system's failing many pupils in general and poorer ones in particular.  In a nutshell, his plans depend on change from the bottom and the top.  The bottom-up change is market pressure, mediated through his free schools programme.  The top-down change is partly the programme announced in today's Education White Paper, the core of which concentrates upon exams and testing.

For example, foreign languages are to be compulsory until pupils reach sixteen.  Children will be marked down for poor spelling, grammar and punctuation in GCSE's and A-levels.  The threshold at which schools are considered to be "inadequate" may be raised from fewer than 30% of pupils achieving five GCSEs graded A* to C to fewer than 35%.  Modular GCSE tests could be replaced by linear exams.  League tables will rank scholls higher for the number of pupils taking GCSEs in five core subjects – English, Maths, science, a language, and a humanities subject.

There are two centre-right views on the White Paper.  One was tweeted out this morning by Fraser Nelson, who believes that the Free Schools policy is almost everything and the White Paper means practically nothing.  The other used to be held by Nick Gibb, Gove's fanatically dedicated Minister of State, who in opposition was a partisan for centralisation: his friends, of whom I like to think I'm one, used to say that Gibb believed that there was no educational problem that a more rigorous teaching of synthetic phonics, imposed from the centre, wouldn't solve.

The localists are on to something.  Ken Baker's school reforms were hailed at the time as a triumphant restoration of traditional teaching.  However, they were over-prescriptive, and much of his curriculum and testing framework had to be dismantled.  Furthermore, he'd reckoned without what Chris Woodhead, the brilliant former Chief Inspector of OFSTED, calls "The Blob" - in other words, the educational establishment, with its all-must-have-prizes mentality (copyright: Melanie Phillips) and soft bigotry of low expectations (copyright: George Bush/Michael Gerson).

Baker's successors were soon bogged down in battles with the teaching unions and their own department.  From Thatcher to Gove, it's been unsupportive of Conservative education secretaries: the latter's been troubled by a series of leaks (see here and here), particularly during the Building Schools for the Future fracas last summer.  There's thus a question about who exactly is going to oversee Gove's proposed raising of exam standards.  But outside the libertarian paradise, the state will always have some responsibility for the integrity of the exam system, minimum teaching standards, ensuring that league table information's available, and so on.  Gove can't just be a one-club golfer, brandishing the Free Schools policy alone.

Which brings us back to the challenge he must meet.  I believe that he's in a different position to both Duncan Smith and Pickles.  Unlike Duncan Smith, he won't be judged against a single policy initiative and, unlike Pickles, he won't be measured against many.  Rather, he has, I think, to meet two main challenges.  The first is the establishment of a significant number of Free Schools (there's no consensus yet about how many).  The second is better exam results.  However, it's unclear how many Free Schools will be up and running by 2015.  And exam results, surely, will get worse before standards get better, if the improvement promised by Gove is delivered.

He may, of course, be shuffled onwards and upwards in due course, leaving these problems for his successor.  But David Cameron, to his credit, doesn't like reshuffles, having grasped long ago that they cause more pain than gain.  And Gove, to his, shows no particular sign of wanting to move on: he may well be there for the duration.  In which case, he faces a potential car crash - namely, the setting-up of a relatively small number of Free Schools (possibly) and worse exam results (almost certainly).  Anyone who believes that the papers, faced with the latter, will blame anyone other than Gove misunderstands their collective hysteria, sensationalism, rapacity and limited attention span.

Asked about all this, friends of Gove argue that the Free Schools programme will work; that by the next election he'll be able to point to lots of local successes, and that parents and voters place more store in their children's experiences than the media's vagaries.  Maybe there's a parallel with the NHS: some surveys have shown that respondents rate it as worsening in general while simultaneously reporting their own experience of it as excellent.  But either way, it's hard to think of a politician so fixed on the changes he wants to make, and so careless with his own sense of self-preservation.  Which is why this article is illustrated, just to drive the point home, with a picture of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian.

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