A Review of Michael Gove’s speech at the Conservative Party Conference on October 7th 2009

In late August a copy of the Briefing Paper on the design faults at the heart of English education was sent to all MPs.  Within 40 pages it distilled all the thinking of the Initiative (which itself depends on the writing of hundreds of eminent researchers and practitioners) and set out Ten Actions which would need to be taken by an incoming government.  By mid September, not having heard anything from Michael Gove, other than a polite acknowledgement that he had received this, I sent him a personal letter… the sort of “pep” letter that I might have written years ago when I was tutoring bright sixth formers as they prepared to sit the Oxbridge Scholarship Exam.

Before setting four or five practice questions to sharpen candidates’ powers of critical analysis, I used to advise sixth formers on the need to make a good impression on the examiners by showing in advance that, while they would be able to answer these set questions well, they should show a bigger view of their academic future than could be gained from their essay answers.  “Speak up for yourself”, I used to say, “and prove that there is more to you than simply what you’ve been taught.”

I wrote in a similar vein to Michael Gove, “What you say, and how you say it in Manchester, will establish the persona that you will have to live with.”  This I suggested was an opportunity to ally himself with one of England’s greatest thinkers and philosophers, John Milton, and call for, as he had in 1644, a complete and generous education (to) fit a man to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously, all the offices both public and private of peace and war.  That, I suggested, would be a clarion call around which many citizens in our diverse culture could surely rally.

While I was by no means certain that Michael Gove would actually see my letter – I had earlier met him briefly three times and he had written to say that he had found my soon-to-be-published book of value – I urged him to treat these questions seriously because, and I picked my words most carefully, “it is important to add some deep insights into education to your already strong journalistic and political skills.”

Here were my four questions:

  1. Why, given the wealth of England’s intellectual tradition, is it the Finns and the South Koreans (two vastly different countries), rather than the English who head up the OECD league tables for academic achievement?
  2. Why has England become such a dysfunctional society when it was we who pioneered parliamentary democracy in the 17th century?
  3. Why, given their idealism, do so many newly-qualified teachers leave the profession after only a few years, and why is there such a shortage of candidates for headship?
  4. Why, given what is now known about the malleability of the young brain, does England spend more on the education of 16 year olds than 5 year olds, so resulting in larger classes when young children need more individual attention, and smaller classes when what the adolescents really needs is to work things out for themselves?

Not having heard from him (not surprisingly because he is obviously very busy) I thought I should send to him, as well as to Ed Balls and David Laws, a kind of three-page crib sheet on these major issues as they prepared for their Party conferences.  That crib sheet, entitled It’s Really Very Simple, is up on the website for you to download.

So with all that ‘coaching’ how well did Michael Gove, as the candidate for the expectant vacancy as Minister of Education, do in his presentation to the Manchester Conference?

You should read his speech for yourself, as it is available in full on the Conservative Party website.  Then you can come to your own conclusions.

As for me, I continue to be impressed by his zeal and sympathy for those children whose home backgrounds have not done enough for them.  However, I can see why – though it disappoints me – he didn’t ally himself with John Milton for, as yet, Michael Gove’s thinking is too much that of the politician, and has a long way to go before matching the grandeur of the philosopher.  The question, as of now, is whether he can lift his public statements away from all-embracing criticisms of what he sees as a secret underground army of evil bureaucrats, and an equally sweeping condemnation of “faddy ideologies imposed on our schools, which ignore the evidence of what really works in education,” to a view of what “being educated” does to a man or woman.  (Incidentally, did Gove include this Initiative in that condemnation for the emphasis we place on the learning strategies that go with the grain of the brain as being a “faddy ideology?”  I sincerely hope not.)  Gove was totally right to deplore the dumbing down of academic standards but he should turn his anger on his colleagues in the House of Commons, rather than the teachers, most of whom deplore that dumbing down as much as he does.

As to those four questions, while he ignored answering question 1 by substituting Sweden, America and Canada (probably Ontario) as political models that he saw fitting his own theory, he was simply not prepared for the other questions.  The second one about why England has become such a dysfunctional society with such a weak form of democracy, he simply ignored.  Then he completely missed the point of question 3 by not attempting to explain why such high-flying entrants to the teaching profession don’t stay the course for very long.  As for question 4 it seems that Gove has unwittingly been so ‘house-trained’ by government and Party procedures, that the suggestion of moving resources from one sector to another just has not occurred to him (any such cross-subject thinking does not readily occur if people are educated in the narrow and prescriptive manner he appears to commend).

So, my conclusion?

The candidate really means well.  He has lots of energy, has an engaging personality, handles the media well but still has not mastered his Brief.  Furthermore, he risks antagonising the very people whom he has to persuade to work with him – the teachers.  The best teachers command the respect of pupils because they know how to respond to the intellectual needs of each of them; to talk about introducing military discipline into the corridors of schools is a travesty of what teachers are about.  In the case of the job Gove is applying for, when it may well become available in early summer, any candidate who can’t provide convincing answers to these four questions will fall flat on his face because these are the issues that the country understands are at the root of all the problems.  If these are not sorted out all the most imaginative initiatives that Gove or others can think up, will fall fowl of the retched design faults that haunt English education.

Post Script:  No sooner had this Review been written than David Cameron in his concluding speech to the Conference confirmed that the Party, if elected, would move quickly to open opportunities to private organisations to run schools, with money provided by government, and would be allowed to make a profit in so doing.  A Review of this speech will follow shortly.