Political Banana Skins

The BBC series Yes Minister was some of the finest political satire ever seen on television.  Hacker (Paul Eddington) infuriated his Permanent Secretary (Nigel Hawthorne) by his ability to pick up what seemed the right issues, and then confuse these with his need to win votes.  In one particular episode Hacker, as Minister of Administrative Affairs, is given the additional responsibility of sorting out local government.  Interviewing him on The World at One the redoubtable Ludovic Kennedy says, “You have, Mr. Hacker, an ever increasing empire; it has been said that you are now Mr. Town Hall as well as Mr. Whitehall!”

Not quite appreciating the irony of the comment, Hacker grins broadly, “Well, it’s awfully flattering for you to put it that way…”  Then comes Kennedy’s shattering response.  “It wasn’t me who put it that way Mr. Hacker, it was The Daily Mirror.  I was merely seeking confirmation that you are now this country’s chief bureaucrat…”

Michael Gove, as Shadow Secretary for Education, is an able politician set upon an important mission to relieve education of its suffocating bureaucracy.  Infinitely more savvy than the fictitious Hacker, Gove’s earlier experience as a leader writer for The Times ensures that he gives his former colleagues just the lines which they like, and leaves few banana skins behind him.  An ardent Tory, he stands for a modernised yet traditional approach to the curriculum, and wants schools to be run by parents and commercial sponsors, not by elected members of the community.  Gove praises the City Technology Colleges which, as Kenneth Baker explained to me as he established these in 1988, “would enable us to break up the powers of the LEAs.”  Twenty-one years ago potential sponsors such as BP, British Gas and IBM (as well as academics like myself) rejected the idea, not because we were in any way against the development of technology and scientific education (which Gove suggested in a recent speech), far from it, but because we believed that the running of schools – however difficult this might be – was the prime responsibility of democratically elected local councillors.

That was a generation ago, a time when next year’s politicians were still in short trousers, with or without blazers and ties.  Since then that social cohesion for which England now yearns, and for which Gove’s Shadow Cabinet colleague Iain Duncan Smith is such a powerful advocate, has left us struggling in 2009 with ‘Breakdown Britain.’  Gove places his faith in Academies.  Academies are just  like any other school except that they are released from many of the regulations that central government has imposed on all state schools, and are administered not by locally elected representatives, but by private sponsors.  An Academy is in effect master of its own destiny, concerned entirely for itself.  Under the old local authorities if a school down the road was in trouble, resources were diverted from other parts of the system to improve it.  Now, if that school down the road goes to the wall, it creates an opportunity for an Academy to swallow up its pupils, and itself grow bigger.

‘Survival of the fittest’, business people argue, is the only way to go.  But Darwin knew that human life was more complicated than that; species evolve when they can build on opportunities created by others, as do today’s evolutionary psychologists who note “selfishness beats altruism within groups; [but] altruistic groups beat selfish groups every time.”  By sweeping away all the local authority arrangements for creating a fair balance of resources, Michael Gove could find himself having to sort out the endless contentions that will inevitably arise between all the warring factions.  With so much at stake they will appeal to natural justice, not to the laws of economic survival.  Even Solomon, in all his wisdom, wouldn’t want to do that job.

Gove in his crusade to enable schools to think for themselves must not destroy all the middlemen (locally elected officials) or else he will be driven crazy by some 20,000 headteachers banging on his door, all at the same time, pleading that they are special cases.  The last thing he wants (or we need) is for him to be Chief Bureaucrat.

See entire Briefing Paper