Gove’s revolution leaves behind a fast-food education system

Gove: Shutting the door on education. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

In what must surely be seen as a significant demotion, secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, has been moved to become chief whip in David Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle. Given he is such a big fan of “discipline” and “rigour”, he may be perfectly suited to the role – only time will tell whether MPs will be as difficult to keep in line as teachers.

So after four years in charge of education, what is Gove’s legacy? It has been revolution at warp speed. Thanks to his rush, instead of creating the multi-Michelin starred, world-leading restaurant he so desired, what Gove built instead (with help from the previous Labour government) was a fast food joint.

A list of his reforms is dizzying. The number of academies has risen from 203 to 3,979 (with 56% of English secondaries now converted). There are now 174 free schools with even more autonomy. We have a brand new “core knowledge” national curriculum, plus reform of GCSEs including the ending of modular assessment.

Teachers have seen the scrapping of national pay frameworks and the introduction of performance-related pay. But at the same time, academies are no longer required to employ people with Qualified Teacher Status.

There have been radical changes to assessment in primary schools plus a new system called “progress 8” to replace the five A star to Cs accountability measure in secondary schools. Ofsted is now planning to start inspecting schools with no notice, in reaction to criticisms that have come after the so-called Trojan Horse extremist plot in Birmingham schools.

Gove’s reforms have also seen the replacement of university-based teacher training with the expansion of the school-based School Direct programme. It’s hard to remember them all as they’ve come so thick and fast.

Govian revolution

Since the 2010 election, speed has perhaps been the defining factor of the Govian Revolution in English education reform. He was right on both counts when he said recently that “the pace of change in our education system recently has been fast – and the reaction at times furious.”

In fact, Dominic Cummings, his now well-known former advisor, has said recently that Gove would have moved even “faster, further, better” had it had not been for “dysfunctional” civil servants and incompetence at Number 10.

It’s hard to imagine what else Gove might have done. But schools and teachers across the country should perhaps be grateful for the various Sir Humphreys who stopped it.

In political terms, what Gove achieved in office was remarkable and makes him possibly the stand-out minister of the coalition government. For many Conservatives he is a hero – his policies constituting a long-wanted shopping list of right-wing educational reforms.

There is also little doubt that many of his reforms will be long lasting and will permanently change the face of education. Academy policy in England is the most obvious example, but the Labour party has said that with the exception of the policy on non-qualified teachers, they wouldn’t repeal the Coalition’s other education reforms either. In historical terms, no education secretary achieved so much in their time of office. Long gone are the days when politicians felt education should be left to those who knew what they were talking about.

Bland food on the menu

But political success must not be confused with educational success and the Gove Fast Food Restaurant will make no improvement to the nation’s long term educational diet. Schools and teachers are now obsessed by meeting the short-term numerical targets that Gove’s regime has created. So much so, that they serve an increasingly limited and impoverished pedagogical menu, designed purely for profit in key exams rather than genuine long-term nourishment of the mind.

A pedagogical menu akin to fast food. roboppy, CC BY-NC-ND

The food may meet short-term cravings, but it is ultimately bland, unsatisfying and hollow. Schools know the menu has limited nutritional value, but there is little they can do about it.

The pressure to deliver the menu as quickly as they can is creating alarming levels of stress among employees, nearly half of whom are seriously considering looking for other forms of employment.

The speed of the Govian Revolution, however, may ultimately lead to its unravelling. Again, the academies policy is the most glaring example of this, with increasing acceptance that the department for education cannot cope with the number of schools they are now responsible for – something formally acknowledged with the creation of Regional Schools Commissioners to oversee academies.

A more thought-out idea may have been to create these before academy policy was turbo charged. The Trojan Horse allegations are unlikely to be the last education story where a sudden lack of oversight causes problems.

Shift of powers

What the Gove Fast Food Education Restaurant represents is the apogee of a power-grab by politicians that can be traced back to Jim Callaghan’s famous “Secret Garden” speech at Ruskin College in 1976.

The main feature of the past 40 years of school reform is increasing centralisation. Education has been run more and more at the whim of political ideology and the career expediency of the minister holding the keys to the department for education. Despite his neoliberal, free market views, Gove’s four years in charge have actually been characterised by a dramatic speeding up of a move towards “big government”.

Many teachers will feel like rejoicing at today’s news, but history suggests their happiness will be short-lived. It is highly unlikely that Gove’s replacement, Nicky Morgan, or future holders of the education secretary portfolio (from whatever party) will decrease the number of cards the government now holds. This means that schools and teachers should prepare themselves for permanent revolution.

Ironically, when we collectively come to our senses and realise that there are better ways to feed our nation’s young minds than the fast food diet they currently receive, there may be many in the profession who are grateful that actions can be taken quickly.