George Kerevan: Gove will go 500 miles for change

Michael Gove has the unenviable task of presiding over a major shake-up in English schooling. Picture: PA
Michael Gove has the unenviable task of presiding over a major shake-up in English schooling. Picture: PA
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Education Secretary has ambitious plans to transform curriculums, writes George Kerevan

There has to be an irony in the fact that an Aberdonian and self-confessed Proclaimers fan is now in political charge of England’s schools, just when Scotland is contemplating independence. More ironic still, Michael Gove (for it is he) is leading a revolution in how education is run south of the Border – arguably the biggest shake-up in English schooling since the 1944 Education Act ushered in compulsory free education.

But as last week’s stooshie with Theresa May hinted, Mr Gove has designs beyond tinkering with the curriculum, or slapping down bolshie teachers. The Grove Revolution is really Thatcherism Stage II. He aims at nothing less than a political and cultural transformation of British society, using schools as his battering ram. Witness yesterday’s announcement that the 20,000 primary and secondary schools in England are to be required to actively “promote British values”.

Three things are immediately clear from this announcement. First: Gove has no intention of backing away from controversy following disputes with the Muslim community in Birmingham over an alleged Islamic fundamental takeover of local schools. It remains unclear if there was a sinister takeover plot led by extremists, or (more likely) a simple clash of cultures resulting from conservative Muslim parents exerting greater authority. The obvious solution is the compulsory training and vetting of all school governors. Yet this Gove has resisted because his principle aim is to make it easy to create autonomous academies, the better to destroy local government influence in education. Birmingham is a problem of Gove’s own making.

Second: despite incurring Downing Street’s wrath over the embarrassing public spat with Theresa May, Gove yesterday received the Prime Minister’s very public backing for his plan to use schools to promote Britishness. David Cameron could hardly do otherwise, or lose face. One up to wily Mr Gove, and goodbye to Theresa May’s prospects of leading the Tory Party should Cameron lose next year’s general election. No prize for guessing who is manoeuvring for the top job (though he will still have to fight Boris Johnson for it).

Of course, defining what constitutes these supposedly unique British values is not easy. Are Brits the only people who believe in fairness, for instance? What about gender equality? When my granny was born, women in Britain did not have the vote. Equal pay, even in theory, did not arrive till 1970. Is that when Britishness started?

More likely Michael Gove’s sudden invocation of Britishness is designed to get him out of a tight political spot. Look closely at the tabloid spin being put on his announcement. There is concern that any attempt to define “British values” will be vetoed by sinister “human rights legislation”. Someone at the Department of Education has been feeding the right-wing media the notion that our Michael is leading the charge against the wicked European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Educated in the Scottish tradition at Robert Gordon’s, Gove is an intellectual rather than a “suck it and see” Tory empiricist. He thinks in systems, which is why he is ultimately more dangerous than Cameron or Johnson. Of course, Gove went to that elite British finishing school known as Oxford University. But his approach to defining Britishness is likely to be very different from the pampered graduates of the Bullingdon Club.

David Cameron is an elitist masquerading as a meritocrat. But Gove is the real thing — a self-made Scottish Tory in the populist mould of Teddy Taylor. His educational revolution is aimed at nothing less than giving back the middle class in England their grammar schools — though by another name. Gove’s conception of Britishness boils down to protecting the interests of suburban, property-owning middle class and their children from the ravages of “modernity”. These include elected Labour councils (too left wing), Muslim fundamentalists (see Mr Gove’s book), educational specialists (too progressive), and lately American novelists (too… er, American).

Yet the wheels are already coming off the Gove cart, as events in Birmingham have shown. Take his flirtation with so-called “free schools” on the Swedish model. It is unwise for the state to have a monopoly of schooling. And there is merit in the Swedish experiment of allowing teachers and parents to set up small community schools, especially in areas of high deprivation, using public funds. But this is not actually what Michael Gove is up to. True, Gove did pass legislation enabling the creation from scratch of Swedish-style “free” schools. But England will be very lucky if these provide 0.8 per cent of school places by next the general election. Why? Because such schools depend on a limited number of enthusiasts and so can never replace a state system.

Behind the smokescreen of genuinely “free schools”, Gove has started the wholesale nationalisation of English schooling by Whitehall. He does not call it nationalisation. He calls it “giving schools independence from local authorities”. Under the guise of “converter academies”, state schools can opt out of local authority control and become directly funded by Mr Gove’s Department of Education. The problem is the state can’t manage tens of thousands of schools. The result is loss of efficiency and more rows like Birmingham. All this is being done in the name of driving up standards. But Gove’s politically-motivated policies will not produce lasting results. They will only lead to an education system that is instrumentalist, conformist and incapable of teaching children to think originally. Gove has decreed that English school children will study more traditional grammar. Fine, except that to squeeze everything into an over-crowded English exam syllabus, something has to go. So from next year, English literature will be optional at GCSE. Bizarrely, Gove’s version of Britishness will be light on Jane Austen.

It is conceivable that a wholly new “British” identity is emerging in Boris Johnson’s London melting pot, created out of its potent multicultural mix, youth, liberal values, and economic power. But it will be a far cry from the conservative (small ‘c’), Little Englander vision of Michael Gove.