Rewriting education: the legacy of Michael Gove


In light of a new biography, I revisit the policies and philosophy of the UK’s most influential education minister of recent times.


In this latest edition of ‘we read the books so you don’t have to’, I’ve been working my way through a new biography of Michael Gove, A Man in a Hurry, by the political journalist Owen Bennett.

For the many international readers of this blog, I should explain that Gove was the Secretary of State for Education in the UK’s Conservative-led coalition government from 2010 to 2014. He was almost universally loathed by the teaching profession, and was eventually sacked on the grounds that his personality was regarded as too ‘toxic’. Gove went on to become Justice Minister and then Agriculture Minister, and is generally regarded as one of the architects of Brexit (if a national disaster requires an ‘architect’…). However, his ideas have continued to inform education policy, and his legacy lives on, not least through the continuing work of his acolyte Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister (whom I have written about before on this blog).

Book coverBennett’s book appeared last month, but it received a fair amount of pre-publication publicity because of its revelation that Gove had taken cocaine more than twenty years ago while working as a journalist – a revelation that put paid to his leadership ambitions, at least for now. The book isn’t a critical analysis, but it does provide a detailed picture of how elites in this country operate – and indeed, of the cosy relationships between right-wing politicans and the media (Gove remains great mates with his former employer Rupert Murdoch). It is a rollicking read, which is stuffed full of clichés.

It’s unwise to psychoanalyse politicians – although Freud’s theory of infantile sexuality could explain a lot about our current political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, Gove’s background is interesting. He was the adopted child of a Scottish fish merchant; and while he was sent to an elite fee-paying school and thence to Oxford, he isn’t a posh boy from the English home counties, unlike so many recent British political leaders. Interestingly, Gove had a brief flirtation with socialism in the early 1980s – he campaigned for Labour when Michael Foot was leader – but by the time he arrived at Oxford in the mid-1980s, he was already a tweed-suited ‘young fogey’, with the personal style of an extra from Brideshead Revisited.

Nevertheless, Gove’s background may mean that he lacks some of the self-assurance and sense of automatic entitlement that is exuded by other leading Tory politicians. It may make him more inclined to seek confrontation, and to challenge what he sees as the status quo. Certainly in his time as education minister, he managed to pick fights on every imaginable issue, with just about everybody – not only the educational ‘experts’ whom he clearly despised en masse, and of course the trades unions, but also teachers’ professional bodies and parents’ organizations.

Gove is not what is sometimes (rather misleadingly) called a ‘one nation Conservative’, who seeks consensus. His positions have mostly been on the right of the party, on issues like Northern Ireland (he opposed the Good Friday Agreement), law and order (he favours capital punishment), the middle east (pro-Israel, anti-Islam) and of course Brexit (he is currently the minister charged with delivering ‘no deal’). He has a close and continuing connection with the man who is now Boris Johnson’s attack dog, his Chief of Staff Dominic Cummings. The raging, confrontational Cummings was Gove’s key adviser for much of his time at the Department for Education.

Naughty chair

This background helps to explain some of the origins of Gove’s ideas on education. Of course, there are many who would regard the phrase ‘Gove’s ideas on education’ as a contradiction in terms. It’s possible to buy a book entitled ‘Everything I Know About Teaching’ by Michael Gove; but the joke is that the pages are entirely blank, except for headings like ‘Why Teachers Admire Me’. As the Amazon blurb puts it, it’s ‘the perfect gift to put a smile on the face of any UK teacher’ – although some might not think it’s quite so funny (personally I prefer the Michael Gove Colouring-In Book).

However, Gove’s ideas on education remain significant and influential. Like Keith Joseph (under Thatcher), and perhaps David Blunkett (under Blair), he was a Man With A Plan – unlike many education ministers, including those who have succeeded him. And while in some ways, his ideas might appear distinctively British (or indeed English – despite his Scottish origins), in other ways they are symptomatic of broader international trends in educational policy-making. Indeed, Gove was one of the key movers in what Pasi Sahlberg calls the GERM – the Global Education Reform Movement that is becoming the orthodoxy in many countries around the world.

On the one hand, Gove could be described as a cultural restorationist. His arguments directly echo those of the mid-nineteenth century educationalist Matthew Arnold. For him, the aim of education is to give children access to ‘the best that has been thought and written’, ‘the best of our civilization’, as though this was something permanent, unproblematic and universally agreed. The proper ‘training of minds’, as Gove put it, would be accomplished by ‘children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England, the great works of literature, proper mental arithmetic, algebra by the age of 11 [and] modern foreign languages’.

FN-AB131_GOVE_M_P_20170726081522In this context, special contempt was reserved for spurious ‘new’ subjects that were apparently responsible for the dumbing down of education in the name of ‘relevance’: I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the fate of Media Studies. However, the main focus of Gove’s attention was on English and History. In both instances, there was a renewed focus on national traditions, at the expense of dangerous things like world history or literature, or modern writers. On the face of it, this looks like a matter of educating children for the nineteenth century as we head forward into the twenty first.

More recently, under Nick Gibb, these ideas have been reinforced by an emphasis on the idea of ‘knowledge’. The claim is repeatedly made – not just by popular writers on education, but also by some academics – that ‘knowledge’ has somehow disappeared from the curriculum. It’s not always clear what is meant by ‘knowledge’ here. Skills and competencies are implicitly opposed to knowledge, as though ‘knowing that’ was somehow superior to ‘knowing how’. The argument often seems to come down to a reassertion of the value of ‘facts’: a collection of substantive statements that children need to know and be able to regurgitate in examinations; a set of books that they should have read and whose superiority they should be able to demonstrate; a list of famous names that would display ‘pride in our country’s history’.

methode-times-prod-web-bin-ae213148-818b-11e9-bb89-165499dc1684This argument rests, not only on a kind of cultural nostalgia, but also on some highly dubious assertions about social equality. This ‘powerful’ knowledge is possessed by the elite, by virtue of their superior, traditional education; but if all children can be taught it, then they will somehow automatically become ‘powerful’ themselves. This argument appears to proceed not on the basis of any proper evidence or research about what actually goes on in real classrooms, but on the basis of a ludicrous caricature of hippy teachers. There’s a great deal of this on Twitter, as one might expect. In this curious other world, dangerous practices like talk or group work are reviled, and those who advocate them become the subject of vicious personal abuse. As one of the original trolls of the educational world, Gove would almost certainly be proud.

However, Gove was not only demanding a return to earlier ideas – or, more accurately, to an imaginary Golden Age of education that was only ever available to a small elite. He combined this with a modernizing rhetoric about the need for systemic change. In line with ministers both before (under New Labour) and since, he proclaimed the need for an education system that would enable Britain to compete in a global economy. If such labels are useful, he was both a neo-conservative and a neo-liberal.

Thus, under the guise of claims about efficiency and parental choice, Gove sought to re-model the education system along the lines of the commercial market. New kinds of schools (such as academies and free schools) were developed to break the control of education by democratically elected local government. Managerial discourse and ideology re-shaped school governance; schools were required to compete in an unequal market place; new technology was used to measure and control the performance of teachers and students in ever-greater detail; and academics were increasingly excluded from the training of teachers. In the process, the professional autonomy of teachers was massively reduced. In the longer term, as with the health service, the aim was to soften up the system for eventual privatization. Stephen Ball’s lucid account of these developments shows how very far they have gone, and how difficult it would be to ever reverse them.

10315912g-michael-goveThese two sets of ideas – the neo-conservative and the neo-liberal – are often seen to be in contradiction. For example, it’s claimed that in the educational ‘free market’, academies and free schools are able to choose their own curriculum. The reality, however, is that such schools are controlled directly from the Department for Education; and the punitive inspection regime assures that there is very little deviation. Rather, this particular combination of authoritarian centralization and market forces could be seen as characteristic of modern, post-Thatcherite (or perhaps post-Blairite) Conservatism – a new formation that educational commentators like Ken Jones have analysed much more carefully that I have been able to do here.

What remains particularly striking about Gove was the way he sustained these arguments by co-opting a rhetoric of equal opportunity. Education in the UK, he once amazingly remarked, was ‘a civil rights struggle’. Like other campaigners (and indeed some academics) in the field, Gove used a purported concern about working-class children to incriminate the left. From this perspective, it was the progressives who were apparently selling working-class children short by refusing to give them access to the alleged benefits of a traditional education. The problem here was not the significant inequalities within the education system – such as the continuing existence of elite private schools, or the uneven provision of public education. The problem was with the ‘Marxists’ who had infiltrated university departments of education, and who were systematically brainwashing young teachers.

It’s here that the link to Gove’s personal background is quite telling. As an adoptive child, Gove might have imagined that he had been able to achieve upward mobility through his own efforts. It was clear that he wasn’t going to become a fish processor like his adoptive father – although in fact his parents paid for him to attend his elite private school (he had to compete for a scholarship towards the end of his school career when his father’s business took a downturn). Gove’s account of his own history appears to represent him as a living emblem of meritocracy. Reflecting on his own education, he once argued that it was the class system that ‘made Britain great’, and that fee-paying private schools (attended by around 7% of children) were a ‘priceless asset’. ‘It is the desire to send his son to Eton, for prestige as much as qualifications, that drives the man in the Midlands to build a better mousetrap.’ Traditional education, on the private school model, thus became a motor of modern capitalism.

BrexitThe relationship between all this and Brexit is obviously not coincidental. As the minister now in charge of preparing for a ‘no deal’ Brexit, Gove is once again offering an artful combination of neo-conservative and neo-liberal ideas – a backward-looking version of English nationalism, but one that is attuned to a deregulated, global ‘free market’. All this is proffered under the guise of democratic populism, which claims that Brexit will represent a victory of ‘the people’ over the liberal elite. In this respect, what has happened to education in this country is merely part of a more ambitious – and even more dangerous – political project.