Michael Gove has been under fire this week for ‘sacking’ Sally Morgan as chair of Ofsted. You’d think he’d be within his rights not to re-appoint her, given that she’s a former aid of Tony Blair’s and her three-year term has come to an end. But no. This has become Exhibit A in the latest case for the prosecution against the Education Secretary, namely, that he’s too partisan, too ideological. He’s abandoned the ‘big tent’ approach that characterised the honeymoon period of the coalition and reverted to type. He’s a Tory Rottweiler.
All complete balls, of course. When it comes to education reform, supporters and opponents don’t divide along party lines. The reason Gove appointed Sally Morgan in the first place is because she supports academies and free schools. It’s the same reason he offered Andrew Adonis a job back in 2010 and still meets regularly with Blair himself. They’re all broadly sympathetic to the reforms he’s introduced since becoming secretary of state. The battles Gove is waging against the forces of reaction — the teaching unions, Whitehall officials, local authorities — are the same battles they waged in office.
Gove’s name for the anti-reform brigade is ‘the Blob’ and that’s often leapt upon by his opponents as yet more evidence that he’s become slightly cracked after almost four years in office. They accuse him of being paranoid, seeing enemies under every bed, like some latter-day McCarthy.
But the truth is, he’s always been wary of the Blob. He’s known from day one that the success of his reforms depends on facing down an army of ideological opponents, most of them with a vested interest in preserving the status quo. It’s precisely because he sees himself as an enemy of the educational establishment that he uses revolutionary rhetoric and has a poster of Lenin on his office wall. There’s nothing new here. On the contrary, this mindset — this readiness to go into battle in spite of overwhelming odds — is why he’s been such an effective minister.
I adopted the same attitude when I decided to set up the West London Free School, crossing the road to pick a fight at every opportunity. The result was that, for a brief period, I became the focus of national opposition to the free schools policy, singled out for criticism by the leaders of the teaching unions, Ed Balls et al. Whenever I bumped into other groups trying to set up schools, they would thank me for being their ‘human shield’.
The group of parents and teachers I was involved with often took me to task for this Punch-and-Judy style. Shouldn’t I offer to meet with the school’s opponents, such as the shop steward of the Ealing branch of the NUT, and see if there were any concessions we could make that might secure their support?
I began to doubt I’d made the right call and when I found myself appearing alongside Andrew Adonis on Any Questions? in 2010 I decided to seek his advice. We shared a car back to London and I told him I was having second thoughts about dealing with my opponents so aggressively. Should I ask Fiona Millar and Melissa Benn, two of my fiercest critics, what we should do to make our school acceptable to them? Change the admissions policy? Set aside 25 per cent of the places for children on free school meals? At bottom, we all wanted the same thing, which was good local schools for everyone, so it should be possible to engage in a constructive dialogue about how best to achieve that.
He gave me a look of withering contempt.
‘They’re not interested in “constructive dialogue”,’ he said. ‘Don’t you get it? If you extend any sort of olive branch to them they’ll see it as a sign of weakness and move in for the kill. I dealt with exactly the same people — the Socialist Workers’ Party, the Anti-Academies Alliance, the NUT — for most of my ministerial career and, believe me, they would rather stick pins in their eyes than admit they have common ground with someone like you. Their attitude to free schools is the same as their attitude to academies: they won’t rest until every last one has been razed to the ground.’
That’s the Blob for you. The only way to defeat them is to be every bit as ruthless and single-minded as they are. The day Michael Gove becomes more conciliatory is the day the battle is lost.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.