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Have David Cameron’s Etonians just given up on state school reform?

Demoting Michael Gove meant putting party before pupils.

19 July 2014

9:00 AM

19 July 2014

9:00 AM

During his time as Education Secretary, Michael Gove would often have occasion to quote a passage of Machiavelli: ‘There is nothing more difficult, more doubtful of success or more dangerous than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order.’

In the end, it seems, Gove’s enemies triumphed. They shouted more loudly than those who benefited from the new schools, and persuaded the Prime Minister that his Education Secretary was losing an argument — so he should walk the plank. The teachers’ unions succeeded in posing as the voice of teachers, even though only a fraction of teachers voted for the strikes earlier this month. Opinion polls that sample the views of non-parents were another factor in Gove’s removal. As was the hostility of Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister.

It was never a fair fight because those who stand to benefit from Gove’s reforms are those with the least voice in society. His vision was truly a radical one — that the poor should have the same choice in education that today only the rich can afford. The free schools he introduced were most needed in council estates where sink schools were the norm. Gove was never going for an easy political hit; his was a long-term battle to improve the life chances of the poorest. But the poor tend not to interest political strategists, because they tend not to vote.

Gove had been planning school reform years before he took the job. Still, he perhaps underestimated how noisy his detractors could be and the extent to which their opposition could affect the Prime Minister. After his departure, Downing Street briefed journalists that he was moved because he was ‘losing the argument’. It’s a curious excuse: voters asked if they like academies and free schools may be sceptical as only a few have experience of them. But ask parents who live in poor areas if they should have a new school, and a majority will say yes.

It’s odd: David Cameron is famously paranoid about his Eton education, and his dependence on people like him who went to the same school. Michael Gove was quite right when he said it was ‘preposterous’ that so many alumni from a single school should be in No10. Cameron never forgave him for pointing this out, but Gove was passing comment on the English education system. It insists on rigour for those at the best private schools, but less is expected from state school pupils – leading to a yawning attainment gap between the two systems. So the best-educated go on to achieve the most.

The Prime Minister and his coterie embody the problem. Gove was out to fix it, fighting a battle on behalf of the state school pupils  -a battle that even Thatcher shied away from. Cameron has now decided that he’d rather this battle was not fought. His decision to abandon from this battle and move Gove to become Chief Whip puts party before pupils. It raises new questions over his own commitment to the social justice agenda. And as our political editor James Forsyth says in the above video, it makes sure more Etonians will dominate public life in years to come.

If the Prime Minister was particularly interested in the education of the less privileged, he might even have fought the next election on the fact that tougher curriculums mean that more pupils are learning rigorous disciplines such as science and languages, and fewer are sitting exams in pretend subjects such as media studies. Just one in eight teachers supported the recent strikes, showing that Mr Cameron was not only winning the argument but was on the cusp of a fundamental transformation in English state education. It would be a shame if a few badly worded opinion polls blinded him to that fact.

It’s naive to think that, having been given Gove’s scalp, the teaching unions will now fall silent. They have learned that the government will, after all, fold under pressure — if they only complain enough. The NUT released a poster this week telling its members, quite correctly, that ‘your pressure has had an impact’. They will now set about Gove’s successor, Nicky Morgan, and can remind her what happens to education secretaries who annoy the teachers’ unions — or, as they put it, are not ‘respected by the profession’. They will demand concession after concession, in all kinds of areas where Gove — on behalf of parents and pupils — had given no ground. This summer, for example, we can expect a fair bit of turbulence around exam results, which are being improved and reformed. Will Ms Morgan wobble? Her next test will be protecting the freedoms granted to schools by this government. The majority of English state secondaries have now become academies (again, a sign of Gove having won the argument). It is vital that these freedoms are protected, and that councils are not given any form of control — or ‘oversight’, to adopt Labour’s euphemism. This is a massive vote of confidence in teachers, and it ought not to be revoked.

The final test for the new Education Secretary is the expansion of free schools. Morgan’s department has the power to veto new schools, and the Liberal Democrats have long been keen to strangle more of them at birth. It is vital that Ms Morgan makes sure that the approval process remains part of her remit, with a bias towards approving new schools if enough parents want them. There are almost 200 open now, and there should be more than 300 by the election. This includes schools that plan to compete with unpopular schools (that is to say, that open in areas where bad schools have ‘surplus places’).

It is a great error to think that the genie of education reform has been yanked out of the bottle, and that Gove’s reforms will somehow be self-perpetuating. Labour snuffed out the direct-grant schools set up by the last Tory government. School freedom and parent power could be extinguished very quickly. A new Education Secretary now finds herself facing emboldened unions, and a Prime Minister in no mood for confrontation. For those who believe that the poor should have the same quality of education as the rich, these are worrying times.

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