This piece first appeared in The Spectator on 15 March 2014.
A few weeks ago, I was a guest at a huge tea party for children’s authors, publishers and commentators at the South Bank, but the atmosphere, over the cupcakes and finger sandwiches, was decidedly frosty. There were three keynote speakers and their speeches all targeted a man so vile and destructive that the audience visibly recoiled every time his name was mentioned. He was, of course, Michael Gove — and I wasn’t sure I should tell anyone that I had always rather admired him and, moreover, was about to interview him for this magazine. It might be better to keep quiet in much the same way that Vidkun Quisling would have been well advised not to mention his wartime visits to Berlin.
You think I’m exaggerating? One of the speakers, Patrick Ness, a brilliant, prize-winning novelist, described Gove as ‘appalling, ignorant and damaging’. He compared him to Thatcher, doing to children what she did to the miners. A well-known illustrator said to me: ‘He’s a massive, arrogant egotist who can’t see anyone else’s opinion.’ And my suggestion that Gove was a well-meaning man trying to do the best he could was met with the riposte (from a bestselling Jewish writer): ‘That was what Hitler thought when he tried to wipe us out.’ Seriously?
To his friends, he’s simply ‘Govey’. Chris Huhne once called him ‘the politest man in the House of Commons’ and it’s not as if he’s been tarred with the Bullingdon brush. Indeed, you’d have thought someone would give him credit for his humble origins, the son of a single mother adopted by an Aberdeen businessman and his wife. But no, not a bit of it. ‘He’s the original major of Hamelin,’ Ness snarled. ‘But we [children’s authors] are the pied piper.’
It was with that image in mind that I whistled my way to Gove’s oddly bland and utilitarian office in the Department for Education. What, I wonder, is it like, being a hate figure? Is he even aware of it and if so, how does he cope? I hoped, if nothing else, to get under the carapace of a man who, more than any other Tory politician, seems to attract these mountains of bile.
He was, from the very start, monumentally polite, chuckly and benign. We had met before on Question Time and he remembered it. He had read my book The House of Silk. We chatted about middle-age foibles as I searched for my glasses. Finally, I launched into a fairly general question just to get things going. ‘What is the point of education?’ This got a smile and a frown and then he began: ‘There is a phrase that I’ve used…’
Dread words! That’s exactly what I don’t want… the phrases that he’s used, the formulation that I’ve heard and read a hundred times. But here it comes. ‘I want people to be the authors of their own life story. I think the principal purpose of education is to allow each of us, when we become adults, to shape our own future… We have the opportunity not just to choose our job or profession but also to choose the sort of life we want to live and the imprint we will leave on others.’ Then he goes on to quote Matthew Arnold. Has someone told him I went to Rugby School? ‘To introduce people to the best that’s been thought and written. Our children may never enjoy the prodigious wealth of Roman Abromavich’s children, but they’re just as capable of enjoying Dostoyevsky or Wagner or appreciating the Gherkin or the Shard — but only if the education they’ve had has given them an understanding of everything from metaphor to scientific principles.’
I cannot find a single thing to argue with in any of this except that, in my work as a children’s author, I have visited many, many schools and have yet to enter one where the students have been debating Raskolnikov’s moral torpor or humming the Ring. A great many children leave school without reading any book from cover to cover. According to the National Literary Trust, for whom I have done some work, almost one in five children leave school barely able to read more than a red-top newspaper. Isn’t there some sort of disconnect between Gove’s vision and the truth?
He doesn’t agree. ‘I think the situation is better than you describe.’ He lights on Shakespeare. Gove was widely criticised for stripping English literature out of the core GCSE exam but according to his argument, when Shakespeare was on the national curriculum, children actually had less opportunity to experience whole plays. He blames poorly designed league tables, pressure on teachers and the unscrupulous behaviour of some exam boards. Then, children only read extracts, whereas now, thanks to initiatives by such organisations as the RSC and the Shakespeare Schools Fund — both of which he supports — the opposite is true. He describes a lesson on King Lear that he witnessed recently at a school in London. ‘It was the scene where Gloucester’s eyes are plucked out and it was as gripping as anything you’d see on the stage — and it reflects the fact that perception sometimes lags reality and I think the perception of what’s happening in state schools at the moment is shaped slightly by Waterloo Road and Grange Hill and all the rest of it.’
Mr Gove visits two to three schools a week (there’s a map covered in dots on the wall behind me) but as we talk, a pattern emerges. He sees the best in everything and everything he sees adds to his conviction that he’s right. This is either admirable or rather troubling, depending on your point of view. He accepts that ‘poverty is one of the biggest factors limiting children’s potential’ (I’m quoting Christine Blower of the NUT) but counters: ‘There are schools I could take you to, many in London but many outside, where the gap between what the poorest children and their peers achieve… has almost entirely closed.’ The fact that one in nine schools are dealing with students who have English as a second language? It doesn’t worry him. ‘A lot of schools benefit from parents who are first- or second-generation immigrants, who expect the best for their children.’ Mr Gove met a boy from Malawi, ‘a fantastic little boy’, who is now sitting the scholarship exam for his own old school. From this one example, he construes: ‘They are going to be the stars of the future.’ Should we simply admire this optimism? Is it unfair to question it?
The truth of the matter is that as our time together slips by, I come to realise that I might as well be interviewing Stonehenge. Everything I throw at him bounces back. Inevitably, we come to free schools — which I have always supported — but I ask him why his department has spent £62 million on just nine free schools at the same time as £100 million has been cut from sixth-form colleges. Surely, indisputably, this reflects an ideological drive backed by government funds?
Nothing could be further from the truth! ‘Free schools, in a way, are the opposite of an ideological project. They are essentially an exercise in English pragmatism. They will only succeed if parents want to send their children to them. They are schools of choice.’ But they’re not succeeding, I suggest. In Sweden, JB Education, responsible for 10,000 pupils, closed down last year. There have been some very high-profile closures here too — the Discovery New School in West Sussex, the Al-Madinah School. Could the free school model be flawed? Not at all. ‘It’s understandable that any departure from the status quo almost attracts more attention. Yes, there have been two or three free schools that have had big problems. But there are hundreds of maintained schools that have big problems.’ I have a nasty feeling this is a syllogism. Failures in one system have nothing to do with the success of another.
I wonder if Mr Gove has any idea of the hostility he provokes, but when I suggest this to him he bats it away. ‘Education secretaries, for a host of reasons, tend to find themselves at the heart of controversies, more than some other ministers.’ He recalls that his predecessor, Kenneth Baker, once told him how he was taunted, kicked to the ground and had his glasses smashed. David Blunkett was apparently locked in a cupboard by union activists. Even Ed Balls had a rough time at teachers’ conferences. The inference is that, by comparison, Mr Gove is almost popular.
I point out to him that, in recent weeks, he has repeatedly hit the headlines, falling out with everyone from Sir Michael Wilshaw (head of Ofsted) to Baldrick from Blackadder. Does he relish these fights? ‘No,’ he replies decisively. ‘A proper argument, along issues of principle, is a worthwhile thing.’ To which he adds this extraordinary rider: ‘Some of the time, some of the people who disagree, are disagreeing with what they think I’ve said, or what they fear I might mean by what I said, rather than what I’ve actually said.’ He pauses as I try to make sense of this. ‘But that’s politics!’
We are nearing the end of my allotted time and here is the impression that I have of a man for whom I have always had a very high regard. He is brilliant and erudite, doing an almost impossible job and doing it with passion and commitment. And yet it is just possible that the minister is a monster. I would not normally use such a word of a secretary of state but I am only picking up on something he said himself. Referring to the teachers who inspired him as a boy, he remarked, laughing: ‘There’s a direct relationship between the opportunities that I’ve enjoyed and their influence. They might now, like Victor Frankenstein, hold their head in horror and think “What have we created…?”’
It was the only moment of revelation in our encounter that struck me as truly insightful, the only awareness of the amount of power he wields. He assures me that he consults much more extensively than people believe, but continues: ‘One of the things that I think is a challenge here is that there isn’t a monolithic view within the teaching profession — about anything. It’s a bit like saying authors believe x or journalists believe x. There are some vocal people within the profession who might appear to be the dominant voices but by definition they can’t be representative: no one’s elected them.’ But actually there is one monolithic view that is out there and which will brook no argument. It is Gove’s.
My American friends are shocked by how much power one politician can have over a whole generation of children and even Gove agrees. ‘I do think that education secretaries do have too much power.’ (Even so, he has allotted himself around 50 new powers since he took office.) ‘But part of what I want to do is to ensure that lots of things that were fixed or arranged or decided in the Department for Education and its quangos are now decided in schools. And that’s the big change.’
His vision should be uplifting but I cannot say that I particularly enjoyed my encounter with Michael Gove. It’s very strange. I have argued with so many teachers and other authors that he is a wholly benevolent man, a reformer who is actually improving the lives of children across the country. Even now, that opinion has not changed. But nobody can be as certain as he is. Nobody can be right all the time. It’s his single-mindedness that troubles me, and so for all his quips, his humanity, his courtesy and his eloquence, I leave with the faint worry that, after all, I am the one who’s wrong.