The Object of Disaffection: ‘Dear Mr Gove’

First of all, have a look at this video, a poem called ‘Dear Mr Gove’ by Jess Green. It was uploaded to Youtube in March and caused a bit of a stir. I believe Jess Green is (or has been) a teacher and it is part of a show she will perform at the Edinburgh Festival this year.

It’s certainly passionate and performed with conviction. I’m not sure how good a poem it is but it is persuasive and engaging, especially given its author’s status as a teacher.

What I find most interesting, though, is the way that ‘Mr Gove’ has found his way into the popular imagination of the teaching profession (and perhaps more widely among the liberal-left) as a bogeyman figure. It has been a while since we’ve had a Secretary of State for Education who has aroused such strong and personal feelings – in my memory, probably only John Patten (a former Conservative Education Secretary from the early 1990s) and David Blunkett (the first New Labour Education Secretary) have figured so large. Can you even remember some of the others? We went through quite a few under Blair and Brown. Estelle Morris, remember her? Resigned because she didn’t think she was good enough only to write a weekly column for the Guardian in which she offered her advice to all and sundry. Ruth Kelly (who?), Ed Balls, Charles Clarke, that nice man who wanted to a pop star when he was younger? Remember them? Maybe – but for what?

But Mr Gove has achieved almost mythic status in his relatively long tenure as Education Secretary, a popular and courageous figure if you follow the right wing press (where he used to work and where his mates still do) and a bogeyman among the unions, teachers, university people, Guardian readers, etc.. Of all his predecessors, it is probably only David Blunkett in his early years that could claim to have had such a (positive or negative) impact and such wide name-recognition. And Gove shares with Blunkett one thing: a passionate commitment to improving schools, attempting to change the education system for the better (on his terms) and trying to make policy on the basis that poverty or disadvantage need not be a child’s destiny. With both Gove and Blunkett you get the sense that their own histories and experiences as children and pupils have had a lasting influence on how they think about education and schooling.

And the connection between the two is more than personal, of course. As John Harris noted (and as I mentioned in a previous post), much of Gove’s machinery of reform was bequeathed to him by New Labour and it was probably the zealous, even messianic fervour of that first Blair administration that has carried over most strongly into the Coalition’s policies. Gove listened to Blair when he said that he wished he had gone further and faster in the reform of public services and that he should have been prepared for the resistance of vested interests such as the teacher unions, local politicians and university education people (the latter memorably termed ‘the Blob’ by Mr Gove).

So why, when in Mr Gove we have a Secretary of State so clearly interested in education, one who appears so passionately committed to state education (and one who, unlike some New Labour figures, chooses a state school for his own child); someone who says he isn’t good enough to be prime minister but wants to stay on at Education and see things through; someone who is said to be funny, a good mimic, charming company on social occasions; why, when all these things might suggest that he would be a good choice to have oversight of an education system in a modern democracy, why is he so loathed by the profession and by Jess Green?

Well, there are probably at least two main reasons. First, a very personal one. His way of doing politics is arch, to say the least, veering on the high camp and snickering. Listen to ‘Today in Parliament’ on Radio 4 and you will hear someone who likes to poke fun, sneer, spout hyperbole. Speaker John Bercow recently described him as a ‘very excitable man’ in a gentle ticking off for some unruly behaviour. I have heard him demean individual officers of teachers’ and subject associations in the Commons in a way that inevitably polarises opinion, whether designed to or not. This is the side of Mr Gove that leads people to describe him as a ‘loquacious sixth former at a minor public school’. Old enough to know better but nonetheless eager for popularity and advancement.

The second is more to do with the policy machinery and his way of operating it. Early in his tenure, he described his approach as ‘disruptive innovation’, essentially the same approach as New Labour. Disruptive innovation as a concept comes from technology entrepreneurship where the goal is always to make things easier, cheaper and more convenient for the consumer. But Coalition policy has rather been marked by what mid-twentieth century Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter called ‘creative destruction’. It is marked by continual interventions into the system intended to destabilize it, create new opportunities for private capital, and change the system of values on which the system is built.

So in education, you undo the professionalization of teaching (no qualifications required); you open up the establishment of schools (the ‘provision of school services’) to everyone; you appear to denigrate those who choose to make teaching a career choice in preference to ‘elite graduates’ who teach-to-the-test for a while; you devalue professional knowledge (and its gatekeepers) in preference to ‘things that work’ (to improve test scores) as demonstrated by pseudo-randomised controlled trials or anecdotage from your preferred think-tank.

It is no surprise, then, why Mr Gove has become the object of disaffection for so many people, so many teachers like Jess Green. And of course, he will, he does, take all this in his stride. It is a mark of his success (to him and his followers) that Jess Green should upload a poem like this. Look at the comments beneath her videos on Youtube.

But if this is creative destruction, there is a risk that Mr Gove hasn’t planned for and that is because it can’t be planned for. The risk is that this creative destruction leads to …. destruction, in terms. The education system in England begins to truly fail – not enough teachers – shortages, especially in urban areas; idiosyncratic or even fanatical free schools that last for a few years then close; low-cost, perhaps for-profit schools that do a worse job than the very worst ‘bog standard’ comprehensive; PISA results on a decade-long, declining trend; 16+ qualifications that genuinely no longer mean anything; an eventual choice between state-supported schools for the poor that teach to certain gate-keeping tests and private schools that incorporate attention to the arts and culture, meaningful engagement in practical science, sport and extra-curricular activities – a genuine education.

The problem for Mr Gove is that he is Education Secretary in a country where not only has schooling been seen primarily as the responsibility of the state (the central state, especially since Jim Callaghan’s 1976 Ruskin College speech), it has since become something that the state seems to have the responsibility to comment on at a very micro-level. Only in England, I think, would the Education minister be expected to have a comment on the failings of a specific school somewhere in the country. So, if you destroy the system through your/the state’s ‘creativity’ – a system that politics demands you have the ultimate responsibility for – how do you comment on that? ‘I was radical in my approach to reform and, whoops, it all fell apart, sorry’?

Passionate commitment and fervent beliefs are not enough to make an education system function to its best. And wisdom is hard to come by when politics has been reduced to five-year election cycles. Who will write a poem about that?