Exit, pursued by a bear

Early yesterday morning Michael Gove, the Education Secretary for England, was officially sacked. OK, officially he was ‘reshuffled’, moved to another job, given opportunities to sustain a high media profile; it was a ‘wrench’ not a demotion. Blah, blah, blah. But, heck, he was given the boot and there is no denying it. Hard. Where it hurts most (the ego and the bank balance).

The departure of Mr Gove is not the same as the US Education Secretary Arne Duncan standing down. For one thing Mr Duncan is not elected. But it is the significance that is different: it is like Bill O’Reilly being sacked from Fox News. Or Matt Lauer moving from the Today Show to do the weather on the 11pm bulletin, at weekends, for KPOK in Pernickety, Idaho.

Gove’s sacking had been on the cards for several weeks. His own and his advisors’ involvement in a dispute with the Home Office over alleged religious extremism in Birmingham schools had boiled over into a bad-tempered spat with Theresa May, the Home Secretary, who has great shoes. The moral of that story is not to mess with people with such good taste in shoes but also to know when to draw a line between political argument and high camp snickering and sniping in public. Mr Gove increasingly didn’t know when to draw the line. The Prime Minister made him write a letter of apology to Mrs May, put him into detention and told him to pick up litter at break time three days in a row.

The consequences of Gove’s reform agenda are also becoming clearer to civil servants who, whether they are supposed to or not, do have an interest in protecting some of our national infrastructure that would be difficult, costly and time-consuming to replace. That is not to say that the direction of the reforms has displeased Mr Gove’s boss, David Cameron, but that the strategy and implementation and the style have produced some tricky and avoidable problems. One of these is likely to be teacher shortages in London and other cities as a result of Mr Gove’s initial teacher education reforms. Whatever else one thought about the previous administrations’s  Teacher Training Agency and its successors,  they were pretty good at predicting and modelling the teaching workforce requirements and ensuring that providers such as universities got an appropriate allocation of places.

So he has gone. Off to the Chief Whip’s office, an explanation of which is near-impossible for international readers. I don’t know of another political system where a cabinet job sounds like an occupation that would be of interest to the Vice Squad.  But that’s not a nice thought so I will move on.

It was interesting to hear Mary Bousted, a teacher union leader I have the greatest respect for, describe him, in sum, as the most unpopular Education Secretary ever with teachers and those who work in Education.  I was tempted to respond, ‘so what?’ One reaction to a description of this unpopularity is that he stood up to vested interests and tried to sustain a democratically-mandated reform agenda and, like others before him, he was stymied by the forces of conservatism within the teaching profession. I don’t believe that for a moment but it is a good argument if we focus just on his unpopularity, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts. He was, is, a skilled politician, rhetorically adept and apparently well-intentioned.

We also need to remember that moving Mr Gove from Sanctuary Buildings to the breakfast TV couches and, probably, back to his think-tank Policy Exchange, does not deal with the underlying problem which is that our system has become infected by what Stephen Ball calls the GERM, the Global Educatin Reform Movement. It looks like Dr Hunt and the Labour opposition have a dose of the GERM too. In fact, one might argue that they had the virus longest and hardest and passed it on to the likes of Mr Gove in a spray of sneezed mucus or a carelessly discarded tissue.  And, just in case we didn’t notice, Mr Phonics himself, Nick Gibb, was being reshuffled in through the back door of Sanctuary Buildings to join the delightful Lib-Dem Mr Laws as well as the new Secretary of State, Nicky Morgan.

One of the most famous stage directions ever, from The Winter’s Tale, has a character leaving the stage pursued by a bear. Many literature scholars have danced on the head of a pin debating what the bear signifies and whether or not it is a bear or a man in a bear suit or an older gay man with a tummy and lots of hair (OK, I made that bit up). One of the possible interpretations is that the character Antigonus leaves the stage ‘bearing’ his responsibilities heavily, aware of the weight of his situation and the actions he has taken. So Mr Gove might now be reflecting on his time as Education Secretary and wondering whether it was this or that that made a difference, whether he was the sole author of his own misfortune. It’s a possibility. But frankly I prefer the idea of him being chased down the street by a chunky chap in a checked shirt and  a handlebar moustache.