It wasn’t long after Michael Gove took office as Education Secretary before he was called a “miserable pipsqueak” by Labour MP Tom Watson and got savaged by an angry parent on a radio call-in.
But last week, when the abolition of the AS-level – an exam taken by lower sixth-form pupils – faced the staunch condemnation of both teaching unions and Cambridge University, it became clearer than ever that Gove has shifted the terms of the education debate beyond recognition.
After major policy announcements it has become the norm to expect an angry reaction from teachers’ unions and educational campaigners. A revolution is taking place in our education system, driven by a very personal ideology.
Striking teachers have been demonised as “Trotskyists.” Schools have been forced to become academies. Arts subjects have been consigned to second-rate status and the new history curriculum will focus on wars and white men.
The abolition of GCSEs and modular A-levels will end years of “drift, decline and dumbing down,” Gove tells us. His Labour predecessor Estelle Morris has accused him of “trying to replicate his own education for the nation’s children.”
Indeed, every media appearance, policy directive or leaked memo seems to have the same message – our education system will support those who can make it to Oxbridge, just like the good old days.
As for anyone else, you can’t even hope for the technical school experience that existed in the days before the 11-plus.
So surely the elite universities would be Gove’s biggest champions.
Yet on the contrary within hours of the announcement of the reintroduction of a single set of A-level exams, management at Cambridge University had issued a statement of extraordinary severity – warning that “if implemented [the changes] will jeopardise over a decade’s progress towards fairer access to the university.”
This swift dismissal of an attempted suck-up to the educational establishment tells us that Gove is among the few who are prepared to abandon evidence-based policy-making on a personal whim.
Education is far from a new ideological battleground. Margaret Thatcher famously condemned the “anti-racist mathematics” pioneered by Frances Morrell’s Inner London Education Authority (ILEA).
There is no denying that the ILEA was engaged in political education, but it was at least backed up by the evidence of numerous academic studies.
For Thatcher there was at least the soppy excuse of acting in the name of neutrality. New Labour could temper accusations that academies were motivated by the profit agenda with idealistic talk of raising standards at failing schools.
Gove’s removal of the pioneering black nurse Mary Seacole from the curriculum, however, is something else. Don’t bother asking why she’s been cut – unless you want to hear that it’s because she never featured in the curriculum of the “square legged” Thomas Gradgrind in Dickens’s Hard Times.
On the surface, it would seem like the Gove experiment is getting the scrutiny it deserves. The condemnation of the new A-level structure was a lead story on the BBC – as was the Tory-chaired education select committee’s savaging of the replacement for GCSEs.
But we cannot forget that the Department of Education’s narrative is designed to grab headlines, buy into urban myths and build a consensus that accepts Gove as our saviour from slipping standards and failed modern developments.
It might continue to provoke bitter immediate reactions, but the language of “freedom,” “reward” and even that jaded phrase “back-to-basics” is creeping into the media lexicon.
A recent edition of Newsnight saw a comprehensive school governor pitted against three supporters of academies. Needless to say, the presenter failed to challenge the guests on the involvement of private capital in education, and instead focused purely on the minutiae of local competition between schools.
The Labour front bench has mounted some challenges to Gove’s golden-age policy directives – there has been no silence over the proposed reforms to GCSEs. But like the media, the opposition has only contested the headlines and not the stealthy agenda wholesale. Disastrously, education spokesman Stephen Twigg announced support for free schools soon after taking the post.
If we let the Gove agenda become the Gove consensus, then we risk an opiate-sedated sleepwalk to a schools system based on the romanticisms of the Tories’ staunchest neocon.
A system rejected, it would seem, by visionaries and the Establishment alike.