Why it became Michael Gove’s awful month

10:20 am - July 31st 2010

by Neil Robertson    

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The surprising thing about Michael Gove’s short tenure as Education Secretary is how quickly an appointment which began with such hype and bluster has descended into one of hubris and error.

The controversies Gove has been embroiled in since May have been entirely unforced errors; it is not beyond a Secretary of State to publish an accurate list of which schools will/will not see their building projects completed, nor is it beyond his ability to give a realistic estimate of how many would take advantage of his invitation to become academies.

The truth, as we now know , is that most schools in England & Wales didn’t await the Academies Bill with the same breathlessness Gove had when he rushed it through Parliament.

Whilst it’s still probable that eligible schools will become academies at some point, the implication that over 1,000 would do so before September always seemed rather staggering.

But the relatively small number of actual applications for Academy status is something the DoE could and should have predicted. It can take some schools months just to change something as superficial as a school uniform.

With a matter as significant as a long-term change in a school’s structure, funding & accountability mechanisms, those thinking about applying will have needed to be meticulous in their preparation.

They would have had to consult not just with governors but with teachers, parents, pupils and, yes, those maligned local authorites they’re meant to be desperate to escape. They most certainly couldn’t have proceeded with the same haste as the Education Secretary might’ve wanted.

Moreover, the rewards for schools to become Academies by September weren’t nearly as great as Gove might’ve imagined. By the time he made his invitations, many schools had already set their budgets for the next academic year: they already knew their resources, class sizes, staffing levels, the subjects they would offer and the targets for their own improvement.

In this context, the additional freedoms & resources offered by Academy status would’ve made little difference, so why rush into an arrangement which would have enormous consequences for pupils, parents & teachers?

Gove’s mistakes thus far haven’t been errors of policy, but of process. Of course parents want increased standards across the school system; they want it to be easy to get their kids into a good school close to where they live, and they’re willing to accept reform if it might make that wish a reality.

But parents also value some measure of stability, certainty and reliability; they don’t want to be confronted with erroneous, ever-changing lists of scrapped school building programmes and they don’t want to hear wild overestimates about how many schools which will convert into academies.

It normally takes a good few years for the full effect of education reforms to be accurately measured & evaluated. If he carries on at this rate, Michael Gove will have lost the public’s trust before he’s even lost the political argument.

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About the author
Neil Robertson is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He was born in Barnsley in 1984, and through a mixture of good luck and circumstance he ended up passing through Cambridge, Sheffield and Coventry before finally landing in London, where he works in education. His writing often focuses on social policy or international relations, because that's what all the Cool Kids write about. He mostly blogs at: The Bleeding Heart Show.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Conservative Party ,Education ,Westminster

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Reader comments

Neil; your conclusive lines are always so well executed: “Michael Gove will have lost the public’s trust before he’s even lost the political argument.” Gove is playing an utterly absurd game, in the self-image of a total genius – hubris has followed him to the educational department, to the detriment of the children/parents.

2. Flowerpower

Michael Gove did not expect an easy ride from the vested interests in education. He knew that the teaching unions, the quangos, the education establishment etc. would resist reform, as they always do.

You may think he was naive in not anticipating that PFS would go so far as bureaucratic sabotage by entering the wrong data in the list – and you may be right.

But here left and right have different perceptions. You clearly think that Gove’s performance has been sub-optimal. To those of us who have been working towards these reforms in opposition, he’s a star. And the past weeks have been a triumph.

The bill is through. Phase one of the mission is accomplished. Before the election many of us were pessimistic that we’d get this far in a year, let alone a matter of weeks. Yet by combining the academies with the free schools enabling legislation, Gove has got two major reforms for the parliamentary price of one.

You are right, of course, that governing bodies will – and should – take some time over this. Some boards of governors haven’t even met since the election. However, all the signs are that many schools are making interested enquiries and examining the option. I’m confident that within a couple of years the educational landscape will be totally transformed.

The education bureaucrats are now being squeezed from two sides. Not only does the prospect of many schools opting for academy status make many of them appear increasingly redundant, but now their own council bosses, eager to find cuts, are looking to children’s departments for actual redundancies. The timing couldn’t be better.

Gove has no critics on the right.


Gove has no critics on the right.

Really?!?? The man’s an arse. I hated him way back when he was writing articles for The Times and he’s even worse now – a hubristic, smarmy, slimy vermin rushing through laws before anyone has had a chance to fully analyse them. If the right have no criticisms of him then that shows your lot up for the power-trippers that they are.

Yeah, I’m not sure the assertion that “Gove has no critics on the right” is particularly true. Not sure where I read it, but I recall Melanie Phillips being rather underwhelmed by his reform proposals. I also read a pretty strong critique from the right by Chris Woodhead, who argued that he should’ve resurrected school vouchers (http://bit.ly/dc2Yx3). Woodhead called it “a policy that is, at best, a fudge, at worst a smoke and mirrors deception.” I’ll grant, though, that the left & right perceptions of Gove’s performance are at least going to be partially influenced by how his reforms were received in the first place.

5. Dick the Prick

It is incredibly amusing watching the NUT scream & shout though and it’s been useful to shake off the cobwebs in the Local Education Depts. There were some very peculair omissions from basic administrative good practice identified in a few scrutiny meetings.

It’s evidence, I guess, that government is harder than you imagine it’s going to be when you’re in opposition.

The hope is that Gove will have learned his lesson about dealing with entrenched leftist vested interested as he roots them out and exterminates them: like the Partnership for Schools quango (who created the list) they do NOT mean Gove well, and will fight tooth and claw to undermined him, exactly as they did over the list.

That being the case, Gove will now surely realise he needs to have a plan of attack for dealing with the buggers, and when he moves in for the kill, they have to be presented as faits accomplis.

7. Sevillista


How paranoid are you talking about “bureaucratic sabotage”?

Gove wanted a list drawn up very quickly for political reasons. His bureaucrats advised him that the list would have inaccuracies (due to the localist nature of BSF central government did not keep a definitive list up to date) and so strongly advised it would be better to wait for an accurate list.

Gove ignored the advice, regretted doing so and may listen to his bureaucrats with a little more care in future.

Loadsaspin that is what this government is about. In June, an MP in my area tweeted with glee on twitter that every school in his constituency had “applied to become an academy”. In fact more careful reading showed that they had ticked the box asking for more information.

When the list came out, none of the schools in his constituency had actually applied to become an academy, indeed, no school in the entire county had applied. Have we had a retraction from him? No. Loadsaspin.


That’s certainly Partnership for Schools’s version of events, but if we apply Occam’s Razor, it seems more likely they deliberately foisted him with a incorrect list to make him look bad.

Frankly, the knew their death warrant had been signed anyway, so they had nothing to lose in sabotaging him. Gove’s error was in not realising this.

10. Charlieman

I can sort of understand Michael Gove’s rush to push through this bill. It could never have been delivered quickly enough to affect the decisions in most schools about budgets and direction for the academic year 2010-2011. But schools now have 12 months to make decisions about 2011-2012 or later.

Education Secretaries typically hold the job for two or three years. If Gove is going to see fruits of change whilst in office, they will be made by actions this year rather than next. Politics demands that Gove makes the big decisions now.

Note also that the precarious role of a minister has other impacts. The promiscuous Ken Clarke held loads of government positions. He was in them long enough to take glory from decisions made by his predecessors but short enough to evade the consequences of his follies.

I recall David ‘Dave’ Cameron talking about his “Big Society” and spouting some touchy-feely guff about “taking power away from politicians and giving it to the people”.

This does the exact opposite taking away any local control and centralising it all with the Secretary of State.

A recent Ipsos-MORI poll found that 96% of parents wish to send their children to a good state school run by their local Council. Furthermore, the public is opposed to Headteachers being given increased freedoms, by a ratio of 9:1.

“taking power away from politicians and giving it to the people”? eh?

@ 2 – “Gove has no critics on the right”

Well last time I looked Simon Jenkins was regarded as being on the right:

‘Gove’s claim to be ‘freeing’ schools is a cloak for more control from the centre.

This dreary abuse of local democracy was tried by Thatcher and Blair. All people want is fair access to a good, nearby school


(BTW shouldn’t “such hype and bluster has descended into one of hubris and error” be “such hype, hubris and bluster has descended into one of nemesis and error”?)

12. Sevillista


Isn’t Occam’s Razor that the explanation with the fewest assumptions the most likely, not the one with the most paranoia behind it.

We know that PfS and the DoE do not hold up to date records of the progress with the different projects in the BSF programme.

This alone explains why rushing a list out prior to speaking with LA
officials who knew progress on the projects resulted in a massive cock-up.

You do not need paranoid ‘sabotage’ theories to account for the inaccuracies.

Yeah I’m sorry but if the civil service wanted to sabotage the Gov there are a billion more effective and secretive ways of doing it than issuing the wrong list. Michael Gove cocked up, simple as that, it’s (already!) typical of this administration that they don’t want to take a few moments to pause and think – when they do (a la rape anonymity) they normally backtrack.

We have the BBC to thank for promoting Gove on their art shows during the last 5 years as the tories tried to rebrand themselves as new, modern human beings. Gove’s problem is that he just another on the long line of conveyor belt slimy tories.

The tories big idea for the public services is the same as it has always been. Create 100s of little Northern Irelands in the public sector where the minority are encouraged to opt out and then ring fence themselves from the majority. If Gove does not want local authority control over schools he should do the honest thing and fund the whole education budget from the state level. Half of local government spending goes on education. So if you are going to take away their control then take away their need to fund it.

15. Rhys Williams

Outstanding schools want to academies, what a surprise, more money and resources.
Surely the idea was failing schools to be fast tracked to academies.
I have a freeling that schools will rush to be academies, like they did when many became trusts for the extra dosh. Most trusts are now LEA levied
Once they have no support when the lab burns down or the roof falls in they will go back to paying the LEA levy

Gove’s initiative some months ago to prescribe a minimalist history curriculum for schools convinced me then that the man is a fool:

This news report from 10 July only served to underline that previous assessment:

“Michael Gove is facing fresh questions over his judgment after it emerged the under-fire Education Secretary ignored warnings from his senior officials and ‘rushed out’ an error-strewn list of more than 700 axed school building projects.”

Gove’s principal problem is not that he is too rightist or too leftist. He is just a fool.

17. Rhys Williams

I think your right Bob,
Unlike Clarke and May who you may not like but they seem competent.
He looks like a blunder merchant who blames others for his own mistakes.

Flowerpower says he is beloved by the right.
One question would you want him as the next leader ?

Also you have to question a man who says his favourite film was 300.

“Flowerpower says he is beloved by the right.”

Which is just more evidence that the Right are morons.


Kenneth Clarke has come across as a leading font of sanity in the government so far – although I certainly don’t share his enthusiasm for Britain signing up to join the Eurozone.

Remember this?

“Cameron’s ability to oppose Vat cuts will be hindered by the fact that Kenneth Clarke, the former Tory chancellor, said in an interview yesterday [22 November 2008] that such a move would ‘stimulate spending and consumer demand’. ”

And this report from 12 April 2009?

“The government’s much-criticised cut in VAT [announced in Darling’s Pre Budget Report on 24 November 2008] is working and has led to a big boost in consumer spending, according to a leading economics consultancy.”

This is what Cameron was reported as saying on 2 January 2009:

“‘The government’s attempts to boost the economy by temporarily cutting VAT have been an ‘unbelievable and expensive failure’, David Cameron has said.”

As best I can tell, the main, if not the only, contribution of the Conservative right to the policy debate so far is to go around proclaiming how right-wing they are. OK, but exactly what are their distinctive policies?

Gove’s academies initiative seems to have fallen flat if only a 150 or so schools sign up.

20. Flowerpower

Bob B @ 16

If Gove had announced the scrapping of BSF on the grounds of its endemic inefficiency, no doubt many year would have disputed his argument.

The fact that PFS could not even come up with an accurate list of greenlighted projects when the Secretary of State asked for one shows how spectacularly useless they were. Their job was to manage these projects, but they didn’t know which projects they were supposed to be managing. No wonder it took three years of paperwork and a million pounds in consultancy fees for each school building to get to the shovel-ready stage.

The list fiasco very graphically proved Gove’s point: Ed Balls ran a very slack operation where public money was spent without proper care on projects that were in administrative disarray.

The list thing proved, in the end, a complet vindication of Gove’s decision.

“The list thing proved, in the end, a complet vindication of Gove’s decision.”

Rubbish – and I wouldn’t give a flying fig for Ed Balls.

Gove was advised by officials that the list of Schools for the Future projects to be cancelled was full of inaccuracies but he went ahead and published it regardless. That’s why, shortly after, this appeared in the news:

“Gove apologises over school building list errors”

The man is a blundering fool – a fact already demonstrated by his earlier initiative proposing a national curriculum for history in schools. We had a debate here about it at the time.

Bob B @ 21

Why is he a blundering fool for suggesting teaching a core history curriculum? I missed that debate.

“Why is he a blundering fool for suggesting teaching a core history curriculum? I missed that debate.”


The topic inclusions in Gove’s recommended curriculum were selective and tendentious and would likely promote active debate not among kids at school – who were being indoctrinated, after all, and hardly placed to know better and argue back – but among a wider public some of whom are not indoctrinated. For example:

No mention of the slave trade or the Opium Wars – why not? The Indian Mutiny?

The early but not the later industrial revolution – presumably because France and Germany, unlike Britain, didn’t follow laissez-faire. Even in Britain, it became increasingly necessary for Parliament to intervene in markets with factory acts, to stop the exploitation of children and women, and with the Education Act of 1870 to provide universal primary education as schooling standards in Britain were lagging those in other west European countries.

Credit for introducing the beginnings of the welfare state belongs to Count von Bismarck, first Chancellor of the German empire (1871-90), who launched not only state pensions for the aged but, in 1883, a social insurance scheme to cover personal healthcare costs:

Bismarck was not renown for his socialist inclinations.

There’s a good case for teaching history in schools because to understand where we are we need to know how we got here. The trouble is that school history is so often partial and distorting. Gove wants the curriculum to include the kings and queens, parrot fashion, which seems rather pointless to me. There’s a better case IMO for teaching Britain’s social and economic history with political and imperial history treated as a backdrop.

27. Bob b. Also scientific and technological history. If history in schools showed pupils Britain’s amazing achievements in science and engineering, it could perhaps unite the left and right; provide far more interest for boys and encouarge greater interest in manufacturing.

Bismarck “Blood and Iron Policy” meant industry was developed in order to support a modern military capability. Prussia winning the 1870Franco-Prussian was in part due to the industrial development. Prussia mass produced steel which could with stand high pressure and temperature needed to manufacture the Maxim machine gun and the chemical industry which produced explosives, by extracting nitrogen from the air rather than from guano.

I would suggest that it is the creation of new technologies which do much to change the World, such as the invention of bows and arrows, agriculture, bronze and iron tools, the wheel, irrigation, sea going boats, steam engines, mass production of iron, canals, etc, etc

New technologies – such as the marine chronometer, the steam engine, the flying shuttle, the water frame, the spinning Jenny, puddling in steel making, the railways, the Bessemer process for steel, steam ships, the Harber-Bosch process to make amonia, electric power generation and networks etc – were crucial developments in the course of Britain’s industrialisation and pre-1914 globalisation but seminal scientific discoveries are probably better considered in the context of science lessons IMO. Maxwell’s equations for electro-magnetic forces are widely regarded as the high-point of 19th century science but would be indigestible in history classes.

I don’t subscribe to manufacturing fetishism – in most years going way back into the 19th century, Britain has run a deficit on visible international trade in goods but a surplus on invisible trade in services.

“19th century trade was accompanied by massive international capital movements, which were much larger relative to the size of the world economy than anything seen since WWI: in a typical year in the late 19th century, Britain invested about 40 per cent of its savings overseas.”
Source: Paul Krugman: Peddling Prosperity” (Norton, 1994) p.258

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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Why it became Michael Gove's awful month http://bit.ly/bthi9y

  2. heather leith

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  3. Kate B

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  4. Dirk vom Lehn

    RT @libcon: Why it became Michael Gove's awful month http://bit.ly/bthi9y

  5. Dave Howard

    RT @libcon Why it became Michael Gove's awful month http://bit.ly/bthi9y

  6. Rachael

    RT @libcon: Why it became Michael Gove's awful month http://bit.ly/bthi9y <<point well made. Gove is such a liability.

  7. blogs of the world

    Why it became Michael Gove's awful month. by Neil Robertson July 31, 2010 at 10:20 am. The… http://reduce.li/o7mubc #awful

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  9. BS – Big Society or Bullsh…..? « Paperback Rioter

    […] of Britain” in their manifesto; what remains to be seen is how many say yes. There has been a lukewarm response to Michael Gove’s “free schools” plan, and a recent Demos poll said that only 15% […]

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