I recently spent some time in the British Library. In the men’s toilets on the first floor, in the cubicle on the right hand side, a visiting wit has written on the toilet-roll dispenser: ‘Michael Gove is a moist little man’. This is just one example of a malady sweeping Britain, diagnosed by Professor Frank Furedi as ‘Govephobia’.
At union meetings, delegates vie to make the most diabolical comparison with the Education Secretary. One described him as an ‘evil entity’, whilst Mary Bousted likened Gove and Michael Wilshaw to ‘blood brothers’. Public figures, for whom there is little previous evidence of an interest in education, can whip a crowd of bien pensants into an approving frenzy with a couple of jabs at Gove – see Simon Schama at the Hay-On-Wye Literary Festival this May. The most frequent question I find myself asked after ‘what do you do?’ is ‘do you hate Michael Gove?’ If you work in education, this appears to be assumed.
I don’t hate Gove, in fact I agree with much of what he is doing. So I have been giving Govephobia some thought. In particular, why is this hatred so often expressed in a hyperbolic and inchoate fashion? Gove it seems is either ‘evil’ or ‘moist’. Perhaps this is because Gove’s opponents have ceased to engage with his reforms on an intellectual level. We have recently seen a spoof book sold on Amazon entitled Everything I know about teaching by Mr Michael Gove, and a Michael Gove voodoo doll. Such pranks appear as the last refuge of those who are losing the debate.
What is really lacking from the rampant spread of Govephobia is a clear, thoughtful refutation of the core planks of Gove’s reforms. Who can offer a thoughtful explanation of why there should be less knowledge taught in our schools? Who has offered a convincing defence of handing more power back to Local Education Authorities? Where can I find a serious explanation of why we should keep a GCSE system that accepts English language questions on Simon Cowell’s autobiography, proven corruption and grade inflation? Can someone tell me why we should not be concerned that England/N. Ireland is the only country in the developed world where 16-24 year olds have lower literacy levels than 55-65 year olds?
Gove may seem like Satan, but the devil really has all the best tunes. So when it comes to explaining precisely why Gove is so evil, people have trouble – see the rocky ride so far experienced by Tristrum Hunt. It is no surprise that people pressed on why they hate Michael Gove commonly respond with things that are not true. Allow me to list such examples in (my estimated) order of frequency:
- He is privatising education.
- He has imposed the jingoistic teaching of history on British schools.
- He plans to reintroduce selection.
As for the accusation that Gove is ideological, it is so very banal. Education is invariably ideological, that is what makes it interesting to debate. A history curriculum that mentions ‘diversity’ twelve times and ‘religion’ once, as did New Labour’s 2007 offering, is hardly neutral. Although Gove’s February draft of the history curriculum was flawed, the September draft is highly sensible. Also, we should remind ourselves that Gove has ringfenced almost all education spending – not bad for a Thatcherite.
At the heart of Govephobia is an interesting paradox. He is widely regarded within the government as their most successful minister, subject to numerous predictions for future party leadership. However, the teaching profession regards him as a destructive fool.
Nuance is necessary. Gove has reformed enough areas and made enough speeches that only a fool would declare themselves in favour the complete Gove package. Issues such as monitoring Free Schools (see Al-Madinah), and the details of performance related pay are both areas where I would take issue, but they are relatively minor. In contrast, some excellent education bloggers (Stuart Lock, Old Andrew, Kevin Bartle) have laid political viewpoints aside and expressed qualified support for the direction Gove has taken since 2010.
To be perfectly honest, I find Govephobia distressing. It is rampant, inarticulate, and a bandwagon. But it is also a vindication of what Gove is doing. Gove is unusual as an education secretary for thoughtfully engaging with the past century of educational debate (David Blunkett was the last to do so), as can be seen in two of his recent speeches at the SMF and Brighton College. He has asked some pretty damning questions about our schools’ educational orthodoxies, and I think this goes a long way to explaining the strange nature of Govephobia. If there something that a middle-class liberal is bound to hate, it is a conservative winning an intellectual argument. In response, they can only rage that he is a moist little man.