The Gove Legacy: Education in Britain after the Coalition

The problem with being in education and reading a book about Michael Gove is that it’s a bit like being in therapy with your abuser. Authors pour over his actions, dispassionately analysing cause or consequence, while I – someone who felt the brunt of his policies as a teacher, and later as a researcher dragged to court for asking about free schools – wanted reasons for the pain.

It’s a folly to believe that a book can help you to understand a politician, though. As I transmogrified from a teacher to a journalist, I watched every minute of Gove in the Commons and select committees. I read every column, every speech, every interview. At times I felt I knew him better than I knew members of my family. It still didn’t mean that I could understand him.

The book does, however, help you to see Gove as others understood him – and that’s a good thing. Mike Finn has selected his authors well and edited to perfection. Each chapter opens with a clear abstract and list of keywords, meaning you know what the text will bring and you can decide if you have the stomach for it.

Detractor authors are as welcome as celebrants. Mick Waters, who headed the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority – demolished and often ridiculed by Gove – delivers a quietly biting analysis. “For a man obsessed with children learning facts, Gove was very haphazard when spreading knowledge about the system,” he quips, before describing Gove’s inconsistent stories about schooling in other countries.

Waters also touches on Gove’s love of a political soundbite, a topic deftly described in Tim Hands’ beautiful chapter “The Making and Unmaking of a Supreme Goviet”.

Hands, master of Magdalen College School, points to the 19th-century Conservative prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, as the inspiration for Gove’s belief in social mobility. But he spies a problem. “Gove was a politician first and an educationist second. He had a commendable eye for an education principle but a more open and focused eye for political gain.”

He is right. While Gove wanted to improve social mobility he also couldn’t help but play to the gallery. In doing so he destroyed goodwill that could have helped with his desired aim. As much as he tried to hide behind the Victorian value of chivalry, Gove’s vanity too often won out.

Another beautifully scripted chapter is by Jonathan Simons, head of education at Policy Exchange, though his decision to begin with a Latin phrase, never explained to the reader, is annoying for those (the majority) who never learned the language and foreshadows an important point.

Simons describes Gove’s three years as shadow secretary as crucial to his success. Over time, he amassed a smart team who laid foundations for the Academies Act.

He names the people who helped shape policies: “By 2009, the team around Gove included policy and implementation specialists such as Sam Freedman, James O’Shaugnessy, Dominic Cummings, Henry De Zoete, Munira Mirza, Ian Moore and James Martin, as well as experienced shadow ministers and soon-to-be parliamentarians, such as Nick Gibb and Nicholas Boles.”

Look at that list: overwhelmingly male, privately educated and – at the time – childless. Not one had been a teacher. And yet in 2010 schools were forced to bend to their plans.

Simons rejects the idea that this means teachers were not listened to, and goes on to name the many teachers who were either mentioned by Gove or encouraged to create conferences. Clearing away “the blob” has meant more space for teachers to speak, Simons argues, not less. He has a point.

If there is a criticism about the book it is the two chapters in the middle about higher education which felt somewhat “shoved in”, as Gove never had control over universities – however much he might have wished that he did.

But Finn can be forgiven this, especially when he ends on such a thought-provoking chapter. “If Gove had never existed would it have been necessary to invent him?” he asks. “Or, to rephrase, as a counterfactual, would the coalition’s impact in education have been broadly similar if any other politician other than Michael Gove had been secretary of state for education?”

Perhaps the devil we had is better than the one we’ll never know.