The Education Secretary Michael Gove is a driven man, of that there is no doubt. His ambitious school reforms have to be achieved at breakneck speed if his Government is to leave its legacy on the education system – and ensure that future ministers of a different hue find the changes hard to dismantle, should the Conservatives be defeated in 2015.
Mr Gove has implemented his reforms regardless of what his civil servants feel. He has used his special advisers – most notably Dominic Cummings – to ensure no opposition to pushing through the reforms. Civil servants complain of being left out of the loop while the juggernaut rolls on. Former minister Tim Loughton talks of an “Upstairs Downstairs” relationship between ministers and their civil servants.
Documents from within his department talk of a target of 5,000 schools becoming academies by the end of this parliament. At present, the number is just over 3,000 – and the meteoric rise we saw in the first 18 months of the Coalition appears to be slowing. So much so that the big area for expansion earmarked by him for this year is forcing struggling primary schools to become academies – whether teachers, heads and parents like it or not.
He turns a blind eye to any opposition from schools that feel they are being bullied and offered inducements. They are dismissed as “enemies of promise”.
Meanwhile, he is still embarking on a wholesale reform of exams (despite last week’s backing down on plans to scrap GCSEs). Arguably he is still capable of achieving most of the same ends as he had before, with the emphasis returning to end-of-course exams in both GCSEs and A-levels.
I could go on. Teacher training is being reformed and will be rooted in schools rather than teacher training colleges. He is taking on the unions with plans to stop teachers’ annual pay rises, and base pay on performance in future. And 1,000 civil service jobs in his department are to be axed.
Mr Gove therefore needs every academy he can get – and cannot in his terms brook any Sir Humphrey-ish opposition from civil servants.
There is a story about how Tony Benn, when he became a minister in Harold Wilson’s government in the 1970s, just walked into his ministerial office, handed his civil servants a copy of the Labour party manifesto and said: “Implement that.” It didn’t work. Michael Gove has been more successful than that: his plans probably exceed the expectations many of his (more right-wing) backbenchers had of him.
Mr Gove is unfailingly courteous and charming in his dealings with almost everyone (unlike some of his predecessors). I also have not felt the wrath of a special adviser come down upon me despite being critical on occasions – until this week. As the feature on these pages shows, though, for others it has been a different story.