Michael Gove has no shortage of very vocal opponents. He may be renowned in Westminster as “the politest man in politics”, but the Education Secretary’s sweeping reforms of England’s school system have prompted charges of arrogance, of bullying and of waging war with the teaching profession (to name but three).
The latest league tables, published yesterday, vindicate his strategy, if not his style. Not only has the number of secondary schools failing to meet the Government’s GCSE target dropped by approaching a third over the past year (with the result that six out of 10 pupils are now achieving five A* to C grades including maths and English). No less importantly, the number of students achieving the English Baccalaureate has shot up. In 2012, only 16 per cent managed A* to Cs in the core subjects of English, maths, one language, two sciences and either history or geography; in 2013, nearly 23 per cent did.
Full marks, Mr Gove. After he took up the education brief in 2010, his central claim was that a culture of low expectations – among teachers, pupils and parents – was dragging down attainment. His answer was a reform programme touching everything from Ofsted inspections to governance structures, from teachers’ pay to the national curriculum. Evidence of improving results would be a boon for any education secretary. But the fact that grades are better even as more children are taking supposedly difficult subjects is of particular value for one who staked his career on the premise that lack of ambition, not lack of aptitude, was holding many back.
For all its apparent successes, Mr Gove’s revolution has not come without a cost. Yesterday’s gracious response – describing the improvements as “a credit to the professionalism and hard work of teachers” – may be a nod in the right direction. But it will take more than a few warm words to repair relations between Government and teachers that have been strained to breaking point.
While much may be put down to the unavoidable friction between reformer and soon-to-be-reformed, the combination of a wage freeze, new pension arrangements and the introduction of performance-related pay is a lot to take all at once. Meanwhile, the Education Secretary’s sometimes slapdash approach to the details of his reforms has also added to the contretemps that have so soured the mood.
This is no call for capitulation. For too long, the teaching profession has allowed mediocrity, if not actual incompetence, to flourish unchecked. But the fact remains that the upbeat, enterprising, get-up-and-go educational culture that Mr Gove rightly wants for our schools will be difficult to institute if morale among teachers remains so low.
It is not only relations with teachers that need attention. So too does vocational education. There has been progress. Only this week, the Government announced plans for another 11 secondary-level institutions focused on technical, non-academic qualifications. But the new total of 96 is still some way off the national availability that must be the goal.
Mr Gove has won the central argument in British education. But in the long battle to overcome defeatism in our schools, this is merely the end of the beginning.Reuse content