Odd couple: Michael Gove's Whitehall counterpart strikes at his legacy


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The marriage of Michael Gove, as Secretary of State for Education, and Sir David Bell, as his Permanent Secretary, was evidently not one made in heaven. Sir David, who worked for Mr Gove for just the first year of the minister’s tenure, does not name him,  but it seems clear who he has in mind, in remarks released today. 

To quote him: “The idea that academic excellence was only valued by a small coterie holed up in Westminster was as insulting as it was wrong… whether intended or not, the unfortunate impression was allowed to develop that teachers didn’t care about standards.”

Even Mr Gove’s critics, a crowded field, ought to concede that his bunker mentality  was born of frustration at the failure of the education establishment – which he termed the “blob” – to help prepare a workforce that could compete, in that well-worn but valid phrase, in the “global race”. But if there is a lesson from his removal from the post of Education Secretary, it is that true, long-lasting reform requires collaboration. Had he been less haughty, Mr Gove might still have the job – and British education would be the better for it.

Not every aspect of Mr Gove’s style is to be abjured, however. He seems to have been one of those ministers the Civil Service doesn’t like, who takes his government’s programme seriously. He didn’t, as Tony Benn is supposed to have in 1974, simply hand the Civil Service his party’s manifesto and tell them to get on with it. He was doing his job.

Likewise, the Civil Service is there to say to ministers, when they are being silly, “no”. Politicians don’t like that, but Sir David, too, was doing his job. Maybe they were a good match after all.