Michael Gove is one of the most energetic figures in the Coalition Government and, unlike some of his colleagues, there is no doubting that he has a powerful sense of purpose. And the Secretary of State for Education gets results: as we reported last month, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of pupils studying the traditional subjects which give them the best hope of qualifying for the country’s most selective universities.
But there is a problem with his performance which has been noticeable for quite a time: he gives the impression of being in a desperate hurry. As a result his ardour to promote his pet ideas can, as we report exclusively today, have disastrous unforeseen consequences.
One of the ideas about which he is passionate is free schools. Establishing an entirely new type of school during a period of economic austerity is a challenge, and it is another sign of his ambition that, during his four years in office, he has overseen the creation of nine such schools, which compete with the existing sixth-form colleges, at a cost of £62m. But that money had to come from somewhere, and now we learn that it was largely at the expense of existing sixth-form colleges.
Is their drastic loss of funds the result of some deep-seated antipathy on Mr Gove’s part? Does he see them as horrid embodiments of what he refers to as “the Blob”, the left-leaning educational establishment bent on thwarting him at every turn?
Just possibly – and if that is so, then it would be another lamentable consequence of the febrile emotion Mr Gove has brought to a brief which would benefit from cooler management.
There is however a more plausible explanation for this disastrous plunge in funding, which has forced nearly half the colleges to axe courses, including many of those in the “difficult” core subjects like maths and foreign languages that Mr Gove has, in other corners of his empire, done everything in his power to promote.
To reassure parents of its commitment to education, the Coalition Government in 2013 ring-fenced spending on schooling, along with its budgets for the National Health Service and international aid. But the commitment only covered education between the years of five and 16. Sixth-form colleges were left out in the cold.
Meanwhile, Mr Gove furiously set about fashioning his legacy, in the form of the new free schools, and displayed wiliness and determination in extracting the necessary money from the Treasury to pay for them. But those funds had to come from somewhere, and as a result the sixth-form colleges, whose only mistake was not to have been conceived and brought into existence by Mr Gove, have suffered a double whammy.
It is quite possible that this consequence of his other policies went unnoticed by Mr Gove until now, and may well be a source of regret for him. If so, he should do all in his power to repair the damage, and reflect on the risks a secretary of state runs when he behaves more like a hare than a tortoise.
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