Only a very sad person spends New Year re-reading old Michael Gove speeches. Unfortunately, that person is me. Whatever your view, he is, unlike many politicians, a political survivor whose actions, unfortunately, have had a lasting impact.
Gove’s most passionate cri de coeur has been about freedom and autonomy – whether “taking back control” from Europe or, as education secretary, proclaiming the liberating power of autonomy for headteachers so they could be “captains of their own ships”.
But there is nothing like a crisis to expose vacuous, headline-grabbing gimmicks, which is what these mythological “freedoms” have turned out to be. For more than 30 years English education policy has been marked by the loud rhetoric of autonomy, eclipsing the quiet march of centralised government control.
Whether it is the need to conform with Ofsted or league table requirements, or the “freedom” for heads to set their own curriculum, as long as it complies with ministers’ preferred suite of academic subjects (Gove is alleged to have personally handwritten lists of which medieval monarchs English schoolchildren should learn about), the dream has turned out to be a fantasy.
Hundreds of schools are now trapped in supermarket-style chains managed by instruction manuals from HQ. One academy trust boss described this as the 80/20 principle, where roughly 80% of what went on in schools was set centrally and 20% at local discretion.
Even Sam Freedman, Gove’s former adviser, recently acknowledged the implicit contradiction in arguing that academies should not have to follow the national curriculum, while simultaneously prescribing in minute detail how primary children should be taught to use language devices such as a fronted adverbial.
But these examples pale into insignificance compared with the new and poisonous level to which the relationship between schools and government, and the concept of autonomy, has sunk.
In the past few weeks schools and local authorities have been threatened with court when they wanted to close for public health reasons. Then, only weeks later, they were ordered to close for the same public health reasons – which, had they refused, would have led to court action by the government under new Covid laws.
Christmas holidays were spent preparing for mass testing, plans that had to be ripped up on the first day of term when heads and teachers were summarily commanded to switch to online teaching, with one prominent head observing wryly on Twitter that he had been sent hundreds of pairs of rubber gloves but no laptops.
Along the way, the usually cautious headteachers’ union the ASCL felt obliged to consider legal action to force the Department for Education to release school Covid safety scientific advice so heads could ascertain the true nature of the public health catastrophe. And, in a barely noticed legal judgment last November, the court of appeal found the DfE had acted unlawfully in failing to consult children’s bodies in its rush to water down regulations on social care to cope with the pandemic.
It is understandable that ministers require extra powers, embedded in the Coronavirus Act, to allow them to mandate the actions of schools and other public services. But goodwill, respect and a spirit of partnership (inevitably more important than empty promises of freedom) have become lost in a quagmire of bitter recrimination. A relationship that is marked out by litigation, rather than dialogue and listening, is going nowhere.
Rebuilding that relationship will be essential and almost certainly will need someone other than Gavin Williamson, who seems particularly unsuited for any government role, let alone education secretary. Gove was sacked from the role because he had become toxic to teachers. Williamson’s position is much worse: he is not only toxic but held in contempt, even managing to take the sheen off his own “trust the teachers” exams announcement by threatening schools with Ofsted online learning inspections in the same breath.
Giving up power and control is usually much harder than acquiring it, so this will be a delicate process. But it is time to admit that, just as complete autonomy is unrealistic in a public education system, schools usually do know better than the man or woman in Whitehall their communities’ health, education and social needs. That is true whether in a pandemic or not, but a lot of trust will need to be rebuilt before either side in this fractious dispute will believe it to be real.