Michael Gove: Why work with him?

Labour: Another Blairite collaborator

Paul Demarty wonders why Sally Morgan of Ofsted was allowed to collaborate with Gove in the first place

We must confess a certain admiration for Michael Gove, in spite - or perhaps because - of his unreconstructed, high-church Toryism. Surrounded on the front benches (government and opposition) by the blandest crop of nonentities ever bred in a Westminster Petri dish, there he is. Gangly, bluffly condescending to his opponents and rolling out all the authoritarian clichés of the 1950s, the education secretary is the greatest throwback in the house; it is as if Alan B’Stard, of that old Rik Mayall vehicle, The New Statesman, had possessed the body of a provincial Edwardian schoolmaster.

Inevitably, he has a habit of getting himself into hot water, starting as he meant to go on in 2010 with the Building Schools for the Future debacle, where the unilateral axing of the Labour refurbishment programme left many schools in limbo. His calls for ex-servicemen to go into schools, to provide a strong, masculine presence in the classroom, raised a few eyebrows. His recent statement that World War I has a bad image basically because of communist propaganda brought forth eye-rolling responses even from as fanatical a Tory as Niall Ferguson.

He is now carrying the can for the fate of Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) chair Sally Morgan - sorry, Baroness Morgan of Huyton, ennobled thus for her services to political cronyism. Morgan, having discovered that her three-year contract would not be renewed, has launched an attack on the government for replacing ‘independent’ bureaucrats at agencies like Ofsted and the Arts Council with loyal Tories. She stresses that it is not simply about people, like her, who have some notional affiliation to the Labour Party - but simply anyone who is not in the back pocket of No10.

She insists on Cameron as the source of this “worrying pattern”, rather than Gove, about whom she has nothing bad to say at all. This is slightly peculiar, given that it is, after all, Gove who is in charge of her employment status; even if he was under heavy manners from Cameron’s circle to ditch Morgan, the very least that could be said is that he stabbed her in the back.

Credence, of a sort, is lent to Morgan’s accusations by the support of David Laws, the Liberal Democrat schools minister (and thus Gove’s underling). His party seem to be taking the Labour side, broadly speaking, in this quarrel. We still cannot take it too seriously - it appears to be Lib Dem policy to make gestures towards independence from the Tories, in order to prevent the likely whitewash they face in 2015.

This has, in one sense, all the hallmarks of an insignificant Westminster village spat - Morgan’s disgruntlement has been opportunistically seized upon by various politicians to embarrass the Tories. There have been attempts to hang all manner of agendas on this affair, not least deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman, for whom the story is rather ludicrously about purging women from these positions, rather than political cronyism - “it’s raining men” at Conservative central office, apparently. (Whatever else one might hurl at Cameron, he has made a serious effort to ‘broaden the image’ of the Tories with the regulation politically correct tokenism.) Sooner or later, this storm in a teacup will politely blow over.

Rather, this is yet another reminder of the complete political hollowness of contemporary bourgeois politics. We feel nothing but indifference on the matter of who exactly heads up the vile Ofsted. What we want to know is this: what on earth is Sally Morgan doing with the Labour whip?

This is a woman, remember, with no reported disagreements with Michael Gove, whose latest bright idea is to return to ‘traditional’ school punishments like litter-picking and writing lines. We all know he really wants the return of the cane. Morgan is a fanatical supporter of Gove’s free schools programme, and thus about as compromised a ‘regulator’ of schools - for whom Ofsted failure, in these dire times, will mean closure or forced academisation - as it is possible to imagine.

She can be added to the list of Labour traitors, along with Alan Milburn, the Trotskyist-turned- Blairite who has bounced around the coalition in various advisory positions; Frank Field, a virulent reactionary who became Cameron’s ‘poverty tsar’, among others. Their treachery is hardly surprising, of course, given the toxic legacy of Blairism, but still.

An awful lot of people will have to be unceremoniously ejected from the Labour Party before it will be in any way useful to the working class, but any principled leftwing challenge to the Labour machine ought to make a point of expelling this sorry crew first. Milburn and Field front up assaults on the welfare state that will drive thousands, if not millions, into penury and worse.

As for Morgan, a teacher’s son like me knows her contribution only too well. Ofsted haunts schools like a vengeful ghost. Teachers attempt to anticipate the inspectors’ ‘random’ arrivals using various hunches and fragments of street wisdom, but it is no good. The inspection is announced, and then two days are wasted frantically turning the school into a perfect little Potemkin village.

When times are (relatively) good, and the school is deemed by various meaningless metrics to be ‘successful’, this is a stressful process. When times are not so good (and especially now, with Gove and his minions gleefully hacking away at the state school system), the atmosphere in the staff room starts to resemble Anne Frank’s attic.

Exactly what use this is to school kids is anyone’s guess. Ofsted, moreover, is merely the first pillar of what has become a singularly bizarre technocratic-bureaucratic superstructure crushing the life out of education. The obsession with standardised testing (Gove wants to start testing at age four), league tables - all point to an organised distrust of teachers among the Whitehall and Westminster establishment.

The inevitable effect on the ground is to strengthen the hand of bland management types whose only imperative is to game the system. Subjects that do not contribute to better GCSE results are run down. Every reconfiguration of the criteria of ‘success’ leads to entire layers of the student population being ignored as a matter of policy, because they are not the kids whose success will bump people up the tables.

This obsessive standardisation has the effect of deforming the education system into a form of punishment. Gove want to force delinquents to write lines, Bash Street style; but frankly, a good deal of the learn-by-rote, test-driven curriculum amounts to the same thing. Students and teachers alike are uninspired by a process that serves neither: only management and Whitehall wonks benefit. Teachers then naturally see their role becoming more and more like that of a prison guard, holding bored youths in a pen so they do not get into trouble outside. (That teachers do manage to do some actual education, in spite of all this, is some kind of testament to the indomitability of the human spirit; Ofsted and the like deserve no credit whatsoever.)

For the front benches of the Commons, of course, all this is a win-win situation. If schools are seen to ‘improve’, according to massaged statistics, then the government takes the credit. If they ‘fail’, the government - and its bureaucratic appendages - have free rein to impose whatever hare-brained policy they like by taking direct control. The policy du jour - as it has been since early in the Blair years - is privatisation, whether through academies or free schools.

Morgan is, if anything, more implicated in this state of affairs even than Gove. She got her titles and baubles through being a close (unelected) advisor to Tony Blair, whose government started the league tables, and the academies, and fannied around with school assessment criteria to the point that they became a running joke. Until now, her work has continued with her new best friend - Gove. Now that she is out on her ear, communists can regret only that her replacement will no doubt be even worse.

Our vision for education, naturally, is vastly different to the shambles forced on recalcitrant kids and increasingly disillusioned teachers. Michael Gove says he would be happy to have a “revolutionary communist” in charge of Ofsted, so long as they were competent. We would not take it, Michael: Ofsted should be closed, and the Byzantine educational bureaucracy shredded. At the centre of a rational education system is the teacher and the student - meaningful control must be handed over to them.