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Good to know Team Gove was rattled by Any Questions blog – here is their (sic) rebuttal

Posted on 16 December 2012 | 10:12am

Michael Gove, with his little army of supporters in the media and on the Tory backbenchers, is not used to being challenged over his potty policies which win the support of the mainly privately educated, privately educating editors, but are widely disliked and mistrusted by the public.
When I blogged on the discrepancy between media and public opinion on the Govester yesterday, fair to say a nerve was touched. Prone to ignoring criticism because it tends to be drowned by the praise being proffered from his former pals at Chateau Murdoch, Gove HQ went into rebuttal mode.
I am a big believer in rebuttal, and helped to pioneer to rebuttal systems which were an important part of our 1997 election win and which are now copied by many public and private sector organisations. Remember the old adage about a lie being half way round the world before the truth has got its boots on … if you think your point of view is misrepresented, or based on wrong information, best to get the rebuttal out quickly.
So Team Gove went to Conservative Home, the website run by my fellow Any Questions panellist from Friday Tim Montgomerie, who to a muted if not hostile response spoke in favour of Gove’s reforms whilst I was garlanded and carried shoulder high from the building by former Tory voters who on the back of my two sentence denunciation of Gove said they wished to join the Labour Party and support Burnley for evermore. (Self-rebuttal — this is exaggeration to make a point, the point being that inside-the-media-villagers like Tim think Gove is popular and a success because the village keeps saying so, whereas in the real world people think he is messing around with their kids’ futures in a rather dangerous way).
Here, as a reminder, is my blog of yesterday. Here is a link to Any Questions on iplayer, with the Gove bit towards the end after we did drugs (not in the Cameron-Osborne sense you understand), immigration, gay marriage and fracking. And below is the rebuttal by someone mysteriously named as ‘one of Gove’s advisers.’
I would have thought that Tim Montgomerie would not approve of anonymous articles such as this, but hey ho. Perhaps the Gove adviser in question is a tad scared to get head above parapet.
Anyway, given that my central point today is that my piece of yesterday clearly touched a nerve, and perhaps alerted others to what Gove himself knows to be true about his broader standing with teachers and many members of the public, I am posting the @toryeducation adviser’s blog not so that I can rebut the sometimes bizarre statements within it, but because it establishes so clearly 1, what low grade advisers he has and 2, the extent to which the cage was rattled.
Alastair Campbell blogged about Michael Gove this morning. Below, one of Gove’s advisers analyses the blog in the context of AC’s other blogs on education…

What is AC right about?

  • AC is right that ‘media opinion’ is very different than ‘public opinion.’ (Also, swing voters’ views are very different to what most people in politics imagine; they are not an ‘average’, they do not have views ‘equidistant between Right and Left’. E.g. swing voters are more hostile to immigration and some basic principles of markets than Westminster collectively realises.) AC is right that the fact that the media thinks of Gove as a (relative)  ‘success’ does not mean the public does.
  • AC is right that many do not trust Conservative motives though this is about the long-term general brand problems of the Conservative Party, not specific education policies.
  • In general, Gove’s team has focused on management and trying to get things done. They have not focused on communication and  explaining what they are doing and why. (Westminster also can confuse speeches and strategic communication over time). That is a choice about priorities in the context of the overall political environment and limited time and resources. AC is right that there is a lot of hostility, partly because of the cuts to the school capital budget, though of course he ignores the many teachers who are extremely happy with what Gove is doing.
  • AC is right that Gove’s opposition to Leveson has endeared him to journalists.
  • AC is obviously right that a school can be good without being an Academy.

What is AC wrong about?

  • Unions… AC says ‘Gove is deliberately trying to provoke teachers into an industrial dispute so that he can have a fight and show his many media admirers and Tory right-wingers that there is a touch of the Thatchers about him.’

Wrong. He is not trying to provoke the Unions into a large-scale extended strike. That would be foolishly destructive. The NUT and NASUWT are encouraging teachers to disrupt education by refusing to do various parts of their job. The Union leaders regard this as reasonable tactics in a political struggle. Gove has informed heads of their legal powers – which are complicated and the Unions lie about them – in order to help heads minimise the damage done by the Unions’ action. Gove’s team do not want a massive strike; their attitude is ‘if you want peace prepare for war’. They think that the public support the idea that ‘a great maths teacher deserves more of a pay rise than a duff teacher’ and the Unions will, hopefully, reluctantly realise this.

  • Leadership… AC says so often one assumes it is his opinion that Gove’s team spends its time trying to promote Gove as a future leader. But Westminster hacks know this is not the case. Some of his friends think about the leadership but his two special advisers do not and do what they can to limit inevitable speculation. Gove does not want to be leader and has said many times that he would not be good at it. His spads know this, agree, and do not waste their time on that. Given the dynamics of Westminster, it is a reasonable default assumption that ‘X wants to be leader’, and to interpret behaviour from this perspective, but in this case it is wrong. One of those referred to as ‘Gove’s briefers’ by AC – Dominic Cummings – actually spends less than 1% of his time on anything to do with the media; his job is policy and project management of priorities.
  • Standards… The main feature of AC, Fiona Millar and their gang viz education is that they live in a parallel universe on the question: ‘have school standards improved?’. AC likes to talk about ‘bubbles’ of Establishment opinion but in this respect he is very much part of it. Roughly, there is little doubt that some children experienced an improvement from a very low base in their education over the past 20 years. However, there is also little doubt, and huge evidence to show, that standards expected for a C or an A in GCSE or A Level have fallen. A long-term study by King’s has shown that basic algebra skills have fallen between 1979-2009. Why does AC think natural science degrees have had to lengthen to four years? Is he aware of the decline of English-to-foreign language composition skills (that have affected even Oxford ‘Greats’)? With how many professors of maths or physics at Oxbridge or Imperial has he discussed the quality of incoming A Level students? If he were to do so, he would realise that there is widespread worry at the lack of advanced problem-solving skills; many professors will explain to him that students who arrive with an A have been taught to lower levels than 30 years ago. Why does he think Cambridge University Maths department recently asked the DfE to fund them to develop new teaching materials for 16-18? Because everything is better than ever, as Labour and the unions argue, or because they want to revive the teaching of advanced problem-solving skills?

Ironically, this problem in many ways helps the Etonians that AC despises because Eton and other top private schools teach to higher standards which give their students a great advantage in the competition for places at top universities, while many state school pupils, particularly in the poorest areas, are wrongly told that A Levels are as respected as ever and all they need to think about.

AC is very proud of his ability to distinguish between public opinion and media opinion. However, his instincts are a decade out of date. Back in 2000, the public did indeed reject the idea of ‘dumbed down exams’, particularly when coming from Tories (and many parents who paid vast fees to private schools did not want to be told that ’10A*s doesn’t mean your child is brilliant’). Now, they know it’s true. Labour’s inability to accept this – and here Adonis is as wrong as Campbell, hence his opposition to GCSE reform – is their main error in the education debate.

For 150 years, Britain has largely failed relative to other countries on vocational and technical education, partly because of strong Establishment parochialism and resistance to learning from what works abroad. Thanks to the implementation of the 2011 Wolf Report and other reforms, some of these problems are finally being dealt with. Labour, like previous governments, almost totally failed in this area and their main idea, Ed Balls’ ‘Diploma’, was an expensive fiasco.

  • ‘Modernity’… Like many with his political opinions, AC seems to equate modernity in education with a kind of happy clappy kumbaya Coke advert in which kids sit around singing and learning to emote. He really seems to think that a focus on algebraic or statistical skills is ‘old fashioned’. He – like many in politics – does not realise the way in which applied mathematics is invading almost every field of human endeavour. He also ignores that Gove scrapped Labour’s useless IT curriculum and has brought in the likes of Facebook, Google and distinguished professors to develop a computer science curriculum and exams. The DfE is also piloting the use of 3D ‘personal fabricators’ in education, to see what lessons could be applied in schools from MIT’s brilliant Center for Bits and Atoms. Fundamental advanced skills in writing, maths, languages, and problem-solving (e.g. solving mechanics problems) have not been rendered obsolete – indeed, they are the things most in demand from the most high-tech and innovative parts of the economy and academia. Things like ‘computational biology’ and desktop computational analysis of vast data sets did not exist 30 years ago but that enhances, not diminishes, the need for more students with advanced maths skills and Gove making this a top priority is the opposite of ‘old fashioned’.
It is in the interests of many people – and it is a natural human reaction – to believe that the vast money and effort of the past 20 years brought significant improvements. It is dispiriting to face the fact that many colluded in the subtle undermining of reliable public exams and the desire of many not to discuss this openly lies behind the huge pressure on university academics and others to keep quiet.

AC hates private schools and Tories. He therefore hates the spreading Academies programme. AC believes that he and his political allies should micromanage the school system to engineer a different society, therefore he opposes attempts to give state schools the sort of freedom that the despised private schools have. (Like almost everyone in Westminster, he has an extreme faith in the ability of MPs and the civil service to ‘manage’ large complex systems.) Because he wants education to be, always, a political struggle, he understandably fears the idea of a truly decentralised and largely depoliticised education system that might emerge from what Gove is doing. Because he and his friends were in charge for a decade and colluded in the corruption of exams, he is not keen on looking at the evidence. Because he understands so little about either advanced academic research or private enterprise, he has nothing interesting to say about what sort of skills we should be trying to develop.

But he should remember the advice, ‘never hate your enemies, it clouds your judgement’. Because he can only see things through a political prism defined mainly by internecine leadership struggles, he misunderstands his enemies and fails to take his own advice to escape Establishment orthodoxies.’

And this, finally from me (AC) … I don’t hate Gove at all. I think he is an interesting and quirky character and I like interesting and quirky characters. But I believe he is taking our schools in the wrong direction, and treating with contempt the many who dare to suggest he might be wrong. Anyway thanks to the adviser, whoever he (almost certainly) is, thanks to Tim Montgomerie for posting it, and for giving me the pleasure of knowing that whilst I was enjoying the football yesterday, Team Gove’ was  scrabbling around rebutting my blog in a way that helped my argument more than theirs.
  • Anonymous

    Public school system should have been watered down years ago. The state Grammar School system should be still with us in that case. Went about it wrong way.

    How does the education system work in France, for instance, top to bottom? More inclusive? More republican?

  • That’s a bit of an Ed Balls ‘ooh we got a rise from them’ response, Alaistair. Respond to their arguments – it’s an interesting discussion between you both, and useful for people like me who aren’t that up on education policy.

  • Anonymous

    The thing that really stands out for me here is the lie about the aim being a decentralised and depoliticised education system – when in fact the direction of travel is quite the other direction.

  • Anonymous

    That did definitely strike a nerve in the Gove psyche.Long may the scrutiny continue.

  • Anonymous

    ‘AC hates private schools….’ Well so do the Finns whose educational system Gove admires so much. What he and his department refuse to acknowledge is that when the Finns decided they needed to introduce reforms to their system their starting point was the abolition of private, fee-paying schools. They considered any success for any of the other measures they planned to introduce depended on this. You needn’t hold your breath in waiting for Gove or any of his department to acknowledge this or to correct the misinformation they continue to promulgate about falling standards even though they have been taken to task about this by the ONS on many occasions.

  • Olli Issakainen

    Conservative brand.
    Same old nasty party is back!
    Compassionate conservatism is over.
    Environmentalism is over.
    What we have left is NEOLIBERALISM of George Osborne and NEOCONSERVATISM of Michael Gove.
    We can forget FAIRNESS now. People on benefits are raided while corporation tax is being cut.
    The welfare state will also go. There is little resistance.
    1979 29m working days were lost in industrial disputes. 2011 only a million.
    Ordinary Britons are less powerful. Instead of workers they have become consumers.
    Manufacturing is down to 11%.
    Britain’s SOCIAL CONTRACT has been shredded.
    Beveridge’s report was based on full employment. But Britain is not broken.
    Only £1bn is lost on benefit fraud. City fraud amounts to much more.
    Labour must stand for the poorest in the country. Not for the bankers!
    State should ensure a decent life for all.
    Making the poor to pay for the greed of bankers is morally wrong.

  • MaryMary

    Wait a minute, is Gove saying he’s following the Finnish model? He seems to be doing the opposite to it in pretty much every way, if Pasi Sahlberg’s book is anything to go by.

    The advisor’s ‘rebuttal’ is worrying, too. I’ve no experience of the ‘Westminster bubble’ – is this kind of behaviour normal on the part of the people in these jobs? The response is unstructured, aggressive, verbally incontinent and deeply arrogant to the point of being, to me, quite unprofessional. As a parent I was worried enough already about what Gove’s doing to the school system my small children are about to enter; but to know that the advisors behind the policies think and write in such a way is really quite scary.

  • Hardly the most important issue here, but I wonder how many ‘professors at Oxbridge’ @toryadvisor talked to before claiming that the decline of English-into-foreign-language translation has ‘affected even Oxford Greats’? No-one talked to me (I am Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford). In fact, English-into-foreign-language translation has not been part of the Oxford Greats exam since the 1950s.

  • Anonymous

    Education, as well as the health system, are the main strings that Whitehall use to control us puppets, or so they think it seems, that we are puppets that is. But riots 2011 somehow was a symptom that we are not as such – did the Coalition actually learn anything about themselves from that?

    Or is it always the denial “it is someone else’s fault”? Head in sand merchants Whitehall is, especially with this ancient tory influenced government, stuck as an institution in the early nineteenth century.

  • Anonymous

    Garbage Alastair, this is an excellent rebuttal. Whoever wrote it must have had a first class education, certainly didn’t go to a comp, though they may well have 10 ‘A’s.

  • MaryMary

    I don’t think rigour is one of Team Gove’s strong points. And in fact I think your comment is rather interesting because it highlights an example of a trick I’ve started to think of as ‘class mystique’. It’s a very British, upper-middle-class version of the ‘dog-whistle’ politics used to appeal to right-wingers in the US. Whereas there it’s mostly used to tiptoe around the race issue, here it’s supposed to put us in our place: the underlying message is meant to be that since they can refer to things like ‘Greats’ with ease, they know what they are doing and deserve to be in charge. But they forget that Regius Professors read blogs too…

  • MaryMary

    It’s flashy on the surface and throws in all sorts of bullying rhetorical tricks, but as an argument it’s badly written and pretty childish. It betrays a lack of clarity of thought and a shallowness of approach which is worrying.

    People who have had a ‘first-class’ education should be able to do a little better than this (and by the way, I went to a comp, but I also went to Oxford, so I’ve seen both sides). There are, I agree, some good points in there about Labour’s mistakes; but no explanation as to why Gove’s team believes its alternatives are any better.

    From the point of view of a parent of small children who are about to enter the state schooling system, and who will therefore be affected for the rest of their lives by all of this, I really want to engage with and understand what’s going on in education at the moment. This ‘rebuttal’ doesn’t help – it’s just a lengthy yah boo sucks to Mr. Campbell, when it could have been an opportunity to explain the core strategies and logic of what they’re trying to do.

    I’d be relieved to be wrong about this, but it leaves me with the impression that either they’re too arrogant to see the need to explain, or they are unable to do so.

    My fear is that by responding so aggressively to anybody who contradicts them they are making themselves more and more embattled, and less and less able to listen to anybody who gives an alternative view, however qualified.

  • Anonymous

    The advisor’s rather bullish about vocational education. I don’t think Gove knows yet what those staying on at school (which will be compulsory) and not doing A levels will be doing. Though I get a funny feeling it’ll involve unpaid work for “sponsors”.

    The Wolf Report doubtless made good points, but Gove’s concern seemed to be to spin it as an attack on “Mickey Mouse” subjects. A lot of the qualifications mentioned looked to me like courses you’d do at the “Tech”, and not school subjects with pretensions to academic “rigour”, as implied. They may have been excellent on their own terms.

  • Anonymous

    Grow up.

  • Anonymous

    “Some of his friends think about the leadership but his two special advisers do not and do what they can to limit inevitable speculation”

    Laughable. Gove’s often gone beyond his brief when there’s the chance to head a faction in his party- Leveson, EU membership etc. You’d think he’d have the courtesy to let the Minister responsible handle it. Reckon he’d like William Hague or Maria Miller spouting off about schools.

    The advisers should be telling him to pipe down. He couldn’t be more obviously on the make if he tried.

  • Anonymous

    Dear O Lord.

    “AC hates private schools and Tories. He therefore hates the spreading Academies programme. AC believes that he and his political allies should micromanage the school system to engineer a different society, therefore he opposes attempts to give state schools the sort of freedom that the despised private schools have.”

    Why are those freedoms only available to academies then? And what of the schools still in the LEA? No micromanagement there from Gove, obviously.

    ” He also ignores that Gove scrapped Labour’s useless IT curriculum and has brought in the likes of Facebook, Google and distinguished professors to develop a computer science curriculum and exams”

    The exams that aren’t in the ebacc? Gove must really think they’re important.

    “He – like many in politics – does not realise the way in which applied mathematics is invading almost every field of human endeavour.”

    Pretentious English is invading quite a few fields of human endeavour too.

    “Fundamental advanced skills in writing, maths, languages, and problem-solving (e.g. solving mechanics problems) have not been rendered obsolete – indeed, they are the things most in demand from the most high-tech and innovative parts of the economy and academia”

    Problem solving you say? Priceless,absolutely priceless. Maybe you should ask your boss why he (of “plunging down league tables” fame, till UK Stats called him on it) hasn’t entered us for the PISA problem solving tests?

  • Anonymous

    “many state school pupils, particularly in the poorest areas, are wrongly told that A Levels are as respected as ever and all they need to think about.”

    What do you know about pupils in the poorest areas? Any ideas what the teachers are up against? I’d venture that this would come quite a long way down the list.

    But you know those teachers are inferior to ones at private school, eh?

    If the exams are so feeble and letting down the poorest, can you tell your boss to stop banging on about exam results in Academies, please.