MP Michael Gove speaks about radical plans for 'academies' - schools feature

As the Secretary of State for Education in the new coalition government, Surrey Heath MP Michael Gove has been rather busy, you might say, of late. Here, he talks to Richard Vaughan about his radical plans for 'academies'...

Published in A+ magazine in August 2010

As the Secretary of State for Education in the new coalition government, Surrey Heath MP Michael Gove has been rather busy, you might say, of late. Here, he talks to Richard Vaughan about his radical plans for ‘academies’, how it’s all going with the Lib Dems and what he thinks of the schools in his own constituency

As the Secretary of State for Education in the new coalition government, Surrey Heath MP Michael Gove has been rather busy, you might say, of late. Here, he talks to Richard Vaughan about his radical plans for ‘academies’, how it’s allgoing with the Lib Dems and what he thinks of the schools in his own constituency

Surrey Heath MP Michael Gove is regarded as one of the Conservatives’ most talented politicians – so it is startling that he very nearly missed out on his preferred field of education when it came to forming the coalition Government back in May.

His position was the last major post to be filled during the frantic, behind-the-scenes horse-trading that went on to form the new Lib-Con regime. But now he has his feet firmly under the Cabinet table and, as education secretary, Mr Gove is enjoying the role he held out for.

“I’m humbled and delighted to be doing the job,” says the 42-year-old with a smile. “In a way, the coalition has worked out better than I anticipated, because the range of support on the things that we wanted to do is visibly greater.”

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A blue tingeMr Gove’s department has a particularly blue tinge: four out of five of the ministerial seats are filled by Conservatives, with only Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat MP for Brent Central, waving the yellow flag.

However, Mr Gove is quick to dismiss the notion that the Department for Education is anything but a fully fledged partnership and stresses that Ms Teather is “unambiguously” his number two.

“It’s a partnership department,” he says. “Sarah is my deputy, and she has been tremendous so far. I have asked her to take a particular interest in how the pupil premium works {additional funding given to pupils from deprived backgrounds} and to ensure that, overall, our reform programme reflects all of the priorities within the coalition agreement.”

Ever one to flourish his guests with a whirlwind of civilities and politeness, Mr Gove certainly puts on a good show at making the shotgun marriage between the two parties seem feasible, but his is a far easier burden to bear.

Behind the scenes, the Conservative education team is delighted with how the chips fell following the coalition negotiations. They kept most of their flagship policies from the Tory manifesto and gained one they had expressed support for already, in the shape of the pupil premium.

Changing TimesRegarded as one of Westminster’s more charming politicians, Mr Gove was elected Conservative MP for Surrey Heath in 2005, and has shot to prominence within the party, fast becoming one of Prime Minister David Cameron’s closest aides. Also one of the party’s most recognisable faces, before entering Government he was a regular contributor to Newsnight Review on the BBC and is still a weekly columnist for The Times. 

The adopted son of a lab assistant mother and a father who ran his own fish processing plant in Aberdeen, Mr Gove made his way into politics after being challenged by David Cameron to join the Tories after reading one of his articles in The Times. 

He was swiftly elected and he and his wife, Sarah Vine, a leader writer for the same paper, live in Surrey at the weekends with their two children, Beatrice and William.

Back in SurreyPassionate about the area where he lives, before his re-election Mr Gove had this to say about his constituency.

“We’ve got some great secondary schools – from Ash Manor to Gordon’s, Collingwood to Tomlinscote, and the quality of our primaries is superb as well – but I’d like to help the dedicated professionals who work in our area so their job is easier. We need new rules to help discipline improve; money shifted from the bureaucracy to the classroom; and access to top quality exams for all. 

He added: “I have benefited so much from the wise words of local teachers and parents, school support staff and schoolchildren themselves. I intend to make sure that the good advice I’ve been given locally is used for the benefit of all. And I’ll make sure that our great local schools get all the backing they need to do even better.”

And thanks to his safe passage into Government in May, Mr Gove has been able to focus on his main priority – providing teachers and schools with more freedom. To help him achieve this, he announced the first of two education bills in only his second week in power.

In short, it will enable all schools deemed “outstanding” by Ofsted to become academies. How many actually take up the offer is entirely up to them, Mr Gove says.

“In a way, because it’s a permissive bill, that is really a matter for school governors, heads and teachers. It’s in the nature of this bill that we hand a greater degree of autonomy to schools, and therefore, by definition, you don’t compel people to be free,” he says.

The bill opens the door to a raft of schools from a pool of 2,000 that will be free from local authority control, free from the national curriculum and free from Ofsted inspections.

The changes mean the coalition will rely much more heavily on league tables, with exam results being a key indicator of a school’s performance.

“It’s a change in focus,” Mr Gove says. “The accountability that we envisage will be sharper, more precise and more intelligent.

“And there are other ways, and I know this will make me unpopular, but we are going to keep – albeit reformed – league tables. So we have accurate data that will allow us to make valid school-by-school comparisons.”

Free schoolsMr Gove hopes the legislation, when passed, will pave the way for his ‘free schools’, institutions that can be set up by parent groups, teachers, local businesses or other accredited school providers. Mr Gove anticipates that the first of these new schools will open in September 2011.

The eloquent Scotsman had come under fire for his plans to allow anyone to set up their own school, with many raising fears that it would create a ‘free market’ where less successful schools nearby slowly wither on the vine. 

But the education secretary tries to paint a picture not of a free market where strong schools succeed and weaker ones fail, but a mechanism for collaboration.

Just as any school that becomes an academy will be expected to take another weaker school under its wing, Mr Gove says he wants to see greater collaboration between free schools and their neighbours. Rather than “markets”, he prefers to talk about “networks”.

“I think it is the case that quite a lot of what we said was ‘characterised’ in a way – it’s just one of the things that happens in politics,” he says. 

“Take parent-promoted schools – people automatically thought this would be yummy mummies from west London using their sharp elbows to say, ‘We’re building a school here.’ And that it would be a group of professionals gathered around a stripped pine table saying what their mega school should be like. I’ve got used to the fact that we will be caricatured in that way.”

Working togetherAnd working together is now a big part of the politician’s rhetoric these days, be it schools, teachers, or even warring political parties. 

Though the arranged marriage that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have found themselves in may be far from perfect, one thing is certain: Mr Gove – on the face of it, at least – seems to be taking the idea of coalition into his every piece of business. But, of course, he would. He is too polite not to.  

A version of this article also appeared in the TES (Times Education Supplement). For more information, visit tes.co.uk

HAVE YOUR SAY:What do you think of Michael Gove’s education policies? Which questions would you ask him? How do you think schools could be improved? Let us know by commenting below!

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