Gerard Kelly is a former editor of both the TES and THE. He is the founding partner of GK and Partners, a PR agency specialising in education.
Two days after Labour’s conference and two months after Michael Gove’s sacking one thing is becoming clear: however unpopular the former secretary of state was, his legacy will remain largely intact.
Back in July, the unions, and it has to be said most of the profession, were exultant over Gove’s defenestration. #GoveGone trended on Twitter. The Times reported that teachers were jumping for joy in the corridors or weeping tears of relief. Not since the demise of Dirty Den has a community so rejoiced.
With Gove gone it might have been expected that his policies would be junked, too. Perhaps not by his successor but certainly by the party which wants to be the next government. And what have we learnt over the past few days? That apart from a bit of tinkering with AS-levels and a different emphasis on vocational education, not a lot will change under a Labour government.
Academies are here to stay. Free schools are here to stay. Most of the curriculum changes put in place by Gove are here to stay. Ofsted is here to stay. Even performance-related pay in some guise is here to stay. One Labour MP, noticing a spot the zealous Gove had failed to reform, has even proposed extending the academies programme to nursery schools. It’s enough to make grown union activists weep. “More of the same please” isn’t much of a slogan and doesn’t look good on a placard.
Many on the left are disappointed and furious. They expected an incoming Labour government to turn the clock back. But should they be surprised? Frankly, no, they shouldn’t. Even though Gove’s reforms were not as popular with the public as many journalists liked to think, neither were they as toxic as many on the left hoped.
In which case, why expend political energy repealing them? The battle over academies and free schools waged by the politically committed largely passed the rest of the world by. Pupil behaviour, exam standards, school places – these the public care about. But free schools? Meh!
There are two other good reasons why Labour is right to defy the left and not jettison Gove’s legacy. The first is exhaustion. After the most far-reaching overhaul of school structures, qualifications and curricula in a generation, there simply is no appetite in the profession for more upheaval. Some might want to slow down implementation, but to start over again? Forget it.
The second is less obvious to the politically blinkered: a lot of Gove’s reforms were popular with many teachers, especially at senior levels. They did not warm to the man, they did not appreciate his style but that is not to say they did not approve of his reforms even if they rarely shouted about them.
Secondary heads who had long despaired of local authorities are not sorry to see municipal powers wilt. Primary heads who had been slow to regularly appraise staff have been emboldened by the emphasis on “performance” even if they are unsure about the “related pay” bit. Many classroom teachers like the renewed stress on good behaviour, rigour and traditional subject knowledge. Even progressives can salute the fact that under Gove’s tenure selective education was never promoted as a panacea and the potential of disadavantaged children was always centre-stage.
Gove has gone and unlike Dirty Den there’s little chance he’ll return. But as far as education is concerned, the unions and the left will have to get used to howling in the wind, because there is every reason to think that most of his legacy will last.