‘Are you a libertarian or Stalinist?’ asked BBC Radio 4 Today when it interviewed Michael Gove in January 2011. Gove had been education secretary for just over six months but the BBC had already noticed Gove’s desire to control. If it were otherwise, the Today programme would not have asked such a question. But Gove laughed off the suggestion that he might be a power freak. Reform of England’s education system was needed because the UK was falling down international league tables, he said.
Note the date: January 2011. Just one month after Gove ignored a warning by the OECD not to use results from international PISA tests for the UK in the year 2000 for comparison because they were flawed. Gove built his entire education policy on the misrepresentation that UK was ‘plummeting’ down league tables.
Gove had already pushed the Academies Bill through Parliament at the speed usually reserved for laws in times of emergency. During 2011, Gove continued his legislative push. A second Act affecting education was passed. This, among other things, gave the Education Secretary wide-ranging powers to close ‘underperforming’ schools. The Bill also abolished ‘five existing arms-length bodies’ and transferred some of their functions to ‘executive agencies…directly accountable to the Secretary of State’.
Gove didn’t stop there. He introduced a prescriptive National Curriculum (after his appointed experts resigned in protest about its development). He imposed the English Baccalaureate as a performance measure despite the Education Select Committee saying there was little evidence for the policy. He hastily brought in new exams without trialling or evaluation. His academy brokers were accused of using methods from the Don Corleone handbook.
According to David Laws, schools minister during the Coalition, the Department for Education under Gove became almost a ‘semi-autonomous arm of government’ run by a man who wanted his own way.
It was with surprise, then, that I read Gove’s assessment of his own character in today’s Times (behind paywall).
‘Temperamentally, I dislike the growth of rule by executive fiat, am unhappy about the constant thirst for new legislation and worry about more powers being granted to government agencies and regulators.’
This from a man who as Education Secretary forced through far-reaching policies while subjecting them to hair-splitting interference; whose ‘thirst’ for passing laws seemed insatiable and whose reforms gave increased power to the centre.
Michael Gove may be rebranding himself as a ‘classic liberal’ after his failed attempt to stab his fellow Brexiteer in the back during the summer, but Gove's career as Education Secretary negates his attempt to rehabilitate himself.