February 3, 2014 8:29 pm

Gove’s combative approach sharpens his critics’ claws

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Many teachers, unions and Liberal Democrats dislike him. Backbench Tories love him.

This week’s controversies over fresh school reforms and the selection process for the head of the schools watchdog Ofsted have thrust him back into the limelight.

So is education secretary Michael Gove a talented future leader of the Conservatives or an unpopular cabinet minister who risks outstaying his welcome?

Critics have called Mr Gove the most contentious education secretary in decades, and he is living up to the label. As he outlined on Monday plans to make state schools more like their private counterparts, Mr Gove acknowledged the furore caused by his overhaul of schools, exams and curricula in the last four years.

“The pace of change in our education system recently has been fast and the reaction at times furious,” he said.

Mr Gove is currently embroiled in a row over alleged politicisation of the schools watchdog with Liberal Democrats in his department. Unions have said his vision for school days of up to 10 hours will make classrooms into “some sort of production line filled with weary youngsters”.

Observers say the strong reaction is largely a result of Mr Gove’s pugnacious style. Having labelled those who oppose his reforms as “the blob” – after a 1950s film about an unstoppable alien mass – the education secretary has continued to criticise teachers for what he says is their acceptance of low standards.

Subsequent moves to introduce performance-related pay have further damaged relations at a time when teachers are being relied on to adopt new league table requirements and adjust to new exam systems.

Professor Tim Bale, a historian of the Tory party, suggested that Mr Gove had taken inspiration from Margaret Thatcher - herself a former Conservative education secretary - in his zeal for challenging the establishment, almost carrying out “an insurgency against his own department”.

“He seems to be, like she was, battling against an inertia-driven civil service, having to attack it from the outside,” Prof Bale said.

According to Lib Dems, who have often struggled with Mr Gove’s management style, his problem is that he “sometimes gets overconfident”.

“Michael Gove’s great strength is his incredibly clear vision about how he wants to improve the English school system”, one Lib Dem official says. “But Michael is not afraid of adversity when it comes to implementing his plans, and believes in swift, firm change. That would not be our approach.”

It is this swiftness which has caused the most recent coalition schism. Mr Gove decided not to reappoint Labour peer Baroness Sally Morgan as head of Ofsted without consulting his Lib Dem colleague David Laws, who is minister for schools.

Teachers and unions also complain about not being consulted, while simultaneously being hit with a barrage of directions. Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, describes what she says is a fundamental conflict in Mr Gove’s credibility.

“He preaches and wants to practice decentralisation and autonomy, but actually he is the most centralising secretary of state in history, mandating teaching styles and running free schools and academies from Whitehall,” Ms Bousted told the Financial Times.

But the qualities that have made him unpopular among teachers and unions, are hailed by Tories. Mr Gove – alongside Theresa May at the Home Office – is a cause célèbre in the parliamentary party. Backbenchers feel he has carved out an identifiable Tory education agenda despite the limitations of coalition government.

“What we see in Gove is a huge success in driving through his reform agenda against all the vested interests,” says Dominic Raab, a Tory MP who sits on the education select committee. “Delivering on discipline, ending the dumbing down in the education system . . . this appeals on every level.”

On the back of such praise, Mr Gove is repeatedly cited as a possible Tory leader, despite his public protestations that he is not interested in the job. Even his closest allies are unsure whether he has definitely ruled out the idea – but it is clear that he is not devoting much time to marshalling support.

One close colleague points out that unlike George Osborne or even Ms May – who now hosts tea room chats with her colleagues as part of her effort to foster parliamentary support – Mr Gove is not building a base. Having admitted on Monday that he is already thinking about how his reforms will live on in the next parliament, it appears that legacy, rather than leadership, is his focus for the time being.

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