Times op-ed: The Gove reforms

[Below is the text of an op-ed by me in The Times, 1 September 2014. There is an addition that was cut for space, inserted in square brackets.]

One evening in Whitehall, an exhausted and enraged senior official spat out at me: “You’re a mutant virus, I’m the immune system and it’s my job to expel you from the organism.” It was a typical day in the Department for Education.

When Michael Gove arrived there in 2010, he inherited a dysfunctional institution — a department spending a billion pounds every week wasted money on a vast scale. Every budget, every set of figures was wrong, every process blew up, everything leaked, while Whitehall used European law and threats of judicial review to scupper anything that it disliked.

The school system was grim. Among schools with the same proportion of poor pupils and the same funding, some struggled to get a fifth of pupils to basic levels while others managed over four fifths. This was down to bad management failing to do basic things. It was also due to disastrous micro-management by MPs and Whitehall.

The curriculum and exams had been devalued over the quarter century since MPs took control of them. The gap between sharply rising scores in those tests controlled by MPs but poor performance in international tests was one obvious sign of this. Another was that the devaluation of GCSEs had forced the devaluation of A Levels and, in turn, the devaluation of degrees. Science degrees had to be lengthened to reflect the decline in A levels. Language degrees, including elite courses such as Oxford classics, became unrecognisable and remedial classes were ubiquitous.

Almost nobody with power in the education system wanted to discuss these problems. The attitude was: the numbers are going up, they show that we’re doing a great job and deserve our large pay rises. If you go along you’ll get good press; if you don’t, woe betide you.

We didn’t go along. We changed every major pillar of the system. We cut the department’s headcount by more than a third and halved running costs. [We more than halved the press office, and cut 95 percent of the communication budget.] Senior people were replaced. Outsiders were brought in. The organisation improved, contrary to all predictions. All this happened because we operated outside Whitehall protocol, causing many battles. The results are now being felt in schools.

This week the new national curriculum starts and new exams will test it. Primary maths standards are aligned to standards in world-leading jurisdictions. Languages will again be the norm in primary school, to reverse catastrophic decline. There is more maths in secondary science. There is more essay writing — so important for further study and work. Conditional probability, vital for understanding risk, is introduced. Pupils will learn about computer coding and 3D printers. [Projects such as the British Museum’s ‘Teaching History in 100 objects’ will help pupils learn a deeper history curriculum.]

SATs at 11, GCSEs, and A levels are changing. We attacked the treadmill of modular exams, constant resits and the abuse of coursework. We returned power over A levels to universities and made it harder for MPs to regain control.

The old league-table system, based on five A*-C GCSEs, has been replaced because it had so many bad effects. First it encouraged schools to enter pupils for courses that were defined as “equivalent to GCSEs”, but which were often worse than useless. This was a disaster for millions of pupils. We scrapped this system and published data with it stripped out, so that everyone could see who was cheating. We also put out transparent data on achievement in English, maths, sciences, history, geography and languages. This led to many more pupils taking these courses: entries to physics and further maths A levels are up by a fifth.

Second, schools focused only on pupils on the C-D borderline. We brought in a points system that encourages schools to try with all pupils. Third, schools entered GCSE pupils early to “bank a C grade” so they could focus on other C grades. Now only the first entry counts in league tables and damaging early entry is plummeting.

We decentralised all main aspects of the teaching profession. We abolished national pay so schools, not MPs, control pay. We made it easier for teachers to keep order and easier to remove teachers who couldn’t. We put money into training teachers from the top third of graduates, with skills in desperately short supply, such as languages. We gave schools the power to recruit and train teachers. Teacher-training now feels an icy bath of scrutiny and evaluation.

To reduce Whitehall’s power further, we allowed state schools to convert to academy status. About two thirds of secondaries and a tenth of primaries did so. Many of the best then took over the worst schools. We encouraged schools to form chains, so knowledge about what works can be spread, saving money that can be spent where it helps learning. Chains are increasingly building their own teacher-training systems integrated with curricula and tests, such as Ark’s Maths Mastery programme. This will bring big improvements in the next decade.

Academy chains, as well as groups of parents and teachers, can now set up new schools. It used to take three to five years to open one; it now takes 18 months and the capital cost is nearly half. There will be 300 free schools open this month and another hundred should open next year, whoever wins the election. Most are in poorer areas. Failures have been swiftly dealt with, in contrast to many local authorities that won’t act year after year.

Our team broke up with the project half done. Schools are still rationed by house price and are at the mercy of a dysfunctional Ofsted. Although we tried to replace GCSEs with exams that would enable a genuinely scientific approach to learning, Nick Clegg and David Cameron stopped us, supported by almost everyone powerful in the system.

Will anyone build on what we did? [As we struggled to keep our heads above the tide,] Labour and the unions were largely irrelevant. By far our biggest problems were with the dysfunction of Whitehall and Downing Street.

Officials who see themselves as “the immune system” are about to return in a powerful role. Some whom we purged are polishing their CVs, confident that “the mutant virus” has been expelled and Downing Street will be compliant regardless of the election. Others are watching carefully. They know No 10 wants quiet interspersed with electoral gimmicks. They suspect that Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, agrees with much of what we did but that Ed Miliband does not.

Nicky Morgan faces a horrid quandary: while she could — and should — be less confrontational than Michael Gove, she will find it impossible to maintain the momentum of change and simultaneously obey Downing Street’s orders. Whitehall knows this and is quietly pushing forward its betting chips.

12 thoughts on “Times op-ed: The Gove reforms

  1. I’ve often wondered if it was any coincidence that our free school project started going off the rails in January, just after you left. Although we did have a few internal problems, the DfE appointed a new adviser who was a former Ofsted inspector. When some misguided soul showed him a copy of my book “Inside the Secret Garden: The progressive decay of liberal education”, he quipped that he was the one who built the secret garden. It was probably the only time he was completely straight with us.


  2. Like much else, what education needs is purchasing power in the parents hands. All the top down, targets, regulations and regulators, league tables, and so on and so on… mean very little when so very few parents can exercise any buying power in their relationship with the schools.

    Even on the simple stuff, an infant school I know has changed the time kids can be dropped off from 8.30 in the morning to 8.45 making life very difficult indeed for the parents holding down jobs who relied upon the slot between 8.30 and 9.00 as travelling time to work. Parents complain but in the final analysis they have no power or influence to get the school to react to their needs. In this and so many ways parental buying power would be a massive force for good if released.

    We need a change from the religious segregation, and selection by value of the housing your parents can afford, towards an environment where both the parents and schools can select on merit. But free from religious segregation which is a terrible discrimination to be imposing on kids in this day and age (which even the fee paying church schools agree with!).


    • From DC…

      You write –

      ‘Cummings writes that “Almost nobody with power in the education system wanted to discuss these problems [including school underperformance].” That was simply not the case in DCSF in 2008-10 – civil servants talked of little else; and a series of programmes, London Challenge, the Academies programme, and National Challenge, were focused on raising the performance of all schools, especially those with the poorest results.’

      My piece makes clear that ‘these problems’ related to the set of issues concerning the corruption of the exam system and curriculum. You say ‘that was simply not the case’ but you then refer to a different set of arguments. Yes of course there was an enthusiastic team working for Adonis on Academies. This is a separate issue. Adonis himself argued back in 2010 to us – leave the exams alone, they’re not the problem. WRONG. They were and remain a big problem.

      You write: ‘it is both astonishing and dismaying that Dominic should write off Labour as irrelevant.’

      The original version of my article read: ‘Will anyone build on what we did? As we struggled to keep our heads above the tide, Labour and the unions were largely irrelevant. By far the biggest problems we had were the dysfunction of Whitehall and Downing Street.’

      This was edited. I can see why it becomes confusing in the shortened version. I’ve reinserted this in the version on my blog. My point was that our big problems did not include Labour, our biggest problem was Whitehall and Downing Street. As I said above, of course Labour built the sponsored Academy system. I did not mean to imply their work in that area was ‘irrelevant’.

      The bit of the DfE that worked best was the sponsored Academies team. That was true from the start. But that was only one bit of the DfE. Much of the rest was a joke.

      You write, ‘Far from reducing Whitehall’s power, the converter academy programme is a major transfer of responsibility (and therefore power) from local authorities to Whitehall.’ Only in a limited way, such as financial accountability. As you know, in most ways Academy status brings a large degree of independence which is precisely why it is so attractive. Further, IF, and it is a big IF, the regional structure Nash is introducing works, this will help too.

      I did NOT say ‘all the post-2010 changes are “now being felt in schools”; and that there will be “big improvements in the next decade”.’ !! I said things like Maths Mastery will bring big improvements. This is already happening with MM. Similar projects will have similar results. I do not think this is controversial.

      You write: ‘I’m not clear why power over a national qualifications system serving the needs of a wide spectrum of young people should be “returned” to universities…’ The reason is that MPs and Whitehall took over the system and corrupted it. Hence the constant argument over dumbing down for a quarter of a century. This started with the Tories and was continued by Labour. The bureaucracy colluded with it at every turn. In the past, Universities controlled A Levels and there was no debate about dumbing down. It is not rocket science to say – let’s go back. Might there be a better solution? Of course, but just doing this to prise Whitehall’s corrupt paws off was hard enough.

      The identity of the universities involved can easily change and will do. We needed a vehicle to make the change. After 2 years of nightmare we got one. I said and everybody agreed – obviously the subject review committees should include relevant experts from OUTSIDE the RG. I assume this will happen. We encouraged it to happen.

      I agree league table systems create complex incentives. I’m sure there will be problems with the new system. So long as you have high stakes exams plus competing exam boards you will have gaming. Our changes are a significant improvement but not a panacea.

      I’m very happy to give credit to people in Labour and elsewhere. But the article was not about ‘who deserves credit for sponsored Academies’. Also, Labour post-2010 opposed the extension of sponsored Academies to primaries saying it would send ‘a chill down the spine’. Garbage. Despite Adonis’ best efforts, they also opposed Free Schools.

      Nobody who reads what I write could conclude that I am party political on these things. I’ve never been a member of a party. I’ve been more critical of Cameron than of Miliband. I’ve worked with people from any party who prioritise schools, not parties – which was the attitude of our team in the DfE. One of the reasons we ended up getting along with some officials very well was they realised we were there for schools – not for Cameron. There are idiots in all parties. Clegg is arguably more dishonest and narcissistic than any Labour MP and tried to do a lot of damage to school reform purely because he thought it would play well with focus groups of public service workers. On the other hand Tim Leunig is unusually honest.



  3. I thought that “the school system was grim” etc. was to be read along with curriculum and exams as your analysis of what was wrong with the system, and that the dysfunctional DfE was included among those in power who were indifferent to all of these problems. My comment was that the “grimness” of the school system – poor performance and inequality – was the central focus of DCSF, not just the “sponsored academies” team but the whole Directorate under Jon Coles. Of course, the quality of the teams in DCSF/DFE was variable, but I think it is deeply unfair to a large number of expert, dedicated and committed civil servants to dismiss most of them as “a joke”.

    You write that you are happy to give Labour credit, and you acknowledge what Andrew Adonis did. I just note that there was not one word of this in your Times piece. I’m not seeking partisan credit for Labour, just non-partisan recognition. Serious policy reform is a long-term process which requires the baton to be passed on from one government to another in a constructive spirit.

    I don’t think can be any danger these days of your being taken for a partisan cheerleader for the Conservatives. But it is a bit sad that while some of the key thinkers within the DfE in the Gove era – you, Sam Freedman and Tim Leunig – are a conspicuously non-partisan and intellectually honest bunch of people, the public face (Michael G himself, @toryeducation, and your Times op-ed) was so combative.

    One last example. DCSF was wary of extending sponsored academies to primary schools, principally because of concern about the potentially heavy overhead of academy governance for small schools. I imagine that the Labour resistance may have been based on similar concerns. These concerns may have been wrong, but they were genuine and honest, and should not be described as “garbage”.


    • I said ‘But that was only one bit of the DfE. Much of the rest was a joke.’ That is not dismissing ‘them’ as jokes. It is stating a fact about a broken organisation. (Like in all broken organisations, in some parts there was an interesting mismatch between the quality of some of the people and the abysmal outcomes. In other parts, senior people were hopeless.) When I say every process went wrong, every contract we dealt with was misnegotiated, procurements routinely blew up, all the budgets and figures were wrong etc – that is because this was the actual state of the organisation. You saw a lot of the epic ballsup over BfS in the public domain. It was compounded by the problem that they had been swimming in so much money for so long that, as many of them freely admitted, they didn’t have a clue about how to handle cuts. It was also compounded by the fact that, as David Bell (remarkably) admitted publicly there were people sabotaging Gove. The organisation was a joke. There is no other word for it. Many of them admitted it openly to us. Failure was so blatant they could often hardly do otherwise. I know people don’t like hearing this and I also know Whitehall goes to great lengths to cover things up. It improved but in 2011 it was an organisation that had fallen apart.

      As I said before the article was not about who deserves credit for sponsored academies. That’s why it did not discuss that subject. If and when I write a piece about that, I’ll give Adonis some credit – and point out Adonis’ mistakes too, such as his complacency over duff exams.

      My Times op-ed was not ‘combative’ in my book. One of the reasons so much in Whitehall is a disaster is because people won’t admit obvious failures, everyone tries to be polite because they want to keep in with people in power etc. I am trying to explain what the real problems are in the system. A lot of people don’t like it and want me to shut up. Clegg, being a real idiot, went so far as to ask Heywood to have me arrested. It should not be regarded as ‘combative’ to explain clearly the problems of a failing organisation. There’s too much concern about people’s feelings – oh do you feel criticised, poor you – and not enough concern for the poor people who are failed and the poor taxpayers who are paying everyone’s salaries.


  4. I support some changes made under Michael Gove’s tenure as SoS, not others. On limited information, I think the DfE team you were part of was sincerely committed to improving our education system but I have a major problem with the way – particularly the speed – with which change was implemented. In the end, I think the limitation of your DfE team was that you didn’t understand that nearly all teachers want to improve the education system at least as much as anyone at the DfE but making changes is not the same as making changes work. Go to a great school and you’ll find the teachers will put in the extra effort to make new things work because they believe in them. That’s not because they’re better people than the teachers at less good schools, it’s because their leaders have convinced them and then given them the space and support to actually do things well.

    Writing a long list of things that were done and spinning it to make it sound like an unqualified success (hindered only by those who didn’t co-operate) isn’t terribly clever. Here are some alternative perspectives:

    Science degrees had to be lengthened and foundation years expanded because a bigger proportion of the population were starting science degrees. Going back to three year degrees would be possible if we didn’t mind reducing the supply of science graduates.
    This week the new national curriculum starts; in subjects and phases with major changes teachers are struggling to organise themselves and taking time to do so that could otherwise have been used to improve their teaching, support pupils (or spend time with their own kids).
    SATs, GCSEs and A levels are changing – so fast that we are about to start teaching the new A level before anyone has done the new GCSEs so the next couple of years will be a particularly bad time to reach 16.
    We returned power over A levels to universities; universities responded by confirming that little change was needed in most subjects (whether they meant it or not is apparently moot)
    Entries to physics and further maths are up by a fifth as a result of the Russell Group publication of information about ‘facilitating subjects’ and students becoming more focused on future careers and being able to buy a house
    You didn’t really make any changes that made it easier for teachers to keep control; possibly you clarified powers a bit
    Teacher-training now feels unstable, there is a looming recruitment crisis, and a large (but smaller than intended) proportion of teachers are being trained through School Direct which has – so far – been almost completely protected from the icy bath of scutiny and evaluation compared to other routes so the variation in training quality is probably higher than it has been for years.
    We encouraged schools to form chains, so some of them could expand too quickly leading to poor schools floundering without support. The best chains, and best LEAs, seem to be effective in supporting school improvement; others are not.
    “This will bring big improvements in the next decade” – I’m optimistic but you’ve read enough about expert predications to know that we’ll have to wait and see on this one.
    The paragraph on Free Schools I’ll put down to rose-tinted spectacles. There have been big successes and big failures. All interventions in education tend to have a positive effect; it will be a while before anyone on either side of the argument knows how the finances and outcomes from this innovation stack up.

    This is nowhere near as interesting as some of the other things you have been doing recently. Best wishes.


  5. Why not scrap A level and replace with the International Baccalaureate? More demanding in every sense. IB school evaluation feels like experts in a spirit of collegiality visit to help and nurture – generally a culture of pride and inspiration more effective than the big stick? Perhaps an ‘inspection’ culture tend to create tension which pollutes the classroom and spreads into the group. Interesting how something like Ofsted, to the Finns, here in Finland, would seem ridiculous, and the kids don’t start school here until 7, at which point they take themselves to school…from afar the UK does seem a savage island. Former Lewisham teacher.


    • I realise that the comparison isn’t exact, but I’ve been an undergraduate in a good American University (Michigan), and a decent English one (UEA). I was fortunate to attend UEA just before they went modular, so I enjoyed a degree course which offered a depth of understanding greatly surpassing what I found at Michigan. Although I’ve had reports from good 6th form heads who like the IB & think it is more rigorous than A-levels, I have a feeling that it is geared to students who are aiming at a PPE. I somehow doubt it would suit a student with a strong inclination to STEM subjects, and it is even less suited to the majority of able students who can’t write well.

      However, my main concern about the IB is its internationalist political slant–I really don’t think it should be the aim of any publicly-funded university to turn out ‘global citizens’. Our elites are already far more divorced from those they rule than is good for any society, and as we are now finding out, those they rule still think of themselves as British. Our elites work in office blocks geographically removed from the humble operations they control. I’ve always reckoned that you can tell a lot more about a business from talking to the chaps working on the loading dock than you can by using sophisticated algorithms to check its financial health–algorithms which failed us utterly in 2007-2008.

      I agree with Jonathan Owen that Ofsted inspections are wholly negative–they have all but destroyed teaching as a profession. In fact I think any inspection regime is demeaning and dictatorial. As George Patton said, “Never tell people how to do things. Just tell them what to do, and they will amaze you with their ingenuity”. If you have credible exams (it’s too early to tell how revised A-levels will turn out), and a credible system of tests (NC assessments are the worst possible solution), you don’t need a vast ‘quality control’ apparatus. Of course, reliable tests have long been detested by professional educators who regard schools as instruments of social change and control.


  6. Dear Dominic,

    At the end of a recent blog you wisely write:
    “When we consider why institutions are failing and how to improve them, we should consider the general issues discussed above. How to adapt quickly to new information? Does the institution’s structure incentivise effective adaptation or does it incentivise ‘fooling oneself’ and others? Is it possible to enable distributed information processing to find a ‘good enough’ solution in a vast search space? If your problem is similar to that of the immune system or ant colony, why are you trying to solve it with a centralised bureaucracy.”

    But surely this is just what has happened with the DfE under Gove.

    Of course some improvements have occurred. There is organisational efficiency: the DfE is smaller and national payscales have gone.

    Arguably academies and free schools are ‘freer”. But I doubt it. In reality the big bugbears of centralised bureaucracy remain in schools.

    The first is the shift of focus of the exam system from assessing pupils to assessing schools. A school’s, or a head’s, survival depends on league table results. So the whole school focus is on getting the best out of that system. If there is the slightest hint that there is an easier exam or course that will show a higher result, a school will take it. More will leap on that bandwagon. The previous course provider, seeing the loss of business, will ease his standards down to retain market share.

    In the old days, everyone knew that NUJMB and Oxford and Cambridge exam boards were harder than others. The Northern grammar schools took JMB: the independent schools took O&C. They didn’t mind the hard exams because universities knew that these boards were hard and compensated appropriately. But as soon as results started to be published and league tables came in, all schools dived for the easier exams.

    When I started teaching, CCC at A level was a good set of grades that would get you into medical school. Now you need A*AA, and CCC might just get you into the worst courses in the worst universities, so much has been grade inflation.

    The cause of exam grade inflation has been the use of raw exam results as the primary indicator of school success. It came from (Tory) centralised bureaucracy. This centralised bureaucracy continues with even more fiddling with league tables and their rules, as your article describes.

    The second big tool of DfE centralised bureaucracy is the National Curriculum. Again a Tory brainwave, it abolished woodwork and metalwork, discouraging pupils from carpentry and plumbing careers.

    You boldly say in your article “This week the new national curriculum starts and new exams will test it. Primary maths standards are aligned to standards in world-leading jurisdictions…..”

    Dear, dear Dominic, what can be more centrally bureaucratic than this? You haven’t a clue whether it will work or not. You hope it will but it will be years before you know. It may, indeed, transform Britain mathematically and you will go down as the man wot did it!

    But it may be one of those things that causes chaos. It will be seen that taking Year 2 work back to Year 1 is just as daft as trying to start integral calculus in the nursery. It just causes confusion to try to hurry maths teaching.

    When Gove left, those of us in education saw it as the departure of another centralised bureaucrat. Even those of us in the independent sector were thrown around by this unique whirlwind. Coursework in, coursework out, in-out, in-out, shake it all about. We still don’t really know what’s happening with GCSE, or A level.

    Frankly, it’s chaos.

    And we are left with the feeling “What on earth was that all about?”

    Good wishes,

    Mark Ellse


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