Gove: The Elite's Opponent But the People's Servant

28/07/2014 12:36 BST | Updated 24/09/2014 10:59 BST

Michael Gove was amongst the longest serving education secretaries in Britain since World War II. Committed personally as well as professionally to the intellectual values that Britain has historically championed, Gove knew what he wanted to do. His aim was to reverse the pitiable decline in education standards and the anti-intellectual agenda which dominated the state education system in Britain. To do so, he could have followed where predecessors had led and failed, and use state power to command and control change. Or he could choose to do what no education secretary for the best part of a century had done: liberalise the system, set people, schools and teachers free to reach for the stars, and give them the backing and funds they needed.

Gove chose the latter course. Sceptical of the power of the state to do good, and trusting people to aspire to academic excellence, he gave them his unreserved backing. With the programme of free schools and academies came the radical reform of the school curriculum, cutting out the layers of nonsense in favour of a minimal, knowledge-based, intellectually-aspirational core curriculum on which teachers themselves would build. And so too came the opening of the teaching profession to the best and brightest graduates - mathematicians, historians, linguists, physicists, chemists - just as already happened in academically high performing comparator countries. Able subject specialists had previously been discouraged from entering the profession by the gatekeepers of the state system, whose toll for entrance was a spurious 'education', rather than academic, qualification. For many primary (and some secondary) teachers this was the B Ed, for which the basic requirement was a GCSE in Maths and English, and not even A levels in the subjects to be taught.

For all teachers the ethos, until Gove took over, had been one of levelling down, immortalised by the underground advertising billboards which advertised for recruits under the slogan 'Anyone can teach'. The subtext was that all they needed was a 'qualification' in 'education' before they were loosed on the nation's classrooms.

It came as no surprise that Gove was hated by those who had themselves done well out of the system, despite failing generations of children whose family circumstances gave them no chance to leave the state system. As the liberalising wind of change blew through the structure of schooling, their hegemony, restrictive practices and fitness for their responsibilities were challenged. And to add to the competition, it was planned that the new curriculum would be reinforced by a fresh intake of able subject specialists, anxious to impart knowledge and subject disciplines as happened routinely in higher performing countries.

Gove has paid a heavy price for upsetting the status quo; the political classes live by being 'liked', whether by officials, unions, or opinion polls, and the Coalition is no exception. Having inherited the bloated state which reached its apotheosis under Gordon Brown, that state is fighting back to preserve its hegemony against those whom it should by right, serve. Gove recognised that the state in education was a very dangerous thing. It had destroyed or removed the life chances of generations of children, especially those born into poverty and disadvantage, who had been failed by their schooling.

Michael Gove is the first education secretary to start to undo the damage first unleashed by his best known predecessor, Butler. Butler set the state up as the dominant power over the nation's schools; they became the guinea pigs for ambitious officials, doctrinaire unions, council empire builders - who shared the view that an egalitarian utopia could be created by removing the knowledge base from education. Whether his predecessors will take up where he left off, or reverse that, remains to be seen. They should be warned that the education department is at the pinnacle of the pyramid of interest groups, desperate to hold on to power, funds, jobs and control. Gove's 'crime' was to challenge that collective and back the small people against its powers. His removal in a populist reshuffle reflects badly on its architects; but worse, it symbolises that the politicians at the heart of government see the state as our master, not our servant.

Sheila Lawlor is Director of Politeia. Her background is as an academic historian and her next book will be on The Politics of Social Policy, 1940-50