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Published on January 6th, 2012 | by Ben Mansfield
Image © [caption id="" align="alignleft" width="336" caption="Deputy PM, Nick Clegg and Education Secretary, Michael Gove visit Durand Academy © Educationgovuk"]Deputy PM, Nick Clegg and Education Secretary, Michael Gove visit Durand Academy © Educationgovuk[/caption]

Education Secretary Michael Gove went on the offensive yesterday against critics of his academies scheme. In a characteristically fiery speech entitled “Who are the ideologues now?”, Mr Gove described those opposed to his plans as “ideologues happy with failure”, “the enemies of promise”, and as being members of a “bigoted backward bankrupt ideology of a leftwing establishment that perpetuates division and denies opportunity”.

The speech has provoked angry reactions from teachers’ unions, who perhaps unsurprisingly do not believe they fit Gove’s depictions. The NUT general secretary Christine Blower has described the characterization as an “insult to all the hardworking and dedicated teachers, school leaders, support staff and governors in our schools”, while the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders has said that headteachers who opposed academies were “not the 'enemies of promise', but professionals dedicated to improving the lives of young people”. Surveys taken this time last year would suggest that union leaders are far from alone in their views, with large numbers of teachers resisting the proposed changes and 31% of parents saying they would be against having a free school in their local area (compared to a quarter who said they would back one). Other opponents of the reforms have also expressed their disapproval at Gove’s comments. A group of campaigners including parents, councillors and the MP for Tottenham David Lammy have been fighting to keep a local primary from being converted into an academy against the will of staff, students and their families, and have spoken out against Gove’s harsh rhetoric, promising to persist in their efforts.

If stories like this continue to break, as one expects they will, Gove’s attack on his critics will have backfired. Rather than marginalizing the plans’ opponents, his series of implausible charges against them has only served to resurrect all the legitimate concerns that have been raised over the years. One cannot help but be reminded of the run up to the public sector strikes over pensions reform, when Gove delivered a similarly far-fetched description of majority-female public sector unions, made up of thousands of teachers and nurses, as “militants, itching for a fight”, who “want to make economic recovery harder”- a portrayal which few people recognised or took seriously. To add to this, Mr Gove has done a remarkably poor job of being seen to be listening to peoples’ concerns. Even if he were not to amend his policy in any way, appearing interested in the views of parents and teachers might have provided a useful contrast between himself and his arguably fictional ideologue-opponents. Instead he did quite the reverse, insisting in his speech that he will not listen to the critics, and speaking of “cooperative” and “obstructive” local authorities.Change is coming”, he said, “And to those who want to get in the way, I have just two words: hands off”- a choice of language which makes him sound as ideological and close-minded as anyone else in the debate.

For all the bluster of Gove’s speech, when one looks at the criticisms aimed at the academies programme the majority seem to be legitimate, unremarkable, and no more ideological than the arguments in favour. For instance, the most recent wave of criticism has been in reaction to the model funding agreement for academies and free schools, outlined by Gove last month. Telegraph columnist Julie Henry, who hardly conforms to Gove’s creative descriptions of people who disagree with him, reports that to secure their funding, academies and free schools will have to “sign up to strict new rules” which “set out what pupils must learn about sex and relationships”. These reforms to the curriculum give a privileged status to teaching about marriage- a departure from the previous guidelines which were that marriage ought to be taught alongside other types of stable relationships, such as cohabitation and homosexual partnerships. Whatever one’s view on these matters, the whole point of Gove’s reforms is supposed to be to set schools free from external control, while in actuality the control of local authorities has in this instance simply been replaced by central control from Whitehall. Far from being whipped up by the “enemies of promise” within the “leftist establishment”, this contradiction in government policy is enough to bother the education correspondent of the Telegraph, and ought to bother Gove too if he were to be consistent in his principles.

Gove would have done better to ignore the critics and force his policies through silently rather than attracting attention to the matter by making outlandish, triumphalist speeches. Yet despite this misjudgement, everything indicates we can expect to see the numbers of academies and free schools increase considerably over the coming months and years.

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Gove brands academies opponents “the enemies of promise”

Deputy PM, Nick Clegg and Education Secretary, Michael Gove visit Durand Academy © Educationgovuk

Deputy PM, Nick Clegg and Education Secretary, Michael Gove visit Durand Academy © Educationgovuk

Education Secretary Michael Gove went on the offensive yesterday against critics of his academies scheme. In a characteristically fiery speech entitled “Who are the ideologues now?”, Mr Gove described those opposed to his plans as “ideologues happy with failure”, “the enemies of promise”, and as being members of a “bigoted backward bankrupt ideology of a leftwing establishment that perpetuates division and denies opportunity”.

The speech has provoked angry reactions from teachers’ unions, who perhaps unsurprisingly do not believe they fit Gove’s depictions. The NUT general secretary Christine Blower has described the characterization as an “insult to all the hardworking and dedicated teachers, school leaders, support staff and governors in our schools”, while the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders has said that headteachers who opposed academies were “not the ‘enemies of promise’, but professionals dedicated to improving the lives of young people”. Surveys taken this time last year would suggest that union leaders are far from alone in their views, with large numbers of teachers resisting the proposed changes and 31% of parents saying they would be against having a free school in their local area (compared to a quarter who said they would back one). Other opponents of the reforms have also expressed their disapproval at Gove’s comments. A group of campaigners including parents, councillors and the MP for Tottenham David Lammy have been fighting to keep a local primary from being converted into an academy against the will of staff, students and their families, and have spoken out against Gove’s harsh rhetoric, promising to persist in their efforts.

If stories like this continue to break, as one expects they will, Gove’s attack on his critics will have backfired. Rather than marginalizing the plans’ opponents, his series of implausible charges against them has only served to resurrect all the legitimate concerns that have been raised over the years. One cannot help but be reminded of the run up to the public sector strikes over pensions reform, when Gove delivered a similarly far-fetched description of majority-female public sector unions, made up of thousands of teachers and nurses, as “militants, itching for a fight”, who “want to make economic recovery harder”- a portrayal which few people recognised or took seriously. To add to this, Mr Gove has done a remarkably poor job of being seen to be listening to peoples’ concerns. Even if he were not to amend his policy in any way, appearing interested in the views of parents and teachers might have provided a useful contrast between himself and his arguably fictional ideologue-opponents. Instead he did quite the reverse, insisting in his speech that he will not listen to the critics, and speaking of “cooperative” and “obstructive” local authorities.Change is coming”, he said, “And to those who want to get in the way, I have just two words: hands off”- a choice of language which makes him sound as ideological and close-minded as anyone else in the debate.

For all the bluster of Gove’s speech, when one looks at the criticisms aimed at the academies programme the majority seem to be legitimate, unremarkable, and no more ideological than the arguments in favour. For instance, the most recent wave of criticism has been in reaction to the model funding agreement for academies and free schools, outlined by Gove last month. Telegraph columnist Julie Henry, who hardly conforms to Gove’s creative descriptions of people who disagree with him, reports that to secure their funding, academies and free schools will have to “sign up to strict new rules” which “set out what pupils must learn about sex and relationships”. These reforms to the curriculum give a privileged status to teaching about marriage- a departure from the previous guidelines which were that marriage ought to be taught alongside other types of stable relationships, such as cohabitation and homosexual partnerships. Whatever one’s view on these matters, the whole point of Gove’s reforms is supposed to be to set schools free from external control, while in actuality the control of local authorities has in this instance simply been replaced by central control from Whitehall. Far from being whipped up by the “enemies of promise” within the “leftist establishment”, this contradiction in government policy is enough to bother the education correspondent of the Telegraph, and ought to bother Gove too if he were to be consistent in his principles.

Gove would have done better to ignore the critics and force his policies through silently rather than attracting attention to the matter by making outlandish, triumphalist speeches. Yet despite this misjudgement, everything indicates we can expect to see the numbers of academies and free schools increase considerably over the coming months and years.

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