Michael Gove was Secretary of Toxic Education; Gavin Williamson is even worse.


The New Year is spent re-reading old speeches by Michael Gove by only one very sad person. Unfortunately, that person is me. “Unlike many other politicians, whatever one’s view of him, he is a political survivor whose actions have, unfortunately, left a lasting impression. Gove’s most passionate cri de coeur was for freedom and autonomy – whether he was “taking back control of Europe” or proclaiming the liberating power of autonomy for school leaders as education secretary, so they could be “captains of their own ship. The loud rhetoric of autonomy, which dwarfs the quiet march of centralized state control, has dominated English education policy for more than 30 years. Whether it is the need to adhere to Ofsted or league table requirements, or the “freedom” for principals to set their own curriculum as long as it matches the preferred academic subjects of the minister (Gove is said to have personally kept handwritten lists about which English schoolchildren should learn about medieval monarchs), the dream has turned out to be a fantasy. | Peter WilbyContinueRead Hundreds of schools, managed according to instruction manuals from headquarters, are now trapped in supermarket-style chains. This was described by one academy trust chief as the 80/20 principle, where about 80 percent of what goes on in schools is centrally determined and 20 percent is left to local discretion. Even Gove’s former adviser, Sam Freedman, recently acknowledged the implicit contradiction in arguing that academies do not have to follow the national curriculum while prescribing in minute detail how to teach children in primary school to use language devices such as the adverbial prefix. Compared to the new and toxic level to which the relationship between schools and government and the concept of autonomy has sunk, however, these examples pale into insignificance. In recent weeks, when they wanted to close for public health reasons, schools and local authorities have been threatened with court. The Christmas holidays were spent preparing for mass testing, plans that had to be scrapped when principals and teachers were unceremoniously ordered to switch to online instruction on the first day of school, with one prominent principal wryly noting on Twitter that hundreds of pairs of rubber gloves had been sent, but no laptops. Along the way, ASCL was forced to consider legal action by the usually cautious principal’s union to force the Department of Education to release scientific reports on covid safety in schools so that principals could determine the true nature of the public health disaster.

And last November, in a little-noticed ruling, the Court of Appeal found that the DfE had acted unlawfully by failing to consult the panels of children in its rush to water down regulations on social care to deal with the pandemic. The Guardian view on schools: teachers outclassed ministers | EditorialRead moreIt is understandable that ministers need additional powers enshrined in the Coronavirus Act to enable them to determine the behavior of schools and other public services.

But in a morass of bitter recriminations, goodwill, respect, and a spirit of partnership (which is inevitably more important than empty freedom promises) have been lost.

It goes nowhere to have a relationship characterized by litigation rather than dialogue and listening. It will be essential to rebuild that relationship and will almost certainly need someone other than Gavin Williamson, who seems to be particularly inappropriate for any government office, let alone the education secretary. Because he had become toxic to educators, Gove was dismissed from office. The position of Williamson is far worse: not only is he toxic, he is despised. He even managed to take the shine away from his own announcement that he trusts teachers by threatening schools in the same breath with online OSTED learning inspections.

But it’s time to admit that, just as complete autonomy in a public education system is unrealistic, schools are usually better off than the man or the f


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