Friday, July 09, 2010

Gove's Apology and an Education Nightmare

The period following the A-level exams becomes a bit of a period of blogging withdrawal for me, and perhaps, too, the hot early summer is inducing a degree of lethargy! Nevertheless, the recent education storm is worth breaking the blogging break for.

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, may have endured a torrid couple of days following inaccuracies in the list of changes to the school rebuilding programme, but whatever the political difficulties he can certainly hold his head up. His genuine and heartfelt apology to the House of Commons, and afterwards, represents something of a novelty in modern politics, a minister who takes responsibility and can say sorry for something his department has got wrong. The Blair/Brown years made us all too used to the unedifying spectacle of ministers using any verbal perambulation they could to avoid accepting responsibility for anything that went wrong. 'Sorry' was a word uttered only for crimes and misdemeanours with which you could not possibly associate the speaker. Thus, Tony Blair was 'sorry' for the holocaust. Gordon Brown was sorry for poverty in Africa, and for the slave trade. Neither of them were remotely sorry for the long list of their own errors; it became a comonplace that Gordon Brown virtually couldn't pronounce the word. So to have a minister accept that he is at fault and to make an apology for himself and his department is indeed refreshing, and perhaps bespeaks a new kind of politics.

The other feature of Gove's apology is his refusal to lay the blame elsewhere, although it is unlikely that he himself compiled the list that contained such inaccuracies. He is right to avoid doing this, although the inaccuracy for which he has accepted responsibility is, ironically, a justification of the need to deal with the horrendously overblown 'Building Schools for the Future' programme that he outlined in the Commons. The list was provided by the Partnership for Schools quango that oversees the schools building programme, and its shoddy nature speaks volumes about the way that organisation has been operating. Private Eye reports the figure of £700 million a year for the building programme, which equips a few schools with new buildings but dries up the maintenance budget for a vast number of others. It also ensures financial over-runs and bureaucratic nightmares, and tens of millions spent in consultancy fees - hardly surprising that their own list is so full of errors.

New buildings for schools are an undoubted boon, but we should be wary of seeing them as a panacea for educational success. I listened to one headteacher and educational adviser try to explain that the expensive new classrooms they were due to get would allow for 'new ways of learning', and would provide 'learning hubs' that would revolutionise teaching, but I remained ignorant as to exactly how this would work, or why you couldn't just re-arrange the furniture in an existing room! More concerning for the teaching profession - and I write this particularly warily I can assure you - is the knowledge that only 18 teachers have been dismissed for incompetence in the past 40 years. Re-focus away from fancy new buildings (except where the dilapidation is such that there is no alternative) and focus on reinvigorating the teaching profession, and we might find that it is not only economically more viable, but significantly more beneficial all round. Michael Gove's priorities are right in this instance, and firmly confirmed by the fiasco of the inaccurate list.

On a personal level too, Michael Gove's grace under pressure contrasts dramatically with the appalling Tom Watson, a man whose undistinguished career in government included plotting to overthrow Blair for Brown. Watson's thoughtful response to Gove's apology was to shriek at him that he was a "miserable pipsqueak of a man". It came after the equally synthetic anger of the shadow schools minister Vernon Coaker. Both representatives of the regime that landed us with the wretched Partnership for Schools quango, and both good examples of why it is such a relief to be rid of the shrill, angry and arrogant New Labour government. Long Live the Coalition!

And just to let the Watson intervention speak for itself, here is the wretched man's performance:

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