Gove U-turn follows the Tory Patten
Michael Gove's EBacc U-turn shows the Tories' supposed tough guy could face the fate of John Patten, the Conservative's least successful education secretary. Gove's education plans are very similar to Patten's. The Tories think Gove is a front-bench hero, taking on teaching unions, bringing in the private sector, sticking two fingers up at Labour and winning popular support. But his EBacc backdown shows Gove might be as weak as Patten as well. Opposition from the National Union of Teachers eventually drove Patten into a bit of a breakdown, so he had to be gently removed from the Department for Education HQ.
Gove also seems to be overheating. His English baccalaureate would have replaced GCSEs. He wanted a qualification to fail more pupils - kids who could do well in one or other GCSE would fail the EBacc, which bundled several subjects together. Just before abandoning the EBacc, Gove gave a crazy speech, claiming Labour "want to be the Downton Abbey party" over the EBacc because "they think working-class children should stick to the station in life they were born into." Gove was trying to claim that his plans, which were designed to trip up most schoolkids, were actually going to help them. His rhetoric was getting shrill because opposition to the EBacc went well beyond Labour. The teaching unions opposed them. So did the universities and the qualifications regulator. Logically, following Gove's U-turn, either he now believes in "Downton Abbey" politics, or knows he was talking twaddle in the first place. Gove's weakness surprises his Tory pals. They thought he was David Cameron's "most successful reforming minister." But to me he has some similarities with Patten who was education secretary in the John Major government between 1992 and 1994. Patten was such a failure that he is largely forgotten. Most people confuse him with former environment secretary Chris Patten. Chris was the blond one who became the head of the BBC Trust. John was the one with brown hair in a kind of Brideshead floppy style. John Patten always had trouble making the right impression, according to his former girlfriend, author Lucinda Lambton. She called him "the slimiest skeleton in my cupboard." She said that in the 1990s when he walked into the same room as her she "felt sick" and had to leave as he had been "repellently smooth." She told a friend: "In my greasy past, he is the biggest grease spot of all." Many of us feel the same way about Gove. Patten also failed to impress the teaching unions. He tried to take them on over pay - and failed. In his autobiography Major wrote that Patten was "rather worn down by it," to the point where "his health suffered and I decided he needed a sabbatical." Patten was widely rumoured to have suffered a nervous breakdown. He always had a bit of an unhinged side. He wrote a high-profile article claiming that "dwindling belief in redemption and damnation has led to a loss of fear of the eternal consequences of goodness and badness," that youngsters were out of control because they did not fear the Devil and hell. Gove, who was groomed by Rupert Murdoch to sound off in the Times, is also prone to making ludicrous, overblown statements. Major sacked Patten and sent him to the back benches, his ministerial career over. But Gove is systematically reviving Patten's policies. Patten made a fool of himself by describing leading educationalist Tim Brighouse as a "nutter." Brighouse sued for defamation and Patten had to pay out £100,000. Nobody has sued Gove yet, but his speeches about the "educational elite" are increasingly hysterical. Patten wanted schools to opt out of local authority control. He wanted centrally funded schools answerable to a committee that he set up, stuffed with Tory-funding businessmen. It flopped. Gove's free schools and wild expansion of the academy scheme follow the same lines. And Gove has appointed Tory-funding businessman John Nash as a minister to speed up schools privatisation. Patten launched a "licensed teacher" scheme. He was convinced that teacher training colleges were soaked in the "fashionable ideas of the 1960s." He wanted to send people with a business background straight into the classroom to learn on the job without the influence of the ungodly radicals he thought infested the colleges. It flopped. But Gove has hired Charlie Taylor, an Eton chum of Cameron's, to run a copy-cat scheme called School Direct, which will also try and throw teachers straight into school, bypassing teacher training courses. Gove wants to put partly qualified people from business backgrounds in the classroom. He models his policies on the Patten pattern. History shows that determined resistance can give Gove the Patten treatment. After all, Cameron's government is weaker than Major's. But Gove has a secret weapon - Labour. Between 1997 and 2010 Labour also aped Patten's policies. Their academy programme copied Patten's schools plan. They introduced schools-based teacher training, the GTP which also performed badly. This blunts resistance to Gove's schemes. Worst of all, Labour's education spokesman Stephen Twigg still believes in these Tory-lite policies. He is the most new Labour and least effective performer on Labour's front bench. He barely opposes Gove because he mostly agrees with him. There are two ways to exploit Gove's weakness - an easy way and a hard way. The easy way is to sack Twigg and replace him with someone who believes in teachers, is a friend to the teaching unions and backs local education authorities. If Twigg stays in place, then the unions and anti-academy campaigners will have to do it by themselves. It's a harder road, but it is still possible. When it comes to Gove, Labour need to decide if they want to be part of the problem or part of the solution