Hide not thy sugar with such poison’d words


Early last century in North America, cattle began dying after minor medical procedures. It was quickly discovered that the deaths were the result of the cattle eating mouldy silage that contained a powerful agent which led to the cattle bleeding to death from simple wounds. Twenty years later the specific chemical responsible was isolated for use as a pharmaceutical anti-coagulant and later as a powerful rodent poison. It is for this latter use the chemical perhaps became more well known as Warfarin.

There were two early uses of the drug, one well-documented, one less so. It is theorised that assisted by its tasteless and colourless nature, Warfarin was used to kill Joseph Stalin. A couple of years later, in 1955, President Eisenhower was treated with Warfarin following a heart attack, a use that played some part in saving his life.

I’ve considered many analogies to start this post. Warfarin, radiation, electricity etc etc. Things that can act for good or ill depending on how they are used and why they are used and who is using them. Things that can have different long term effects to those seen in the short term. Things where the perception of the benefits depends which end of the activity you are on. But lets stick with Warfarin for a short while.

The effects of the chemical which eventually became known as Warfarin were observed in one context. It was partially understood and then developed to be used in other contexts, both successfully and unsuccessfully.  Latterly it became better understood and the uses it was put to became more refined. Antidotes to its effects were discovered, which led to greater understanding of how it actually worked.

You can take these analogies and apply them to much of what I see on the news today, but as I am sure you have guessed by now, I want to talk about Michael Gove.

Let me state immediately that I am making no comparison between Gove and poison. However, I won’t be comparing him to a life-saving drug, either.

There will be short, medium and long term effects of the changes to the education system over the past four (twelve?) years. We can see the short term effects and can, according to our individual perceptions, divide them up into positive, negative and meh. What we think about the longer term effects are inevitably coloured by our short term view, so the further into the future we attempt to see, the more polarised views become. Thus I make no attempt to assess the longer term impact of the current reforms. As Zhou Enlai is reputed to have said when asked about the impact of the French revolution, “It’s too soon to say”.*

Also, I have no intention of listing everything that has changed over the past four years and trying to ascribe a motive or a judgement on the benefits or otherwise of the change. It is, indeed, too early to tell. I will say on this issue that my thought is often that the existence of change alone can often be a positive force for improvement. An example of this was the Specialist School movement. For many schools, the application to become a Specialist School was the first time they had ever written an improvement plan. What was the greater lever of improvement, the individual actions in the plan, or the processes that went into developing the plan? My view is that for many the latter was more important.

The difference however is that the Specialist Schools change had a carrot at the end (cash) and the Gove reforms have largely been encouraged by sticks (accepting that this view is coloured by my perception). Many of the positive aspects of reform have been blighted (and slowed) by the deliberately confrontational approach taken. Again, this is perception. But that makes it no less true for those who feel it. There will always be an argument around the need for confrontation to speed reforms versus the need for conciliation to foster acceptance of reforms. To coin a well used phrase, I think that this a is false dichotomy. Conciliation and haste can go together, as can confrontation and acceptance. The failure of Gove and his team was their inability to woo the wider teaching profession whilst in opposition. This was an eminently possible proposition. The Labour government had used up most of its goodwill in its attempts to implement Diplomas. This had two effects. Firstly, it did leave the system wary of more widespread change, which worked against what Gove was proposing. But massively in their favour was the negativity the Diplomas generated towards the DFES. Gove could, if he had really wanted, to have become the good guy for a much wider swathe of the profession than he ended up with. And therein lies the one negative I want to raise here about his approach.

Whilst Gove did consult, and he did listen, he did so on a very narrow bandwidth. I believe (perception again) that he looked for the evidence to support what he had already decided was the right approach. Whilst this does not always have to lead to disaster, it is limiting. It also leaves messes to be cleared up after. In the longer term we’ll see if this was someone taking eggs and deliberately breaking them in order to make an omelette or whether it was someone who actually wanted a couple of lightly boiled eggs who dropped the box and then left others to make the best of the mess that remained.

Which all leads me on to what I actually wanted to say.

Michael Gove, his team, and their reforms have many faults. They have left many things behind that will need rectification and repair. They have left parts of the system at risk. They have at times listened to the wrong people who have different motives to theirs. They have created tension, anger and distrust where none was perhaps necessary. All this I believe to be true.

But there is a bigger truth that we need to accept if we are going to end up with something more than just a  pile of broken eggs.

Gove is no doubt a zealot. And I mean that in the nicest possible way. He believes that education is a force for change and a force for good. He believes that everyone deserves the benefits of a good education. He knows that a child should not be limited by the accident of the circumstances of his birth (I’ve never voted Tory so I can’t quite understand how he can hold to those beliefs whilst subscribing to everything else his party does, but that’s another argument entirely). He knows these things are true. He has experienced them in a way that most of us never have. I have no intention of trying to take that away from him.

And to quote Neil Diamond (you never saw that coming, did you) “Well except for the names, and a few other changes, if you talk about me, the story’s the same one”.

I’m as much a zealot as Gove. I don’t disagree with every one of his reforms. Some I wouldn’t have done, some I would have done differently and some I would have done in a way that would have made Gove look like Mary Poppins.

The tragedy of Gove is that by excluding from his circle those who didn’t agree 100% with the direction, speed and means of travel he weakened and slowed rather than enhanced and hastened their impact. Furthermore, his close association with many reforms will lead many to judge their own success by how much they are resisted, even when they see the benefits of the change. This is the downside of striving for a ‘legacy’ (though I suspect this is more important to his followers than it is to him).

I firmly believe that Gove wanted to do a good thing. I am genuinely saddened that he has been removed from office before the election. That is a purely political act which diminished both the office of Secretary of State for Education and the man that made the decision (whoever that was).  To those who say “great, now we can take the politics out of education”, I say, “get real”. How we educate children, and the value we place on that is the purest expression of our culture, and can never be anything other than highly political. But politics does not have to be confrontational. That it is can be seen as the great weakness of our society.

So, lets think of the reforms as pure C19H16O4. It can be dangerous stuff. Applied in the wrong way, or for the wrong reasons, they could do significant damage to the system. Used wisely, for the right purposes, there can be considerable benefits. There are many things about the reforms that perhaps we need to understand better before we implement them fully. After all, whilst killing people is wrong, who is going to argue that killing Stalin wasn’t the right thing to do.

In the long run.

* Whilst originally the quote was though to be in response to a question about the revolution of 1789, it is possible he was referring to the student ‘revolution’ less than ten years earlier