Why did I have to be so Frank? - RSA

Why did I have to be so Frank?


  • Curriculum

I need a holiday. I keep making mistakes. I did it again today.

Michael Gove spoke here this morning. In a typically robust and engaging performance he repeated his scepticism about competence based curricula like our own Opening Minds. Gove is highly rated by just about everyone and is very likely to be running our schools this time next year. I need to keep on the right side of him to try to persuade him and his team to be a bit more open minded about Opening Minds. So, this morning I politely asked Michael if he would have an on-line debate with me so we could go into the issues in more depth than was possible in a ten minute Q and A session. He kindly agreed.

So far so good. But then this afternoon I was at a Conservative Home conference organised to brief various public affairs types on the Tory Party as it prepares for power. 

In response to a question about whether the Conservatives could have a positive message for the next election I contrasted Conservative health spokesman Andrew Lansley (who was here last night) with Michael Gove.

I recalled the difference between Labour’s education strategy pre-1997 and their health strategy. In the former case, David Blunkett battled with his own Party to make clear he would keep most of the framework created by Kenneth Baker in the 1988 Education Reform Bill but with some changes at the margins, acceleration of elements like the literacy strategy and also using money from abolishing assisted places to reduce primary class sizes. In health, by contrast, Labour said the Tories were totally wrong and pledged to dismantle the Conservative internal market, which they subsequently did, only to later rebuild it under Alan Milburn at huge cost.

Approaching the next election Lansley is in the Blunkett position, broadly endorsing Labour’s approach but emphasising areas he would change, things he would stop and new offers he would make. But Gove sounds more like Labour on health in 1997 suggesting that the whole school system is in a mess and that only the practice he likes from the very best schools is worth emulating. Gove is also arguing for some profound changes in funding and structure. Indeed his agenda was described by Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home as ‘a school revolution’.

The contrast was underlined in the audience reaction to the speeches. Both got warm applause, with many people clearly agreeing. But while no one seemed to want to disagree loudly with Lansley, with Michael Gove I have never known an event where so many people came up to me at the end to express concern about what they had heard, including two head teachers. (Not that this will worry Michael too much as cocking a snook at the educational establishment is, I suspect, part of his strategy)

Not everyone will agree with me so far, but it's not that which is the problem. You see, the minister in charge of health policy for Labour in 1997 was Frank Dobson and so, in front of lots and lots of Conservatives, I said ‘in his tendency to condemn the schools system wholesale Michael Gove reminds me a bit of Frank Dobson’.

It is a toss up which of these two eminent politicians of different generations would be most appalled by my comparison. But when Michael is told – which he most certainly will be – that could be our bridges burnt.

I suppose it’s too late to say sorry?

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