We’ll miss you, Michael Gove

Recent revelations suggest that David Cameron’s unexpected move to replace reform-minded education minister Michael Gove (who’s been popular with British conservatives) with Ms. Nicky Morgan might have been triggered by more than crass preelection maneuvering to placate teachers and women.

Gove’s earnestly pursued and widely touted “academies” initiative, which allows district-operated public schools to convert to charter-like status and be managed by outside groups, has led to a major scandal in Birmingham, where a handful of such schools were taken over by fundamentalist Muslims.

Because all academies are, in principle, accountable to the secretary of state for education rather than to local authorities, Gove was ultimately responsible for the decisions that led to this situation, which has been carefully documented by inspectors from Ofsted, England’s independent school-reviewing body.

This is not to say that academy status produced this problem. As a close review by Peter Clarke makes clear, the local Birmingham authorities had turned a blind eye to it for ages. Indeed, one can fairly argue that coming under the secretary of state’s authority is what finally surfaced the problem and empowered the government to intervene, which it has now done.

With some 3,500 such schools now operating in England and enrolling more than one in four of all school kids in the country, it was unrealistic to expect Gove and his small staff to know much about what was happening in them. Still, that’s how this enormously important element of England’s school-choice and school-autonomy policies is structured. And the Birmingham scandal reveals a major weakness, even as it also illustrates how a change in governance-and-accountability structures can pave the way to overdue changes in school operations.

Still, this saga includes a cautionary tale regarding charter school authorizing, particularly when done on a large scale, and will inevitably be used by school-choice foes in the U.S. as evidence in support of their scary predictions that chartering will lead to madrasas and such. One can reasonably wonder how close was the scrutiny that Gove’s team gave to these Birmingham schools and the folks who wanted to take charge of them before conferring academy status upon them.

Moving Gove out (and into a sort of intra-party role as “chief whip” in the Commons) was thus a way for the prime minister to contain the fallout from this lamentable situation. With a general election set to occur sometime before May 2015, it was also a good time to remove this thorn in the side of England’s teachers and teacher unions (and the rest of what Gove, channeling Bill Bennett, called the education “blob”) and to replace him with a woman.

Having said all that, let me say that Michael Gove’s overall record as education minister these past four years has been brilliant and brave as well as boisterous. A fan who writes for the Telegraph offers a better account of his accomplishments than I could supply. Click on that link and check out the nine “bullets” that he lists.

Radical as Gove has been in the British context, in reality, much of what he has sought to accomplish follows logically from its antecedents during Tony Blair’s time, particularly the initiatives devised and led by Sir Michael Barber, some of which you can read about in his own excellent book, Instruction to Deliver: Fighting to Transform Britain’s Public Services. And it’s no real stretch to find their precedents in the Thatcher years. Indeed, macro-education policy in England has followed a reasonably steady—and radical—course for three decades, regardless of which team was in charge in Whitehall.

The path on which Gove and his predecessors placed English education resembles the path taken by sundry U.S. education reformers—most definitely including Arne Duncan as well as Bill Bennett, Lamar Alexander, and Jeb Bush. Me, too. It consists of high standards, rigorous tests with transparent results (including the kind that make it easy to compare schools’ performance), school-level autonomy, quality choices, meaty Core Knowledge–style curricula, forceful interventions into failing schools, and sweeping deregulation.

I’ve envied British education reformers from time to time because they don’t have nearly so many layers (or branches!) of government to work through or so many veto points in the system. It’s better to think of primary and secondary education in England as analogous to that of a large U.S. state—the total pupil population of 7 million may be compared with California’s 6 million—and of the governance system as akin to that of a state capitol. (When it comes to K–12 education, the “United Kingdom” contains four separate systems, because Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland run their own. Gove and his predecessors were in direct charge only of England’s.)

As a result of this more centralized control through a parliamentary-style government, reformers in London have been able to make decisions that reverberate rather quickly throughout the land. This has led, for instance, to the staggering rise in the number of academies, particularly at the secondary level.

Gove is a zealous reformer whom I like and respect. If you listen to his keynote address to Jeb Bush’s big annual education conference last year, you might be as impressed as I am.

Zealousness is much preferable to lethargy, and I hope the Birmingham glitch doesn’t slow the pace of education reform in England. Gove’s policies wouldn’t have been undertaken had the prime minister not agreed with them, and for at least the next ten months, Cameron will remain in that role. After the general election, much could be up for grabs, though history suggests that the basic path probably won’t change much. Meanwhile, even Gove’s devoted fans must acknowledge that the Birmingham episode—akin to the proliferation of mediocre schools that we witnessed when Texas, Ohio, Arizona, and other states strove to get as many charters up and running as fast as possible—does illustrate some of the hazards that accompany haste in the implementation of a promising reform. Yet his critics—and those who reject the charter concept on this side of the Atlantic—also need to recognize that traditional “local control” wasn’t doing anything to clean up the mess in Birmingham.

A version of this article originally appeared in the National Review Online.

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.