Michael Gove’s unfinished Agenda for Education…and beyond?

Michael Gove has said he is standing for the Tory leadership out of ‘conviction not ambition’. In today’s guest blog post author and academic Patrick Ainley suggests further insights into Gove’s wider agenda for education and beyond…

Patrick Ainley

Patrick Ainley

In 2005, 23 male Conservative MPs, MEPs, candidates and activists connected to the Centre for Policy Studies, published a 100 page pamphlet called DIRECT DEMOCRACY: An Agenda for a New Model Party.

The pamphlet has the marks of Gove all over it.

However, despite his usual sprinkling of obscure references, Gove is no intellectual. He merely shares the standard Tory faith in the unique instincts of the Great British people who only need to be freed from state interference to recreate once again wonders of the past like the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire.

Unbundling the state

In this pamphlet therefore Gove begins by indicating how far the UK was from its glorious past by 2005 after successive Tory electoral defeats. What is needed to reverse this and overcome ‘the errors of the Attlee settlement… which we still inhabit’ is a new model Party prepared ‘to push powers outwards and downwards’ so as to be ‘direct, democratic and locally accountable’. ‘Individuals’ will not then be ‘coerced by state power’ and local councils will be able to ‘raise their own budgets and manage their own affairs’ (pp.3-4).

This ‘Unbundling the state’ seeks to disband ‘the command state’ in the way Thatcherism opened ‘the command economy’ (p.35) to ‘pluralism of provision’ (p.42). So, ‘Instead of pledging to deliver better services… offer local communities the opportunities to improve their own affairs.’ (p.97) Much of this became familiar with Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ and Osborne’s ‘empowerment’ of elected mayors and cabinets, described by Peter Latham as ‘the optimal internal management arrangement for privatised local government services’.

‘The simple key to excellent education for the millions of parents who cannot afford to buy it in the private sector, is the voucher.’

For education – or schools at least, such ‘radical localisation’ means ‘independent, free-standing institutions’ and ‘new providers’ backed by financiers with shareholders. But, ‘The simple key, which will unlock the rusty, closed door leading to excellent education for the millions of parents who cannot afford to buy it in the private sector, is the voucher.’ (p.73)

This will not be a national entitlement, so that parents could offset the price of private schooling with their voucher, but a local voucher that can be topped up at competing state-funded independent schools. It thus does not require a return to grammar schools since the National Curriculum offers a gobbetised grammar schooling to all. As my book Betraying a Generation argues, Gove’s tenure at Education ‘set the stage for this further expansion to a fully-fledged free market.’ (p.70)

Meanwhile, the pamphlet argues, ‘too many children are going to university’ (p.65) so that it became Coalition policy to reverse this by raising student fees. However, as my book also reveals, because the repayment threshold was set so high, fees failed to differentiate universities by variable pricing. Nor did fees check the numbers so desperate for the degree essential for even a chance of secure employment they are prepared to take on lifelong debt.

It would have been cheaper to abolish the fees as so many will never be repaid. Instead, the latest Teaching Excellence Framework aims to raise fees for ‘quality’ courses, while the income levels for repayment will come down (changing the terms of the loans). New providers will lower their fees for cut-price, short programs, contributing to ‘market exit’ by universities that will close, hastened by falls in numbers of EU and other students.

‘Basically the same only more so with school vouchers complementing the paperless voucher of university fees’

Gove et al do not consider what school, college and university graduates will do in what has become a predominantly deregulated service economy – and likely to become more so in the anticipated race to the bottom with countries outside the EU. In 2015 Cameron promised three million apprenticeships as an alternative to HE but recession-hit employers will now likely be excused the £3bn levy to pay for them. Instead, that Great British spirit will somehow revive productive industry, ignoring the fact that even increased productivity is nowadays driven by further automation increasing unemployment.

So, this is the educational future outlined by Gove for his part in what Alex Salmond called his coup with former-ally Boris Johnson. Basically the same only more so with school vouchers complementing the paperless voucher of university fees, while FE colleges are closed and merged even more rapidly without the promised apprenticeships that will be forgotten. As many have remarked, this betrays the younger generation once again.



Carswell, D., Carter, P., Clark, G., Fraser, M., Gauke, D., Goodwill, R., Gove, M., Griffith, A., Hannan, D., Heaton-Harris, C., Herbert, N., Holloway, A., Howker, E., Hunt, J., Kelly, S., Kruger, D., Kwarteng, K., Monteith, B., Newmark, B., Norman, J., Penrose, J., Reckless, M. and Smith, H. (2005) DIRECT DEMOCRACY: An Agenda for a New Model Party. London: direct-democracy.co.uk.

Betraying a generation: How education is failing young people by Patrick Ainley can be purchased here from the Policy Press website for special 20% discounted price £7.99.

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Patrick Ainley is Professor of Education at the University of Greenwich and Visiting Fellow at New College, Oxford. He has taught in schools, colleges and universities, writing on youth and education including From School to YTS (1988) and Lost Generation? (2010).

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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