Nicky Morgan takes charge at the Department of Education

25 Aug

In the high summer of 2014, prime minister David Cameron decided to reshuffle his cabinet.   The education secretary, Michael Gove, was a casualty of the changes. He was relieved of his post and appointed Chief Whip. Nicky Morgan, previously the Minister for Women and Equality, who will retain these responsibilities, took up the reins of the education office as well.

(1)       Why the change?

Apparently, there were two reasons for this change of cards in Cameron’s pack.  The first had to do with the fact that Gove, the MP for Surrey Heath, was viewed as being one of the most polarising members of the Cabinet. His reforms – the establishment of free schools, the expansion of academies by opening up the academy garden to all schools, including those in the independent sector, the changes in the curriculum and the examination reforms, among other initiatives – invited criticism and opprobrium from swathes of the community and toxic criticism from the unions.

Lynton Crosby, Cameron’s key strategy adviser for the 2015 elections, had been uneasy that Gove was detrimental to the voting stakes, especially in the marginal constituencies and signalled that his position as secretary of state for Education had become untenable.  Accordingly, he was sacrificed.

The other reason for the change was that the prime minister wished to be seen as someone who was assisting women to break the glass ceiling and access the corridors of power.    

However, in the reshuffle, Baroness Stowell of Beeston, the new Leader of the House of Lords, had a salary “demotion” which sparked off a row about pay equality and the status of the Lords.   She is being paid less than her predecessor, Lord Hill, owing to the safeguarding of the salary of William Hague, who resigned as Foreign Secretary to take up the position of Leader of the Commons.   Lord Hill’s salary was £101,038 – commensurate with that of   a secretary of state.   Baroness Stowell, on the other hand, is being paid £78,891.   The Conservative Party offered to top it up, but she rejected this move because it would have amounted to a conflict of interest.

While the prime minister said that he would restore Baroness Stowell to her full rank at the earliest opportunity, the move, per se, was seen to be hypocritical.  Cameron had been keen to demonstrate that he was in favour of more gender equality in his government.  The Cabinet now has four women secretaries of state apart from Nicky Morgan i.e. Theresa May (Home Office), Justine Greening (Development), Liz Truss (Environment) and Theresa Villiers (Northern Ireland). However, the influence the new (women) Cabinet members will be able to exert prior to the next elections, which is just eight months away is questionable.

These appointments appear to have been undermined further by the resignation of Baroness Sayeeda Warsi – a Muslim woman of Pakistani origin – the former minister of state for faiths and the communities – because of her unease at David Cameron’s Gaza war policy, which she described as “morally indefensible.

(2)       Nicky Morgan

Meanwhile, shortly after she took up her new post, Nicky Morgan warned teachers that she would continue to press ahead with Gove’s radical school reforms.   She dismissed claims that she had been sent by Cameron to halt the changes, pledging, rather, to open new free schools and expand grammar schools where parents want them.   Notwithstanding, she added that she would be “nice to teachers”.  It is left to be seen whether she intends to distance herself from her predecessor’s alleged confrontational style.  However, if she did so, she would be criticised for slipping into a situation where she could end up placating the unions.

Nicky Morgan (41), who is married with a young son, studied law at Oxford University.   She worked as a solicitor, specialising in corporate law and advising private and public companies from 1994 when she was elected MP in the marginal seat of Loughborough in 2010.

In April 2014, she was appointed financial secretary to the Treasury and minister for women.  While she voted against same-sex marriage, she supports gay civil partnerships.

(3)       Gove’s Legacy

While not wishing to belittle the rise of able women muscling in on the Bullington Club influence in government, it is unfortunate that Gove, a foremost educational post-war reformer, was not allowed to finish the job that he had begun.

A new curriculum has just been introduced, young people are being assessed more rigorously in their GCSEs and A levels, coursework has been abolished, re-sits for examinations are being reduced to one, school-based initial teacher-training, and Mickey Mouse vocational subjects (thanks to the work of Professor Alison Wolf) are being banished.

However, everything has not been good in the Garden of Eden that Gove has tried to create. Opening applications for all schools to convert to academies and establishing free schools without thinking through implications have resulted in unintended consequences.   Local authorities have been relieved of their capacity to oversee the schools in their areas effectively and are finding it near impossible to discharge one of their key functions of providing sufficient places for pupils without education.

Further, Gove, who in private is extremely pleasant and courteous, publicly presented a bolshie persona and succeeded in offending the educational establishment by calling it the “Blob” in February 2014, the name inspired by the 1950s film about an amoeba-like alien mass which nothing was able to stop. Gove saw himself as a revolutionary fighting the Blob’s “progressive” grip over teacher training, classroom standards and qualifications.

Dissatisfied that this was sufficient, he then antagonised school governors on 15 May 2014 at the launch of the University of Bath/National Governors’ Association (NGA) report, The State of School Governing.  He said that school governors needed to toughen up and realise that the job on which many of them spend at least a day a week doing (for nothing) was not just a “sherry pouring, cake-slicing exercise in hugging each other and singing Kumbayah”.

Even the mild-mannered Emma Knights, chief executive of the NGA, felt compelled to write to him (see here) on 23 May as follows.

“I am therefore both sad and perplexed that on the next occasion you speak publicly on Governance, I find myself writing a very similar letter again. Those of us who were at Guildhall last Thursday understand the context of your comments; you were commenting on what governance isn’t. However, as a former journalist, you do not need me to tell you that the references to Kumbayah, hugging, sherry and cake were bound to be picked up and reported by the press. This mistake was compounded by the fact there is neither a transcript nor a film of your full speech. Language which paints a ridiculous picture of current governance practice could also seriously undermine the alliance’s drive to attract new volunteers.

“NGA’s research with the University of Bath on ‘The State of School Governing in England 2014’ published to coincide with the Inspiring Governors launch showed that there have been improvements in governance practice in the six years since the last significant survey, in particular in terms of the challenge of headteachers which you were emphasising.”

Gove’s written response to Emma Knights was contrite.  However, by then the damage had been done.

Notwithstanding, Gove’s presence in the Cabinet has inspired young people who are in the care system.  An adopted son, himself, he has been a shining exemplar of what deprived pupils can achieve in their lifetimes.

Mike Duncan, who taught him English at Robert Gordon’s College said: “He was one of the most inquiring pupils I ever remember teaching. At the start of every lesson a hand would go up and it would be Michael. The thought would go through my mind, ‘What is he going to ask me now and will I know the answer?’”

Although he was clearly very bright, “he wasn’t an introverted, bookish individual. He had a huge personality and was very popular among his fellow pupils,” he added.

“He never took himself too seriously. Clearly he has caused huge antagonism among others, but I wouldn’t for any reason question his motives. I never doubted Michael would be successful — maybe what is more of a surprise is that he turned out to be such a controversial character.”

He was a successful journalist in The Times, entered Parliament in 2005, and appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Children and Families in 2007.  He went on to be appointed Secretary of State for Education in 2010 when the present coalition government was formed.   He has now been appointed to do something totally different as Chief Whip, i.e. bring a modicum of discipline into the manner in which members of his Conservative Party vote in Parliament.

Love him or hate him, Gove’s legacy is impressive. Shame, therefore, that he could not continue to the next elections as education secretary. With the passage of time, we will be able to assess better his legacy and the impact that he has had on our children’s futures.  It’s too soon to do so at this time.

(4)       The Education Team

The political team that will now oversee and lead on education into the next elections on 7 May 2015 will comprising the following.

  1. Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities
  2. David Laws, Minister for Schools
  3. Nick Boles, Minister of State for Skills and Equalities
  4. Nick Gibb, Minister of State
  5. Edward Timpson, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families
  6. Lord Nash, Parliament Under-Secretary of State for Schools
  7. Mr Sam Gyimah, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State

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