Webchat with Michael Gove
Michael Gove, shadow secretary of state for children, schools and families joined us for a live webchat on 29 April 2010. This is an edited transcript of the chat, which covered everything from the Conservatives' policies on free schools, inclusion, the curriculum, bullying and political gaffes to Lady GaGa gags and Nick Clegg falling in with the wrong crowd.
Michael Gove is the shadow secretary of state for children, schools and families and a key part of David Cameron's Shadow Cabinet team, responsible for Conservative policy on education and child protection. He is the Tory candidate in Surrey Heath.
Born in Edinburgh in 1967 and brought up in Aberdeen. He's married to Times writer Sarah Vine and they have a son and a daughter, both of primary school age.
SethStarkaddersMum: Welcome to Mumsnet Mr Gove. Why am I feeling the need to call you that instead of Michael? Does this happen a lot?
MichaelGove: Most people call me Michael, but please feel free to call me anything you like and the reason I'm here is I worship Justine.
LadyBlahBlah: Following on from David Cameron's encounter with Mr Bartley, the father with a special needs child the other day, could you please confirm or deny (and make very, very clear) what the Tory position is on inclusion of special needs students in mainstream school.
As was made very clear by that encounter and the manifesto, the Tories are more biased towards special needs school and exclusion. David Cameron wanted Ivan to be in special needs education and it seems presumed that others do also. Would you please clarify the position.
Many, many, many parents do not want their children excluded from mainstream school and there exists a culture of bias towards exclusion (which eventually leads to prejudice in mainstream schools, hence reinforcing the exclusion from mainstream), and many, many parents want the important and valuable work that has begun with inclusion to continue.
Will the Tories continue to provide funding for inclusion into mainstream schools at the current levels? Is there a cultural bias in the Tories of exclusion to special schools?
MichaelGove: Thanks for your question. The whole approach we take to SEN is that the parent should be in the driving seat - we want to remove the existing bias in favour of inclusion.
My experience is that many more parents want their children in special schools and are denied that right. but we absolutely respect the right of parents who want a mainstream education for their child. My sister benefitted from both. The critical thing is accurate early assessment of needs and properly trained teachers.
LadyBlaBlah: Michael Gove wrote: 'We want to remove the existing bias in favour of inclusion - my experience is that many more parents wants their children in special schools and are denied that right.'
That does somewhat contradict what David Cameron said the other day. He said he would make it easier for parents to get what was right for their child, be it inclusion in mainstream schools or a special school education. You are now saying that you want to remove a non-existent bias to mainstream schooling - there is no bias to inclusion at the moment so your 'experience' that people are denied that right is very puzzling. This is exactly the issue raised by Mr Bartle.
MichaelGove: The closure of special schools - and the behaviour of some of the local authorities I've had to deal with certainly suggests there is a bias in favour of inclusion - and that was also Lady Warnock's view.
All we want to do is give parents a proper choice - and that's what DC has always maintained. One of my best friends begged me recently to keep SATS because, in her words, "it was the only time I was absolutely certain my children were learning anything". I don't share her view but there are many, many parents I know who want accurate info on how their children, and schools, are doing.
westwingfan: Free schools sound like a very dodgy idea to me. If you don't like the state system then you should pay for an alternative. Public resources should be spent on making the state system the best it can be and making it open to everyone (comprehensive, in fact). Free schools reek of people trying to set up little clubs full of 'people like us' (or as David Cameron says 'people who do the right thing').
How on earth are we meant to encourage diversity and mobility if this drawbridge building mentality is going on? As for faith schools? Again, if you want it, pay for it, but don't expect the taxpayer to fund it.
MichaelGove: Well, I can't guarantee President Bartlett would back our proposals, but President Obama is calling for something very similar - more charter schools along the lines of the new schools we support. And the States do offer a model of the sort of thing we're talking about. Their KIPP charter schools (the initials stand for the Knowledge Is Power Programme) are hugely successful schools, which have been started by teachers and operate outside local authority control. They have high standards, longer hours and ensure that children in neighbourhoods where a majority didn't even graduate from high school are now going on to elite colleges. They've only been made possible because the system was freed up in certain states to allow teachers to open new schools in response to parental demand.
President Obama wants that in all states. I want it in the UK. At the moment, solicitors and doctors can set up their own practices but teachers can't set up their own schools in the state system. I think that's wrong and I've been really encouraged that lots of teachers - including some alumni from Teach First - have been in touch with us about opening KIPP-style schools here.
LilyBolero: As a parent of three (soon to be four), with two in primary school, one to start in September, I have serious concerns about your education policy. Specifically:
- The 'return to traditional values' you cite, including 'sitting in rows, learning dates by rote' and 'rewriting the National Curriculum from Day 1'. Surely teachers should be allowed to adopt the methods most suited to the class at the time rather than having some edict from Whitehall, constructed on the whim of some 'return to traditional teaching'. For what it's worth, my children (Year 4 and Year 2) spend a good amount of time learning tables/facts etc, but are also inspired by creative and imaginative teaching and cross-curricular work, which would be impossible under your scheme.
- The use of so-called 'celebrities' to advise - Carol Vorderman for example is not 'one of the greatest minds of our generation' and I fail to see how she is qualified to advise on the education of our children. It feels like sensationalist headline grabbing, and I would be very concerned if this was to happen.
- The idea of parents setting up their own schools. Firstly, where are these schools supposed to be? In our area there is a chronic shortage of primary school places, but no sites suitable to set up a school. Also, it would inevitably lead to parents setting up schools specifically aimed at their children, and would not help the neediest in society - as the Today programme put it, it would help 'middle class parents with the sharpest elbows'.
MichaelGove: I never actually said anything about learning by rote and I totally agree with what I think is your overall view - teaching styles should be a matter of parental choice and professional autonomy - but my experience is that many parents want a rigorous, knowledge-based education for their children and aren't getting it. If they had money, they could buy it in the private sector. I want those of us who are in the state sector to have the same choice.
On rewriting the curriculum, I want to involve everyone who cares about the intellectual life of our nation and Carol is passionate about maths and engaged with all the maths bodies like ACME, the Royal Society and the Further Maths Network.
On new schools, as I mentioned, I expect it will be teachers even more than parents and other social entrepreneurs, too, who are keen to set up new schools. Only yesterday I was talking to parents in Wandsworth who've identified a site. I've worked with parents in North Kensington who have as well - and in West Yorkshire - we're also amending planning rules to make it easier to convert the right sort of building.
herbietea: I am very lucky as I have the choice of three very good schools to send my children. The school they go to is well-led, the children are, in the main, well-behaved and eager to learn. I put a lot of this down to the calibre of the teachers and the fact that morale amongst them is very good. How would a Tory government go about making every school a good school? It is very unfair that children miss out on a good education just because of where they live.
MichaelGove: Too many parents don't have the chance of getting their children into a good school - in some parts of London as many as half of parents can't get their children into a school they're happy with. That's why we'd make a series of changes to improve education:
- We'd reform the curriculum to give teachers more freedom over how to teach - enhancing the professional status of teaching
- We'd give teachers more powers to keep discipline in the classroom - making it easier for all children to learn
- We'd move resources from quangos to the frontline - giving professionals, not bureaucrats, control of budgets
- We'd emphasise the importance of teaching by ability - so every child can have an education tailored to their needs
- We'd reform Ofsted so it concentrates on teaching and learning - not the 18 or so bureaucratic boxes that have to be ticked at the moment
- We'd reform our exam system to measure our qualifications against the world's best
- We'd welcome new providers into education so we can have more small schools with smaller class sizes
And we'd stress the importance of education as fun - inspirational and exciting - by getting more and more talented people into the classroom to inspire children with a love of learning.
westwingfan: From what you have said the US model sounds like it is being done by teachers, that makes sense as they are the professionals. What worries me is that the Conservative proposal as I understand it is that groups of parents can club together to create independently run state schools.
I am a parent of two school-age children and while comfortable that I am (so far!) doing OK as a parent, I just don't know how a well-intentioned layperson could presume to understand what it takes to be in charge of educating children. Also, will all schools be entitled to the pupil premium or just the new ones?
MichaelGove: There are some great charter schools (and free schools in Sweden) which parents agitated for and helped set up but I expect the KIPP model - or equivalent - to be the predominant model here. And our plan on the pupil premium is to restructure all funding across England to ensure all state schools get more cash for their disadvantaged pupils.
ahundredtimes: Are the KIPP schools the ones that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about?
MichaelGove: Yes, Malcolm Gladwell has written about them - and there's a book about KIPP called Work Hard and Be Nice to People, which is Bill Gate's favourite book.
Pronoia: Most parents would not like to see their children sitting in rows learning archaic irrelevant factoids. Most parents would like their children to have an education that will prepare them for the life they are actually going to lead, and for 99% of children that is not a life where they will be required to know jingoistic rubbish about the head of the church and her predecessors. Furthermore, taking children out of the 'sitting in rows' format was probably the best idea anyone has ever had. This is not 1950, and nobody who isn't a middle-aged, middle-class white man wants it to be.
MichaelGove: Dear Pronoia and others who asked about the curriculum, I've never said that all children should learn in a single way. I've just given voice to a style of learning that I think many parents would like to see in a school system that better reflected their wishes.
The whole point of our policies is to give schools more freedom and to create as much diversity as possible - which would give more parents the option of more traditional schooling for their children. When parents have the resources to send their children private that's overwhelmingly what they choose - I'd like those of us who don't want to go private to have the same choice. But those parents who don't want their children sitting in rows could send them to a different type of school.
animula: Surely one of the problems in many of the "not-so-good" schools is that children are entering them disadvantaged by economic and social factors impacting on homelife. Simply improving discipline, increasing emphasis on academic achievement (which are not bad things, in themselves) is, simply, not enough.
Do you see a role for increasing the provision of more "wraparound care" in (some) schools? Would that be the role of academies? Would there be "free schools" for middle-class, non-disadvantaged children, and academies, with more "care"-style intervention for disadvantaged children?
MichaelGove: I agree that we can't rely on what happens between 9am and 3.30pm alone. That's why we need better support in the early years (particularly through better parenting advice) and schools which are ready to offer breakfast and after-school clubs, extra-curricular activities and Saturday schools. Academies like Mossbourne already do this.
spectacular: I would like to know what research your policies are based on. Hunches and gut instincts and parading the views of a few celebs do not make for a convincing basis for policy setting. It is most off-putting, indeed.
I am most interested in your instinct, gut or otherwise, that overwhelmingly parents who can afford to go down the private schooling route, choose a traditional setting for their children. I am one such parent, and I do not know of any parents in the same situation who wish for a return to traditional teaching methods, with children sitting in rows, chanting out the names of the long-dead aristocracy.
Where does all of this rubbish come from and why have you no research-based evidence to support your policies? Why is there no one filtering out the stupid ideas?
MichaelGove: My research is based on work done by people like Michael Fullan, Michael Brabner and Fenton Whelan into the world's best education systems, the comparative research done by people like the OECD and academic work done by people like Dylan Williams at the Institute of Education, Caroline Hoxby in the US and E.D. Hirsch.
longfingernails: Well done on your schools policy, it is the single best reason I can think of for being a Conservative voter. I also like the pupil premium, and the way it will encourage social mobility. But I have some questions about the way the pupil premium will work. How would you go about fairly pricing a quasimarket to genuinely deliver equality of opportunity? And can you see the Tories extending quasimarkets into other areas of public policy?
MichaelGove: Dear Longfingernails and other who ask about the pupil premium. The premium will see extra money attached to pupils from poorer backgrounds. We believe that the current education system is weighted against the poorest who too often are left with the worst schools while the rich can buy their way to good schools either by going private or paying for an expensive mortgage. This is unfair. By ensuring that poorer kids get more money, new schools are more likely to want to set up in the areas that need them most.
On your specific question on extending quasi-markets in other areas of public policy - we will do so where the evidence shows that it will make a real difference particularly for the least well off. For example we would use quasi-markets in the welfare system to ensure as many people as possible get back into work and in the rehabilitation of offenders where outside expertise can make a real difference.
ronshar: I would like to ask what the Conservative government would do about the many children who have been let down by the current Government. I refer to the children who are clever, bright, more able, intelligent or whatever the correct term is for a child who has lots of brains. I know it has become very unfashionable to say that a child is bright but our children are being failed by a system which makes them learn at the slowest pace of the slowest child in the class. Why is it OK for a child to be prevented, by a rubbish educational system, from reaching their true potential just to protect the self esteem of the less able children in the class?
Please tell me that you would bring back proper teaching for those children who want to learn and who are able to learn faster than their class mates. I am frustrated that my child gets used as an extra teaching aid at the expense of her own learning.
MichaelGove: Like you, I'm really disappointed that the Government has abandoned its gifted and talented programme. I would do a number of things.
Facilitate more setting and streaming so gifted children can be stretched in the subjects where they excel and weaker children supported. I would allow children to score higher than a level 5 at KS2, so we recognise higher ability in primary. I would make the curriculum - particularly in maths - more flexible so we can encourage bright younger children to be introduced to more sophisticated concepts earlier. I would encourage more secondaries to have sixth-forms so we can have the very best teachers available in all state secondaries. And I would expand organisations like Teach First which recruit academic highflyers with real leadership potential so we enhance our cadre of those with deep subject specialist knowledge.
Slug: We were excluded from applying to five of our six closest primary schools on the basis of religion. Because we could not supply a vicar's/priest's letter of recommendation nor could we, in all honesty, sign a form that said we broadly agreed with the school ethos when the ethos of the religion that supports the school discriminates against my daughter's family members (and herself, since she is female).
In light of this, could you tell me how the Conservative Party can justify their continued support for religious and Special Interest schools? All I want for my child is a good, local, state-funded school. I don't want to set my own one up. I don't want my child taught myths as truth and I don't want my child to be ghetto-ised on the basis of her parents lack of religion. I want her to be able to go to school with all members of the community.
As it stands at the moment, she knows very few Christian children, as they have all been siphoned off by the local religious schools. Do you think the Conservative Party have got their schools policy drastically wrong?
MichaelGove: Dear Slug and others, my daughter and son are at a faith school and it's a great school - over-subscribed, with great methods, great head and socially comprehensive intake. Faith schools are hugely popular and I wouldn't want to deny parents the chance to choose the education they want for their children.
But I know there are lots of parents who don't want their children to go to faith schools and are frustrated that the best schools in their area are church or faith schools - that's why I'd like to see more organisations coming into the state sector who have philosophies, and offer pedagogies, which reflect what parents want.
penguin73: As a new teacher who struggled for four years to find a job on completion of training, I find it very demoralising to read about how you will bring in lots of new talent to improve teaching and learning when there are so many NQTs struggling to find work (particularly in humanities and MFL).
What provision (if any) would you make for existing teachers who want to develop but who have seen CPD funding disappear and cannot afford to fund it (plus their cover costs) themselves?
MichaelGove: I think we have the best generation of teachers ever, but we do have specific shortages in maths and science which is why we've said we would waive the student loans of maths and science graduates who enter, and stay in, teaching.
patienceplease: Please, oh please, whatever you do (if you get in) when you introduce new initiatives, give teachers and schools the time to let things work. We are sick of being told one thing, and given a new way of doing things and then have it all change a year/ term later. Stop the meddling and bureaucracy!
MichaelGove: I have a lot of sympathy. I think there are some bad things we need to stop and some good lessons from abroad, and from the best state schools, we need to apply more broadly. But I agree that we need less interference overall - which is why on the curriculum I would change things and then leave well alone for at least a decade. And I would get rid of the screeds of the things which schools have to do at the moment, for Ofsted etc.
Tambajam: As a former teacher, my life was made very difficult by a violent and disruptive pupil. He sexual assaulted a classroom assistant, attacked pupils and was finally permanently excluded after trying to attack me. But if even I feel he and his family deserved the right of appeal for his permanent exclusion, why don't you? Surely, it's what happens in a system that takes exclusion seriously and values the rights of parents and children.
MichaelGove: Dear Tambajam and others who ask about exclusion, I'm sorry to hear about your bad experiences - it's because of stories like yours that restoring discipline is such a priority of mine. The problem with appeals panels sending children back to schools from which they've been excluded is that it completely undermines the authority of the headteacher. There have been incidents where children expelled for carrying knives have been sent back, which is unacceptable.
I understand your concerns about children's rights, which is why we'd issue clear statutory guidance to schools on exclusions (making clear, for example, that if children have special needs that needs to be taken into account). The Governors of the school would also have to approve the exclusion and would be legally responsible for ensuring the guidance was followed.
ahundredtimes: Right. Cuts! Seemingly everyone across all parties acknowledges there will have to be cuts in public spending. Can you tell us how and what cuts will effect education please?
MichaelGove: I don't want to see education spending cut. And we will certainly protect frontline spending on schools. But we will cut:
- Ofsted (it inspects too much)
- The QCDA (you don't need a quango which costs £100 million every year constantly re-writing the curriculum)
- Contactpoint - we don't need another database to keep our children safe
MPs and slebs have been told they can keep their children off the database because it's not 100% secure. Well, if it's not safe for my children, it's not safe for yours and I don't believe a database state makes us safer - people looking out for each other in a society based on trust does.
BigBadMummy: It is said that the government wants to introduce IB to secondary schools. Why is this? My understanding of it is that it is much more difficult to gain the points needed for university entry (versus A-levels) and that many universities still prefer A-levels. It is, therefore, seen as not a great choice for anything other than the 'top sets' in a school. In fact, one college in our area is no longer offering it as an alternative.
My children are privately educated and the school is only offering IB as a sixth-form option, so they will be leaving because I do not have any confidence that they will be offered a university place with it. Would be interested to hear your views.
MichaelGove: There are some universities that are taking a bit of time to get used to the IB - but increasingly unis are saying to me that they value both the IB and the new Cambridge Pre-U more than some A levels because the IB has held its value consistently over time in a way some A levels haven't and the Pre-U guarantees knowledge in depth. We want more state school children to have the chance to do these qualifications - and to do the IGCSE - because they are increasingly in demand from top unis and employers.
goldenticket: My oldest child is in Y6 and therefore taking SATS in a couple of weeks. He has been doing revision work since Christmas and since the Easter holidays has been doing three practice papers a day and two more pieces of homework each night. This is because the school have been put under huge pressure to raise their standing in the league tables ie this is nothing to do with the children themselves (indeed, all our local secondary schools completely ignore the SATS results and retest the children as soon as they arrive).
Please tell me that a Conservative government would address this issue and make the final year of primary school as fun, engaging and downright interesting as it used to be.
Nessarose: I took my sons out of one primary school, there were a lot of reasons, but the main ones were class size - they wanted my older son's year group to form one big class of 39 children - and bullying. The school did nothing about it. I got fed up with the daily heartache to get him to school.
The other school in our area is a faith school and we could not get them in there as we are the wrong religion. My husband and I don't drive, so we pay for a taxi to get them to school and back. We asked for assistance from the LEA but were told no as there is a school within walking distance. Yet if my son had been the bully, we would have got transport for them. How is this fair?
MichaelGove: I totally sympathise. Teachers at the moment don't have the tools they need to deal with bullying. We'd reform the rules so bullies can be dealt with more quickly and effectively.
MichaelGove: Totally support home educators - not a choice I'd make myself but anyone who does home educate is clearly a committed and idealistic individual.
LadyBlaBlah: Would you like to comment on bigot-gate. Would you say the lady in question was a bigot? If Nick Griffin uttered the words about flocks of immigrants, would you consider him to be a bigot, or just a 'normal middle-aged man'?
MichaelGove: Mrs Duffy certainly wasn't a bigot - she was a Labour supporter who spoke for millions... Nick Griffin is a holocaust-denying, hate-mongering, voter-scaring bigot - he's the real thing
Oracle: It's looking like I am going to be voting for the holocaust-denying, hate-mongering, voter-scaring bigot because I have no faith or liking for Ed Balls and even less in the Conservatives.
MichaelGove: Please don't vote for the racist BNP -please, please, please vote for anyone, anyone, else.
Oracle: I thought that you were talking about Nick Clegg - having two disabled children I would never vote BNP ever.
ahundredtimes: I'm sure Mr Gove would never refer to Nick Clegg as a holocaust-denying racist Oracle. Sorry, this has made me laugh as much as poker face did. What an unexpected joy this web chat has been.
animula: MG didn't call Nick Clegg a "..., ..., bigot", he called Nick Griffin a "..., ..., bigot". Oracle got her Nicks in a twist. That's what comes of mixing speed-reading and talking/typing about education with small children around, I guess. Bless you Oracle, for your shock at being thought a potential BNP voter. And good response from MG, too. Yes, voting anyone else is better. I'm laughing too.
MichaelGove: Sorry if anyone was confused on Griffin versus Clegg. Griffin is unspeakable; Clegg an attractive, humane, thoughtful and constructive politician who fell in with a bad crowd.
LadyBlaBlah: <wonders what Michael will say about me as he gets in his car>
MichaelGove: I shall keep a poker face.
LadyBlaBlah: Down with the kids, MG.
MichaelGove: My colleague Grant Shapps (himself a dad thanks to IVF) has highlighted patchy provision - we want to fund properly and extend access.
singalongamumum: I have read that you will pay for extra health visitors by taking money from the Early Years budget, particularly Sure Start. I also hear that you are refusing to guarantee free early years childcare for three to four year olds. Is this true? And if so, do you realise how much harder it will make it for mothers/ fathers to return to work and how you are putting many more children at risk of starting school below national expectations?
MichaelGove: On Sure Start, we won't cut funding - we will pay for more health visitors from NHS budget (ringfenced). On nursery entitlement, we back free entitlement - sad truth is that it's not properly funded at moment and some nurseries charging top-ups already - we want to ensure proper funding for all.
Very sorry have to go in a second, but just a few general replies:
- Totally support Let Girls Be Girls campaign - some companies are disgusting and creepy in the way they try to erode childhood and push our daughters into being little grown-ups.
- My Tory candidate name (based on dad, first street and primary headmaster) would be Ernest Erskine-Gillanders (sounds like John Buchan chracter...)
- Worst political gaffe was when I was journo actually and went on BBC to defend Times coverage of Tory fundraising story and was cut to shreds by Ed Stourton - he totally kebabbed me -
- As an MP I think worst gaffe was appearing on Newsnight in summer 2005 after coming back from hols in Scotland during which time I had not shaved - beards and me not a good look.
goldenticket: Thanks for coming in Mr Gove - it's been entertaining and enlightening (and I never thought I'd say that). Would be interested in an answer to my question re Ofsted inspections if you ever return.
MichaelGove: Thanks to you, and to everyone, I am signing off now - and I can confirm we do believe there is a place in certain circs for unannounced inspections.
Hope to come back after the election - if you'll let me. It's a pleasure to talk to so many committed and thoughtful people.