In the uneventful middle years of my childhood (1975-1977) there was a weekly BBC1 drama called Survivors. It depicted the UK following the accidental leakage of a chemical substance named, somewhat chillingly, ‘the plague’.
I don’t remember a lot about the programme except that it felt like Dr Who for grown-ups, and sensed that the BBC’s make-up department was stretched to its limit. Actors with ravaged faces would clamber out of shelters or drag themselves from manholes, scavenge briefly for food, and then fight each other.
Let’s just say it wasn’t exactly a laugh-a-minute.
In a related way, it’s feeling as if the national landscape has undergone a post-apocalyptic change since Wednesday’s shock government reshuffle. The tectonic plates of Government have shifted and suddenly we find ourselves in the dust-filled days that follow Michael Gove’s era as Education Secretary.
For a while on Wednesday morning, amid the growing wall of July heat, you could almost detect the disbelieving cries of teachers thinking that the holidays had started early. Yes, such was the pantomime villain reputation of Mr Gove, few in my profession didn’t want to put out celebratory bunting and knock up an impromptu street party.
It’s a sign of how a man so committed to education has managed so decisively to alienate so many teachers.
But I don’t fully share their glee.
Having met Michael Gove a couple of times I never doubted his sense of mission. He – like so many of us – believed deeply that education matters a lot, and that for the most disadvantaged members of our society it matters even more. His own background – adopted at four months, sent to an academic private school, finally gaining a place to read English at Oxford – showed him how teachers and examination success created an escape tunnel to a better life.
It’s hard to disagree with that.
But it was his methods that proved so controversial, and we’ve seen them playing out in our county. Early on, despite the surplus places in some Suffolk schools, his policy on free schools meant that public money – by which I mean our money – was spent on converting buildings for schools that would then create even more surplus school places. At the very least, the policy represents dubious value for money, with school buildings half full of pupils because of what has felt to some like an ideological experiment concocted in some Whitehall think-tank.
Then there was all the talk of choice. Schools that were academies could choose whether to offer the national curriculum. They could choose whether to follow national guidelines on nutrition. They could choose how much to pay staff and whether to employ teachers without qualifications.
All of this will strike many readers as a bizarre kind of choice. If the national curriculum contains (as Michael Gove promised) ‘the best that has been thought and said’, then why leave it to headteachers to decide whether to offer it? Shouldn’t such skills and knowledge be a guaranteed entitlement for all children, irrespective of the schools they attend? And given the UK’s burgeoning obesity crisis, shouldn’t nutritional standards be enforced in every school, academy or not, and not be at the discretion of the headteacher?
We are seeing the ‘myth of choice’ playing out in Bury St Edmunds – again, a direct consequence of Govean reform. Many parents say to me that they feel bewildered that there will be two different education systems the town – two-tier and three-tier side-by-side.
They say that this deprives them of the real choice that in most of the rest of England parents can take for granted – the choice of which high school their child attends at the age of 11.
As David Ruffley said in his column last week, this issue will surely need untangling. Otherwise part of the legacy of Michael Gove’s four year reign as Education Secretary is that the very students and parents to whom he promised more choice will actually end up with less.