Anyone would have thought that Mr Gove was the first Secretary of State to have taken an axe to school building programmes. In the great devaluation crisis that played out during the final months of 1967 and early 1968, school building was savaged just as now, along with the raising of the school leaving age from 15 to 16. Here is what Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, said to the House of Commons on the 16th January 1968:
31. Education. Next education, one of the biggest and most rapidly expanding expenditure programmes. Total expenditure is estimated this year at £1,989 million, an increase at current prices of 42 per cent since 1963–64. Here again it is a question of priorities. We have decided we have no alternative to deferring from 1971 to 1973 the raising of the school leaving age, a postponement of two years. I need not tell the House how difficult, indeed repugnant, this decision has been to my right hon. Friends and myself. 32. This decision will mean a saving of about £33 million in 1968–69, and £48 million in 1969–70, principally in the school-building programme. But the basic school-building programmes will be increased by extra starts of £8 million both in 1968–69 and in 1969–70 to ensure that comprehensive reorganisation is not held up, and to provide additional resources beyond the extra £8 million starts in each of these years announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to the House last year, for improving conditions in educational priority areas. ((http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1968/jan/16/public-expenditure#column_1578 retrieved 8th July 2010)) Mr Gove might have done better had he been aware of the lessons of history. Firstly, he would have recognised that even in an age of austerity it is better to give as well as to take, as it helps disarm potential critics. For comprehensive re-organisation one might substitute protecting early years’ education. Here’s how Mr Gove might have phrased part of his speech.
Education is a key priority for this government. My over-riding duty is to ensure that every child has a place available to them when they start school at age five. Indeed, this government recognises the need for places below the statutory age limit, and will do everything to ensure those over the age of three can access early learning facilities where possible, especially in our most deprived communities. Members will also be aware figures released recently by my Department show that pupil numbers are falling in the secondary sector, and will do so in most areas to 2015 and beyond. To ensure no child goes without a school place, I have today decided to call a halt to the secondary school building programme, except in cases where local authorities and academy sponsors can show that there are insufficient school places locally for secondary age pupils. The programme will not restart until I am satisfied that primary age pupils will not be taught in over-sized classes or even turned away from schools because of insufficient places. Once we have dealt with that issue, we can return to making all secondary schools fit for the 21st century. During the next few months I expect local authorities to provide me, in cooperation where appropriate with local dioceses and academy sponsors, plans to remove surplus places from the secondary education sector and to consider what effect this will have on school building plans. In making this announcement I can also say that I have been made aware that a few schools expressing interest in academy status are part of re-organisation schemes resulting from falling rolls in their locality. While this government is fully committed to parental choice, it cannot afford to spend money that it does not have, and the creation of new academies and even ‘free schools’ cannot be allowed if they are to be ‘prejudicial to the efficient use of resources’. We have to cut our cloth according to our means. This will only be a temporary setback, as once the economy returns to growth, we can return to upgrading our secondary schools. Before members opposite rush to judgement, they may wish to reflect upon how the abandonment of the Further Education capital programme was handled last year.Such a speech would have passed the difficult decisions to local authorities, recognised the priority of primary education, and prevented any back bench revolt. Perhaps Mr Gove needs a special adviser with a sense of history. Youth has its advantages, but sometimes a bit of experience doesn’t come amiss. Either way Mr Gove is looking clumsy, not only did the BSF list have mistakes, so too did the list of schools expressing interest in academies. There is a well establish process for checking PQs within departments that recognises that the person who starts work on a PQ may need their work checking, and this happens all the way up the line. What happened here merits inquiry; more haste, less speed might be a useful maxim for Private Office to whisper in the ear of any Secretary of State. Is Mr Gove fatally flawed? Not yet, but he is accident prone: never a good sign in a minister. To paraphrase something Ian Fleming once wrote, ‘one is an accident, twice is a coincidence and three times becomes a habit’. Mr Gove must now negotiate the tricky summer results season and ensure no child is without a school pace in September if he wants to survive beyond the end of the party conference season. That’s assuming he can make it beyond the end of next week. Professor John Howson is President of the Liberal Democrat education Association, but writes here in a personal capacity.