Shortly before the British General Election in 2010 a headteacher at a local school told me: "Well, however is the new Education Secretary cannot be worse then Ed Balls." Mr Balls, now Shadow Chancellor, was then Labour's Education Secretary. He had built up a reputation for political posturing and bullying, while presiding over new Labour's muddled education policies. I have not asked that headteacher how she thinks the new education Secretary, Michael Gove, compares to Mr Balls. I don't have to; her prediction was spectacularly wrong. Mr Gove is even more loathed by education professionals than was Mr Balls. But Mr Gove, unlike Mr Balls, counts as a political success.
Mr Gove has been in the news recently. Yesterday he gave a speech spelling out his vision for state schools; over the weekend there was a fuss over his failure to reappoint the Chair of Ofsted, the schools' inspectorate. His spin doctors have been pushing out a story of his reforming zeal against an educational establishment referred to as "the Blob" after a 1950s sci-fi movie. This has received a lot favourable coverage in the right-wing press. More neutral observers, such as the FT as well as the BBC, seem content to faithfully report Mr Gove's spin while not openly taking sides.
All this is in stark contrast to the government's attempts to reform the NHS, led by former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley. The government side of this argument hardly got a look in, as the picture of chaotic reforms took hold. This negative coverage stiffened opposition to the reforms, muddling them further, so that they have ended up being the biggest blot on the Coalition government's record - though some good may yet come out of them. There has been little public support for opponents to Mr Gove's education reforms, however. Mr Gove, an ex-journalist, is clearly a better communicator than Mr Lansley, an ex-doctor. The education system is also much simpler than the health service. But the political skills of Mr Gove's "Blob" are totally lacking, unlike those of the doctors and nurses opposing Mr Lansley. The teaching unions have long been a bit of a comedy act, resisting basic workforce reforms, like performance appraisal, that non-teaching professionals have long since got themselves used to. Other educational professionals rarely raise themselves beyond the minutiae to give politicians and the public a clear vision of what they are trying to achieve.
Are and were British schools in a mess? Yes and no. International comparisons show a mixture of good and bad news. Overall performance is unspectacular but not awful. We have a long "tail" of under-achieving pupils that schools give up on too quickly. There is a lot of mediocrity, especially amongst rural schools, who "coast" by getting average performance from pupils capable of much more. But over the last two decades, the Blob has pulled off one of the most spectacular episodes in school improvement in the world: the transformation of London schools. This has given the lie to the standard line of the Left that the educational prospects of poor pupils will only be transformed once other social problems, like jobs and housing, have been fixed. The Borough of Tower Hamlets, one of the country's poorest, regularly outperforms much wealthier districts outside London.
The transformation of London's schools remains one of the last Labour government's greatest achievements. But politically, it is problematic. It owes nothing to the various policies pushed by politicians and think tanks, such as creating semi-independent Academies. It was largely down to good old fashioned management: officials at national and council level holding school managements to account, and replacing heads of mediocre schools. As a result politicians are strangely reluctant to take the credit.
What of Mr Gove's reforms? They are a mix of good, bad and ugly. On the good side, Ofsted's remit has been sharpened up a lot. Previously it had expanded into such areas as "community cohesion", which are highly sensitive to context, and inspectors did not show any great aptitude. Now they focus much more sharply on the quality of teaching. This gets to the core of what drives school performance. Some older teachers hate this - but it really isn't any different to the pressures that accountants and lawyers find themselves under. Younger teachers seem accept the much greater level of accountability that is expected - and respond well to it. (My evidence on this is rather anecdotal though - based on my experience as a school governor in a London primary school).
Another good thing, though largely unremarked, is that Mr Gove's Academy programme is putting private schools under real pressure. Many private schools outside the South East are now signing up to be state schools, run as academies. My local Free School is recruiting many middle class youngsters that would formerly have gone private. No doubt some on the left see this as a sinister subsidy to the middle classes - but a much higher level of social mixing occurs at these new state schools than would have occurred at private schools. And social mixing at schools helps the poorer children achieve more. It is worth noting that this policy works as well as it does thanks to two measures insisted on by the Liberal Democrats: a "pupil premium" giving extra funding for poorer pupils, and insisting on non-academic selection. Many Conservatives want to recreate academically selective Grammar Schools. These may once have been engines of social mobility, but now academic selection is simply used as a way of weeding out pupils from poorer backgrounds and reducing mixing.
The bad: there is a lot of wasted energy on changing things that don't need changing. That particularly applies to changes to the curriculum. Mr Gove and his supporters seem to have an old-fashioned view on what should be taught in schools, to reflect a 1960s private education. Now it is true that the Blob has developed a lot of woolly curriculum ideas that don't seem to be of lasting educational benefit (especially in "applied" qualifications), but they were gradually sorting out this mess by themselves. Mr Gove seems to have little idea as to what modern universities and employers actually want the product of a secondary education to be. A lot of the drive to turn state schools into academies seems a bit pointless, and will probably create problems of accountability in later years. It has a sinister aspect too: the Academy chains who are the main beneficiaries are politically well connected - and it is their political connections that seem to be critical in their success.
The ugly. We are getting more religiously founded state schools. Given religiously founded schools' role in cementing toxic community relations between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland and Scotland, I am very nervous about this. But it could be that making these newer schools conform to modern educational norms, and forcing them to engage with a wider civil society, will bring benefits. But I really would prefer it if our children went to schools attended by children of many faiths and none. But the alienation of some religious communities is such that they would not engage in such arrangements, and for them a state religious school is a second-best.
My verdict on Mr Gove is that he is not quite as evil as he cracked up to be. But he is wasting a lot of time and energy. What should be absorbing energy is teaching standards, establishing a broad curriculum appropriate to modern life, and establishing better systems of accountability which don't tempt schools to game the system by neglecting "hopeless" cases. Fix these and Britain's state schools would be world class. But alas, we are distracted by political gimmickry.