The news that the Department for Education would not be renewing Baroness Sally Morgan’s term as the head of Ofsted has sparked a new row over cronyism at the centre of Whitehall.
As the education secretary, Michael Gove attempted to justify the decision through a mixture of bluster and praise. Accusations of ideological purging have dogged him, concentrating on the fact that Sally Morgan is a member of the Labour party. Baroness Morgan herself claimed to be a victim of “a determined effort from Number 10” to ensure more Conservatives hold positions of importance within government. This has been refuted by Mr Gove who pointed out that Simon Stevens, a former Labour special advisor, had been selected to head the NHS.
Yet questions still surround Baroness Morgan’s mysterious departure. Gove insisted on the Andrew Marr Show that she had done a sterling job at Ofsted and formed a “fantastic team” with Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw. Gove also recognised that Morgan was in fact a supporter of several of his programmes, such as free schools and academies. Therefore, the fact that Morgan is not returning to her post plays into the hands of Gove’s critics who believe that he does not listen to outside opinions or ideologically opposed views.
Sir David Bell, former Chief Inspector at Ofsted and Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education, weighed into the dispute with a warning for Mr Gove not to “believe his own hype”, nor to rely on a ring of Whitehall insiders for advice. A frequent criticism of Gove has been that he is cut off from the teaching establishment, or “The Blob” as he refers to them. This debate further underlines the perception that he is out of his depth; cut off from educational experts and instead waging an ideological crusade to reform teaching to his own standards, largely unassisted by those in the profession.
Indeed, as the Ofsted row has continued, he has instead taken to the floor to outline his position on how state schools can improve; namely through emulating aspects of the private system, such as longer hours and more rigorous testing, common themes in Mr Gove’s view of schooling. While surely a speech that will enrage the teaching community, whom already regard they careers as overworked, it will no doubt strike a chord with parents who want to see better standards for their children’s education, even if the idea of longer hours has had a mixed reaction: Siobhan Freegard, the founder of Netmums noted that parents preferred an approach of flexible hours rather than stretching a child’s academic day.
Ultimately, this debate has placed Michael Gove on the back foot; forced to defend his decision and demonstrate clear process at the top of the Department for Education, the media has been distracted from his vision for state schools and instead focusses on the practices of the Secretary, and of Number 10, and the shadow of cronyism in Westminster.