Keeping faith: verdict on Michael Gove the departing education secretary

Heads deliver their end of term report on Michael Gove - and he's (very nearly) top of his class

By Simon Rocker, July 24, 2014
Michael Gove (Photo: John Rifkin)

Michael Gove (Photo: John Rifkin)

Such has been Michael Gove’s support for British Jewry that there can hardly be a major communal organisation that has not had him as a speaker since he became a cabinet minister four years ago. This “proud Zionist” even paid his first visit to Israel last year, finally overcoming his fear of flying.

Political pundits may have argued whether or not his switch from Education Secretary to Chief Whip in last week’s reshuffle marked a demotion, but the move is considered unlikely to affect his influence as one of Israel’s staunchest political friends and a determined critic of Islamism.

“I can’t see it will make an iota of difference,” said Tory Jewish MP Lee Scott. “Michael has always been fair and even-handed in saying what he believes and I don’t think that will change.

“He left a great legacy. He has always been very supportive of faith schools and we owe him a debt.”

Not long after Mr Gove entered office, the government gave £2 million towards security at Jewish schools; “a lasting contribution to the safety of Jewish children,” the CST said.

A protest by a Muslim lobby group that state-aided Jewish schools were teaching Zionism was given short shrift by his department. Last year, his department bowed to a campaign by Jewish organisations and included Hebrew in a list of officially recognised languages for primary schools.

But undoubtedly the most significant impact has come from one of his most far-reaching reforms: the introduction of free schools. Groups of parents or charities could now apply directly to launch a new state-aided school, free of local authority control.

Jewish groups were quick to take advantage of the scheme, with three new Orthodox schools, including a new high school in Leeds, and three cross-communal primaries.

The free-school system has a potential sting in the tail, however. A religious free school can guarantee only that 50 per cent of places go to children from one faith. Remaining places must be allocated according to different criteria, such as whether applicants live close by — which does not prevent additional Jewish children applying to a Jewish school on these grounds.

“Free schools have been good news and bad news,” said Jewish education consultant Simon Goulden. “While it has allowed more Jewish schools to start, the 50 per cent rule has created its own problems and will continue to do so. It is something we very much wish were not there.”

Overall, the former education secretary was “broadly very supportive of our needs,” according to Rabbi David Meyer, executive head teacher of Hasmonean High School in London. “He recognises the important role that faith schools can play in a multicultural society.”

His wider shake-up, including changes to GCSEs and A-levels, also won approval from the Hasmo head.

“There was a lack of rigour which he has tried to resolve with a return to basics. The pace of change was often challenging and he has clearly lost a lot of friends and didn’t make many along the way. But he has created a transformation which will last for generations.”

Robert Leach, head of London’s Michael Sobell Sinai Primary School, said: “The changes he made I felt ultimately bettered education for all schools, including Jewish schools. I am going to be writing a letter saying as much to him personally.”

Education philanthropist Benjamin Perl, the founding president of Yavneh College in Hertfordshire, said: “I believe that not only the Jewish community but the wider community in the fullness of time will miss him.

“Jewish schools are part and parcel of the British education system and it is successful in part because there are so many faith schools. He gave us confidence to continue and encouragement that we are doing the right thing.”

But the applause would not ring as loud from everyone. Mr Goulden considered Mr Gove’s reforms “a curate’s egg”, adding: “Some have been good for the Jewish community, others have been challenging. Education reforms often take time to work through the system so it is probably wrong to make an instant judgment.”

He also welcomed the fact that academy schools have more freedom to teach what they want and some already existing state-aided Jewish schools have switched to academy status.

On the downside, Mr Goulden argued, was the treatment of subjects such as citizenship education, a criticism echoed by Alastair Falk, the outgoing director of the new agency, Partnerships for Jewish Schools: “He had a very narrow view of the curriculum and, for me, he was driven by a zeal and a belief he knew what was best for the system,” Mr Falk said. “But that didn’t necessarily accord with the way faith schools understood their values and purpose.”

Citizenship and social cohesion were regarded by Mr Gove as “wishy-washy liberal” subjects, he believed. “The areas that Jewish schools do well in were not necessarily part of the Gove agenda. These are about developing the whole child, working for the community, citizenship.”

But Mr Falk also believes that the new free-school option heralded a shift away from backing the traditional state-aided models of religious schools. “What he didn’t believe in was exclusive faith schools. Free schools were set up so that they would not be exclusive of one faith,” he said.

“This is the single biggest legacy in my view — and the single biggest threat Jewish schools face.”

While there are some Jewish free schools with an all-Jewish pupil roll, that cannot be set in stone — making the free-school route particularly undesirable to the more right-wing Orthodox sector. Significantly, the only two Jewish free school applications known to have been rejected so far have come from more conservative Orthodox groups, one which wanted separate boys’ and girls’ classes, the other an independent Chasidic school.

And right-wing Orthodox schools that are part of the state system are facing new hurdles. Mr Gove’s insistence that evolution should be taught within state-aided primary schools has been opposed by some Jewish schools, who say the subject is too complicated for children of that age when it could represent a challenge to their faith.

Last updated: 12:59pm, July 24 2014