Michael Gove: 'bogeyman' or 'the greatest education secretary ever'?

As he leaves his post in a cabinet reshuffle, we have some mixed farewell remarks from the education world

Professor Sir Richard Evans, historian, president of Wolfson College, Cambridge

Gove presided over the disintegration of our school system; he opened up teaching to untrained people in state schools, because he had contempt for professional educationalists. The restoration of professional teaching in our schools must now be an urgent priority. I'll remember him as someone who tried to dumb down the teaching of history by eliminating the teaching of skills and converting it to a mindless rote learning of a slanted patriotic version of events. With the history curriculum, he set up an elaborate consultation process, then after it was complete he ditched it and came up with his own half-baked ideas. And of course everyone rejected it. Fortunately, his attempt to foist his own rather ignorant and partial version of history on to the national curriculum was one of his many failures.

Tom Sherrington, headteacher, King Edward VI grammar school, Chelmsford

When you met him he was always affable, but it was a veneer – he wasn't really listening to the profession, or taking any notice of people who thought differently. That was a big flaw. I think he had the right intent – nobody would argue with his aim of narrowing gaps and raising standards – but his legacy will be that where the greatest underachievement is, there has been no change. I'll remember Gove as someone who put the education system through a period of intense turmoil, some of which dissipated a lot of energy, and some of which may turn out to have had a good outcome. His view of qualifications and standards not working well has led to a useful examination of our qualification system, but the way he went about it was too piecemeal and too confrontational, when what was really needed was a technical analysis of the structure of exams. Instead we got accusations of schools having low standards and of teachers cheating, and constant ad hoc change, which sapped energy. The principle of schools having autonomy and freedoms was a good one – but the way to do that was give give schools more of the money available, rather than this wholesale structural change which has not led to any perceptible change in results. You've got teachers and heads now so obsessed with compliance that they are unable to work with the autonomy he's given us. Ultimately, I think, he exposed how much power the secretary of state has. It may even have surprised him what he was able to do. But there's a principle in a democracy, that it's not just about getting elected, it's about building consent, which he fundamentally didn't seek. The way he operated was undemocratic.

Vic Goddard, principal, Passmores Academy, Harlow

His amazing achievement was to hijack and own the word "standards" very early on. From that point, the moment anyone said anything contrary, you were seen as not wanting to raise standards. When he came out on GCSE results day in 2012 and blasted what kids had achieved … the young people in my school work harder than I ever worked at that age, and for their achievements to be demeaned – albeit he didn't intend it that way – is unforgivable. The damage done by his direction to the exam boards mean the children with 2012 GCSEs cannot now compete with children who got theirs in 2011, and they probably did the same work. So there is a whole cohort of young people who have been very badly served, and they have to carry that with them for ever. His dismissal of vocational qualifications was also extremely damaging to young people: I absolutely deplore his message that it's better to be a doctor than a plumber and that you're only valuable if you go to university. I'll remember him as a very convinced, if not convincing, secretary of state. There's no doubt he was in it because he cared, and he was convinced he was right. But he failed to convince the profession and when you lose the majority of the profession, you're no longer a leader. And I think the longer he was in office the more difficult it became for him to pull back. People had stopped listening. What to start fixing first? Well, undoing things would be more change, which wouldn't be helpful. I'd say it's now all about slowing down.

Jackie Schneider, primary school music teacher

I used to go to the Department for Education when it was the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Then, it was smothered in imagery of children and playgrounds. Wherever you were in the building you always knew where you were – it wasn't health or environment, it was education. After the election, Gove took this all down and put this 19th-century pupil writing desk in the foyer. It was such a clear sign of what was going to happen to schools. For me, the worst thing he did was put ideology before education.

I'll remember Gove by his vanity Bible project, where he chose to write a foreword to a book that had previously managed perfectly well without one. In his complete confidence that he knows just what schools need, he sent each one a King James Bible. It showed how out of touch he was.

Geoff Barton, headteacher, King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds

There's a lesson for us in the way that the febrile ideas of the thinktanks play out into a very ideological style of policy making. A lot of people with expertise in education have felt very marginalised, and that was a big misjudgement for him to make.

His best quality was being prepared to do away with some of the gimmickry that had set in with qualifications – some schools were playing the system with vocational qualifications. The worst was a squandering of the opportunity – if he had the best teachers and leaders for a generation, as he kept saying, then why did he constantly undermine them? Personally, he was utterly charming, even beguiling. The trouble was he was also smitten by the cheap headline, and he thought that announcing something was the same as doing something. What that led to was a level of naivety and a lack of realism about pace at which things could be changed. And he failed to tap into people who had a grounding in schools, and relied instead on surrounding himself with people from Oxford with PPE. Right now, we have to make teaching a wannabe profession again: stop sneering at schools and encourage good people to work in them. We also we have to incentivise teachers to stay in the job, because we are haemorrhaging people. And that's about professional development. It's not about pay.

Chris Husbands, Institute of Education

Early on, I thought we could do business, but eventually I came to see that the politeness was a mannered tactic. He's the kind of politician who believed that anyone who wasn't with him was against him. Unusually for a minister, he had a very clear vision for what he wanted to achieve. And while teaching unions wanted him to slow down, they totally missed the point – all the hurry and the change and the disruption were intentional. All the research we have on education systems reform shows that you have to do it with the consent of teachers – Gove's remarkable achievement was to bring in a whole series of measures that most teachers were likely to be positively disposed towards, but which were introduced in a way that meant that instead, most were opposed. My guess is that David Cameron has said to Nicky Morgan: "Get in there and calm things down." The best thing he introduced was the pupil premium, no question. The worst was giving the green light to unqualified teachers, because it undermines the teaching profession.

Now he's left, academy accountability will need to be addressed. I am perfectly content with academies, but they are governed by a contract with the secretary of state, and parents are not a party to that contract. We are, I think, the only country in the world which governs a huge proportion of its publicly funded schools via contract law. Sorting that out is likely to be a dog's dinner. Another big hole is what happens to older teenagers. We were evolving the 14-19 system, and that thinking has been chucked out of the window. The best systems in the world have a very clear sense of upper secondary education – I would have liked to see greater focus on 14-19, transition to work and routes to employment. I don't want to criticise the work on routes to Russell Group universities, but it is a minority occupation.

Nicola Walters, headteacher, Handsworth Wood Girls' Academy, Birmingham

There are some positives. He made the education system far more robust by focusing on a broad and balanced curriculum, and by focusing on qualifications that were meaningful. But on GCSEs he had no appreciation that while exams suit academic learners, there are other types of learners for whom that is very scary. In most lines of work, you don't have to remember every piece of information on the spot, you go away and research the answer. And research skills are very important. As a result of his ideas on assessment, there's going to be a drop in achievement, and that will make the Tories even more unpopular. You'll get schools that will seem to be failing, and that's not right. Assessment and how it's done needs to be sorted out quickly by consultation and discussion with the professional associations, which to date have been ignored.

Professor Tim Brighouse

One of the extraordinary things about him is that – even for a politician – what he said and what he did never matched very well. And in education, there has to be coherence between what you say and what you do or you won't get very far. He failed that test. The thing I can't forgive is that he protested too much about giving powers to schools, but in fact the only two he actually abandoned were ensuring a sufficient supply of suitably qualified teachers, and guaranteeing that schools are being built to minimum standards. On both of those, he gave up his duty, and they are the two things a secretary of state really should do. We're starting to feel the consequences play out, and in Birmingham, that's resulted in a deep sense of injustice to the parents, pupils and staff in the schools concerned. His choice of timing for that intervention too was misjudged, if in fact it was judged at all; it coincided with restaffing for September, and those schools are now finding themselves in difficulties as to whether they will have enough teachers. The intensity of that intervention, coupled with his seeming belief that Islam equates to radicalism, has left children in these communities feeling – rightly – that their chances in life have been blighted. I'm married to an Irish woman, and she remembers in the atmosphere stirred up in the 1970s people spitting on her. That's happening in Birmingham now. He's caused huge damage to the city, and to those communities, by the way he went about things. I hope his successor puts some extra resources into that part of Birmingham and recognises that we need to heal the wounds.

Tricia Kelleher, principal at the Stephen Perse Foundation independent school

Gove became a lightning rod for all the anxieties in the education system. Now, it's as if a bogeyman has been removed. My concern is that he's unleashed a number of changes with unintended consequences, and I'm not sure that the new secretary of state will be able to manage that. His reforms to A-level and GCSE qualifications, for example, have very rigid timeline for changes. We're going to get this complicated system where universities have to deal with linear versus modular A-levels, some GCSEs with letter grades, some with numbers – that has all been unleashed. It's an unstable system and I fear for the future of young people. I genuinely believe Michael Gove wants the best for every child in this country. I'm always more impressed by him in person because he's a conviction politician. The problem is that he's not a great listener, and he's looking at the 21st century through the lens of the 20th. He's pulling what's best from the past and hoping it'll make a difference in the future. I also very rarely heard him talk about children. When he spoke about education, he talked about driving up standards, rigour and accountability. It's all about systems and structures. Children are sets of data, not individuals.

Schoolduggery, education blogger

In policy terms, his greatest strength – the energy and speed behind policy change – was also his greatest weakness. The speed of change means that there are flaws that will damage his legacy. Policies weren't consulted on, schools haven't been given the time or resources to adapt to them and the risk is a degree of chaos when they start to be implemented. On a personal level too - he has this reputation for being the politest man in politics - but it simply doesn't come across in public. Even his exaggerated politeness and flattery comes across as either patronising or false.

He'd probably like to be remembered for free schools, but I don't think that is a legacy that will last. His original plan for innovative, parent-led schools died early on. Parents just didn't have the skills to do it themselves. The truly innovative schools are struggling with an Ofsted framework that demands a standard approach. The scope for innovation and additional choice isn't there. They are just schools, like any other, and once Gove has gone, I hope that is how they will be judged.

What I really admire him for is raising expectations of what children – especially, poor children – can achieve. It is no longer acceptable for any school or any teacher to use the economic or social background of their pupils as an excuse for poor performance. As we move into a new accountability regime that looks much more at the progress of every child, I think this will be what lasts from Gove's remarkable four years.

Debra Kidd, advanced skills teacher, Saddleworth School

I won't remember him fondly, but I do have a grudging admiration for him. There's no doubt he had an absolute passion for education, but he was so antagonistic that he couldn't take teachers with him. It's sad really – if he'd come into the job with that fantastic level of commitment and had taken advice from people who had genuine, far-ranging expertise, he'd have achieved a lot. He pushed a failure narrative that was grossly unfair. That had the result – probably unintended – of alienating teachers to such a degree that many became highly engaged in the politics underpinning education, as they started to scrutinise all this research on which his policies were based. Before, they'd probably just have waited for the government directive. His interference in exams in the middle of an academic year was shocking, and very destabilising and demotivating when a curriculum was already being taught. And children paid the price. What education badly needs now is stability, and an independent autonomous professional body that would be like the British Medical Association. It would, for example, appoint the head of Ofsted, rather than it being a political appointment by the secretary of state. There's cross-party support for it, and if we get one it will help underpin the profession, which has been so disrupted.

Eylan Ezekiel, a former teacher and education consultant

On TV, Gove comes across as a muppet, a bit of a strange, comic figure. In person he's deeply impressive, razor-sharp smart and a genuine threat to a lot of the things I believe in. He asked all the right questions of our education system. The free school policy, for example, was a good idea. We do need new schools and we don't need more of the same. But free schools were implemented badly. There was a potential to find locally driven, locally accountable sources of new education provision. Initially, there was huge talk about parents being involved in the running of schools, but it fizzled away. He should have done more to protect and defend the parents and the innovation in free school movement – and enable the sort of change and diversity that you see in the charter schools in America. Rather than forcing free schools more into the shadows, he should have responded to their challenges. Actually, I think he would have preferred it that way. He likes a debate and an argument – and he thinks he'll win unless you can beat him down with a better one.

Jonathan Savage, reader in education at Manchester Metropolitan University

I'll him remember as a divisive figure – somebody who had a radical programme of reform and succeeded in alienating almost everyone in the educational world. Sadly, I think he's left us with a fragmented and incoherent education system. In many senses, there's chaos.

Wherever you look in teacher training, there are problems. We've got universities – traditionally the main vehicle for training teachers – withdrawing their provision because vice-chancellors are fed up with the lack of security within teacher education. Both Bath University and the Open University have scrapped their PGCEs. Large numbers of potential teachers were lost as a result of the changes and it's going to be difficult to recover them. There used to be an independent organisation that managed teacher education but this was abolished by Gove and the function was brought under the DfE. I don't think that move gave it the impartiality and strength that it needs. This is something that needs to be reconsidered – there needs to be an agency that has oversight of teacher training. We now have a real shortage of teachers, especially in specialist areas. Unless something is done by Nicky Morgan, we will live with the consequences of these reforms for years.

James O'Shaughnessy, former adviser to David Cameron, now runs Floreat Education, which plans to open a string of primary free schools in the southeast

When I was in No 10, I spent a lot of time in the education department. There's a wall that shows all of the past education secretaries and ministers. Looking at it, you realise that most of them have been failures. They failed to stem the rise of mediocrity that has blighted so much of our education system – what you might call "the blob". This movement managed to overturn such powerful politicians as Keith Joseph, even Margaret Thatcher. There is very small pantheon of great reforming education secretaries who have genuinely created change. Michael Gove is in that category. He will be considered one of the great education secretaries, if not the greatest, in terms of what was achieved.

Free schools were a genuine disruptive technology that allow people to come in, challenge the status quo and reach for higher expectations. There have been errors – such as how building schools for the future turned out – but I would call them errors rather than policy mistakes. In a way, his only failure was that he didn't achieve all of his desired reforms – for example, the plan to introduce a single exam board for GCSEs, which he was stopped from doing by the Lib Dems. There are still things that need to be done – most urgent are the need to reform Ofsted and further reform of assessment.

Dame Dana Ross-Wawrzynski, CEO of Bright Futures Educational Trust

I sometimes feel sorry about the way he's portrayed in the media. He's a man with deep conviction and passion for getting every child the best quality education – and for that I thank him. Gove has opened the door for the teaching profession to take the lead, regulate and improve itself. Sometimes if people are given the freedom to manage themselves, it means that they have to take accountability, and not everybody is ready for that. It's easier for some to be told what to do. The profession needs some support in becoming a self-led system. For instance, we probably do need, as soon as possible, a good college of teaching to be developed. One of Gove's only mistakes was perhaps being too adversarial. We have some very good leaders and thinkers in the unions and he should have worked harder at keeping them on board with the DfE.

Francis Gilbert, English and media studies teacher in outer London

One thing Gove did do is unite the profession. Just about every teacher I talk to in the state sector doesn't like what he did. Everything he said was misguided – and he demonised us. He said we're the blob, the enemies of promise, that anyone who disagrees with him is a bad teacher. For me, he was the worst education secretary that I've ever been a teacher under. He's ruined our exam system by introducing do-or-die tests. Everything now will ride on a two-hour test for 16- and 18-year-olds – everything: their career, and teachers' careers too. Worse still, he's wasted billions on free schools and academies.

Russel Tarr, history teacher whose Mr Men-themed resources were attacked by Gove

If he'd taken the time to listen, then he probably would have found his job wasn't as difficult as he made it for himself. But it felt as if the battle was what it was all about – Gove always took it as a badge of honour when people disagreed with him. He wanted to just tell everyone: this is the way it's going to be. Teaching isn't like that. If you take five minutes in a classroom you realise that if you're teaching 30 kids, all of them learn in different ways and at different paces. As a teacher you might be using three or four different methods even within one lesson, for one bunch of kids. Gove seems to think that one size fits all. He criticised an exercise I'd design where 14- to 15-year-old students, right at the end of their unit of study, are asked to go back over their coursework, an essay of 1,500 words, and are challenged to explain the rise of Hitler through a Mr Men story or analogy suitable for primary school kids. You only have to look at website to see it's a consolidation and revision exercise, but he wanted to make fun and ridicule it, so presented only one side of it. He picked the evidence that supported what he wanted to believe and didn't listen to the rest.


Interviews by Louise Tickle and Rebecca Ratcliffe

The GuardianTramp

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