Michael “Oiky” Gove is clearly a busy man. Yesterday he took time out to upbraid cabinet colleague Theresa May for supposedly giving ammunition to the Tory Party’s opponents – as if he’d never do the same, much – while his Department for Education (DfE) ramped up its campaign to persuade schools to convert to academy status, on whatever context can be found.
And this persuasion is not going down well in some parts of the country: parents in the Croydon suburb of Kenley are looking to make a legal challenge to the DfE’s attempt to enforce academy status on a local primary school. In the West Midlands, a DfE “broker” has been accused of being “intimidating and bullying towards governors, headteachers and local authority staff”.
But a more serious dispute is coming to the boil in Lancashire, where the leader of the County Council and “Oiky” have been trading accusations for some months. Also involved is Schools Commissioner Liz Sidwell, whose pronouncements include the assertion that “Good state schools” have military cadet forces, which she calls one of those “wonderful extra-curricular elements”.
She started the ball rolling last July, stating that 32 of Lancashire’s primary schools were under-achieving and that, unless they improved, could be forced to become academies. She reiterated her belief that this was the best way to improve standards. Councillors expressed disappointment, while parents and staff at one school protested at plans to force conversion to an academy.
Then, in November, “Oiky” intervened personally, telling local MPs (not the Councillors who run Lancashire’s education system) that the county’s primary schools were not good enough. The Council responded that its schools “consistently perform better than the national average”. Leader Geoff Driver noted “Last year, 69% of schools in Lancashire improved compared to the national average of 29%”.
Driver sought a meeting with “Oiky”. Instead, there was more roughing-up from the DfE, bringing accusations of “cajoling”, “heavy-handed” tactics, and bullying. The amount of teachers’ time being consumed by the issue may “adversely affect pupils’ education”, Driver has said, as he has accused Gove of “applying undue pressure”. “It's taking too much time of the managers of the schools” he added.
So who is Geoff Driver? Some singularly subversive Labour or Lib Dem activist, perchance? Well, no he isn’t: the council leader is a Conservative, his party at present enjoying an 18 seat majority. Yet in an election year when the Tories are bound to be vulnerable, here is Gove, accusing his fellow Tories of helping the opposition, while, er, helping the opposition.
As one Gove supporting pundit might have put it, you couldn’t make it up.