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Gove’s Gestapo

The Education Secretary’s plan to punish the parents of ‘disruptive’ children gives an insight into the malign workings of the minister’s mind, says STEVEN WALKER

MICHAEL GOVE is at it again. His speech to a right-wing think tank last week, ostensibly about improving the behaviour of schoolchildren, was a classic case of victim-blaming. 

His latest plan is to crack down on parents whose children are truanting or causing classroom disruption. 

Worse, he used his own experiences as an adopted child to show that however hard your start in life, any child can succeed with grit, determination and hard work. It is the ultimate self-made, individualist bragging, but it is full of contradictions and falsehoods.

In referencing his childhood, he forgets to mention the state support for his adoptive parents and a welfare system that were very different to austerity Britain today. 

It is this social security that provided his carers and him with access to decent social services, healthcare and schools that were not being run by private companies for profit but were part of a comprehensive welfare system designed to level the playing field between the working class and the bourgeoise. 

In the days when Gove was at school his idea would seem like a future vision of hell — the idea that working-class parents who had trouble managing their child and preventing them disrupting school classes would have their benefits cut, face court proceedings or be humiliated by head teachers interrogating and bullying them Gestapo-style. 

Yet this is his vision. He wants to turn the screws tighter by punishing struggling parents even more. 

This is the central delusion Gove suffers from. He seems to believe that the more you punish someone the more they will respond to what you want them to do. 

This is contrary to any social policy, education policy or psychological theory I have come across in 30 years as a social worker and child and adolescent mental health expert. 

There is no evidence to support his distorted thesis. But he needs to act tough, treating the symptoms of austerity Britain rather than tackling the real cause. And he is no doubt preparing the ground for forthcoming poor school exam results — blaming anyone but his own incompetence.

The causes of disruptive behaviour are complex — incorporating environmental, social, family, school and individual child characteristics. 

Poor children can overcome disadvantages and do well against the odds and rich children can display very disturbed behaviour in schools despite having every kind of material resource. 

Some children are model students but behave violently at home, others are hell on legs in school but perceived as angelic by puzzled parents. 

Factors such as domestic violence, cyber-bullying, sexual abuse, poor housing, low income, bad diet and parental mental illness or drug and alcohol problems all play a part. 

There are developmental changes in adolescence that are well-established times when problems can erupt. 

Lack of teaching and other resources such as learning assistants and access to school counselling can all make a difference. 

But these resources have been reduced in the remaining state sector of education and the money transferred to academies or so-called free schools. 

So the middle class get a leg up having already acquired several advantages over working-class parents such as being able to move house to an area with good schools. 

Gove’s policies are directly setting state schools up to fail, which propels him to want more schools opting out of the state sector. 

Extra cash shifted from the central education budget to proposed academies or free schools ensures there are plenty of headteachers and school governors desperate enough to take the inducement.

Gove’s increasingly bizarre behaviour is partly his own ideological obsession but it plays well with some teachers exasperated by disruptive children and a right-wing media that instinctively punishes the poor. 

His statements will also provide ammunition when forthcoming exam results make him look like a lame duck education minister who has run out of ideas and whose attacks on teachers and Education Department officials have devalued in currency the more he endlessly parrots his own criticisms.

His officials despise him because he is an ideologue, oblivious to evidence and with political ambitions that are more important to him than the immediate crisis in schools. 

He gave the game away recently when he was exposed trying to shift money earmarked to provide free school meals to children from the most disadvantaged families towards his cherished academies programme. 

His latest spat with Home Secretary Theresa May over the perceived Islamic influence in Birmingham schools, together with this latest idea, is indicative of a rather pathetic little man whose own behaviour has required the intervention of David Cameron.

In fact, if you think about it, Gove seems to be playing out his own internal conflicts and repressed feelings in external behaviour every bit as disruptive as a naughty little boy who simply will not do as he is told. 

Only this time his classroom is the Cabinet where his disruptive behaviour is interfering with other ministers’ ability to concentrate and where the sanctions available to Cameron have thus far failed to work. 

Be careful what you wish for, Mr Gove.

 

Steven Walker is author of The Social Worker’s Guide to Child and Adolescent Mental Health (Jessica Kingsley Publishers).

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