The education secretary in a class of his own

Posted on: 11 October 2013 by Neil Roberts

Neil Roberts says cost not quality is at the root of Michael Gove's much-maligned education reforms.

Michael Gove education reformIt’s very fashionable to criticise the education secretary, Michael Gove – and I’m a dedicated follower of fashion. To be fair – to me – the man has brought the most recent tirade of abuse upon himself with ill-judged candidness. When commenting on The Daily Mail’s criticism of Ed Miliband’s father, Mr Gove told reporters that newspapers should be: “an effective check on the arrogance of politicians" and that a free press will be: "robust, sometimes raucous... and will sometime offend." So I’ll be delighted if some of what I have to say offends him.

Why do teachers hate Gove so much? Why are we inspired to buy Michael Gove shaped pin cushions, for staffroom voodoo? Why is there a tirade of Facebook abuse? Why are there message boards on Times Educational Supplement naming him as the Prince of Darkness? Well come on! For starters, he’s our boss!

Teachers have never liked education secretaries. We tell other people what to do, we don’t like being pushed about ourselves. Added to that, he’s not even a teacher. He has no classroom experience whatsoever: the man doesn’t even have any children of his own!

And the pushing around is heavy handed. Local Authority schools who do not reach artificially created targets can simply be made into academies by the Secretary of State, whether parents, governors or staff want them to be or not. And why do the government want them? They say because it allows schools to develop their own curricula, which will help them to reach government targets more quickly. Teachers say it’s so the schools can opt out of national pay and conditions agreements, employ unqualified teachers and so that local authority departments, which formally advised on the quality of teaching, can be shut down. That’s right! Big surprise! Academies are cheaper. It’s the driving force behind every Conservative decision, so why should we think schools are different? Partly, because Mr Gove talks up the “Gold standard” of education so much, even though his actions appear to contribute to worsening standards.

Another reason he’s such a super target at the moment is the recent publication of a new curriculum for primary schools, laying out just what schools have to teach. Now, let’s be clear. This curriculum is only for those schools that are still run directly from local authorities. Private schools, free schools and academies are able to opt out to develop their own curricula (or buy them off the shelf from educational publishers, some of whom, coincidentally, have contributed to the development of the new curriculum).

Many teachers are very concerned about this new document. It is very restrictive. In numeracy, children are to be taught “efficient methods” of calculation. It all sounds very good in The Daily Mail and The Telegraph, but in reality it means children learn by wrote: they aren’t taught why a calculation works, which suggests these children are not expected to look for a future in engineering or mathematics.

In literacy, the major emphasis is on spelling punctuation and grammar. Children will learn how to punctuate a sentence perfectly without any chance to discover anything exciting to write about, suggesting these children are not expected to look for a future in creative writing, journalism or any other of the higher professions where well written means more than just the full stops in the right place.

This criticism isn’t restricted to the teachers. Highly respected educationalists, including Professor Robin Alexander, who led the massive review into Primary Education for Cambridge University, point out that putting so much emphasis on the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic will return us to a tedious Victorian age of schools.

The highly regarded “speaking and listening” emphasis – which allows children to verbally rehearse subjects before sitting down to write about them – has been ejected out of hand. Professor Alexander says: “talk that is cognitively challenging and rigorously orchestrated is absolutely essential to children’s thinking, learning and understanding”. Education Minister NIck Gibb is reported to have referred to it as “encouraging idle chatter.” Tit.

So what’s behind this curriculum? Call me a cynic, but it’s my opinion that the Janus-faced education secretary is finding a new approach to drive governors and heads to become academies. Faced with a choice between an enforced, unworkable curriculum and developing one which will not fail their children, many governing bodies will have to leave local authorities and their schools will become academies.

This is why I, and many others in my profession, hold Michael Gove in such low esteem. He’s a cheap slight of hand merchant. For all his talk of raising standards, his main aim is to cut costs and if he has to destroy lives to do it, then that’s fine by him.

I hope that what I’ve written is raucous and offensive enough for you, Gove.

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