Socialist Worker

Why the Tories are trying to take our schools back decades

Michael Gove’s new curriculum won’t ‘raise standards’ because it’s designed to bash teachers, blame children for failure and justify cuts, writes Sadie Robinson

Issue No. 2374

Striking teachers, parents and children want to stop Goves attacks on education

Striking teachers, parents and children want to stop Gove's attacks on education (Pic: Geoff Dexter)


Tory education secretary Michael Gove is rushing through a new school curriculum for children in England. The millionaire minister claims he’s out to help poor children get a better education. In reality his reforms will brand many working class children as failures from the start.

Education is already dominated by tests and targets. Gove’s changes will make this worse. Most of Gove’s new curriculum is set to come into force from September next year. The remaining changes will come in from September 2015.

NASUWT union member Jackie Harvey-Atkins told Socialist Worker, “Gove is eroding the status of teachers and the quality of education. He expects us to spend more hours on paperwork and form filling. We’re in it for the children. But all these things take you away from the children.”

The Department for Education said the curriculum is about “getting the basics right”. This will mean making five year olds learn fractions and recite poetry they’ve been forced to remember within two years of being at primary school.

It prioritises core subjects—reading, writing and maths—over things like arts, geography or languages. It focuses on rote learning rather than learning through play. And it insists on children studying more sooner.

Neo-Victorian

All this is the opposite of what children need to help them learn. Professor Robin Alexander, who launched the biggest inquiry into primary education for four decades in 2006, has denounced the new curriculum as “neo-Victorian”.

Alexander said the focus on core subjects would create a “two-tier curriculum”. His inquiry recommended a broad curriculum with less emphasis on league tables and tests. Gove is doing the opposite.

Research from across the world shows that early formal teaching can hinder learning and that there should be more focus on play. Again, Gove is racing in the opposite direction.

Dr David Whitebread from the University of Cambridge produced a report on play in April last year. He pointed out that ministers have separated play and learning into distinct categories – with the implication that play gets in the way of learning.

Yet he reviews research from over a century that confirms the importance of play in children’s development. He said early years workers find it hard to focus on play because of “pressures to ‘cover’ the prescribed curriculum, meet government imposed standards etc”.

But Gove’s changes won’t “raise standards” because they are simply not designed to. It’s useful to the Tories to be able to denounce children as failures. It gives them an excuse to carry on bashing teachers.

It means they can blame young people who can’t find work for not trying hard enough at school. And it helps them justify cuts in further and higher education because it says ordinary people are failures who don’t deserve it.


Gove’s war with teachers

Teaching is one of the best unionised sectors of Britain’s workforce. The NUT and NASUWT teaching unions represent nine out of 10 teachers. Michael Gove wants to impose performance-related pay in schools and attack conditions. He has already pushed through attacks on teachers’ pensions.

If Gove gets away with the attacks they will undermine all unions. If the Tories weaken one group of workers, they’ll be encouraged to come after others.

A shadowy organisation, Edapt, emerged in 2011. It sells itself as “the only alternative to the trade unions” that can give teachers support in employment disputes. Its website hosts glowing features on Gove’s policies that claim his reforms have huge support. 

Unsurprisingly, Gove described Edapt as “marvellous”. Yet teachers across Britain report that colleagues are leaving unions that aren’t fighting to join those that are.

Strikes are the way to keep building the unions—and beat back Gove’s attacks. 


Children need childhood

Wendy Ellyatt founded the Save Childhood Movement to campaign for a bigger focus on play in early years. She said that 90 percent of countries begin formal schooling at six or seven years old. Yet “In England we seem grimly determined to cling on to the erroneous belief that starting sooner means better results later”.

Education expert Terry Wrigley has shown that Gove’s reforms will see children in England studying some topics up to two years earlier than children elsewhere. Wrigley compared the new curriculum to education in Finland, which boasts the highest school results in Europe. 

Children in Finland don’t begin formal school until they are seven years old. They also don’t start learning about decimals until they are nine or ten. 

But Michael Gove wants children in England to learn about decimals from just seven years old. Wrigley said that compared with Finland, “England’s revised national curriculum is a box full of hurdles. It sets up the majority of children to fail.”


Gove’s new enemy within

Gove has called his critics “Marxists hell-bent on destroying our schools” and the “enemies of promise”. Professor Robin Alexander said “the bearer of evidence which is questionable but ideologically compliant is hailed as the only true expert”.

Meanwhile, “the bearer of evidence that is sounder but politically unpalatable is pilloried”. Alexander added, “It’s proper to ask whether heaping public abuse on those holding different views is what government ministers in a democracy should be doing.”


Britain’s not great for kids

Children in Britain are worse off than in many other industrialised countries, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund. Its April report ranked Britain 16th out of 29 developed countries for “child well-being”. 

This is three places higher than its 2007 report. Yet it said Britain has the lowest number of young people in further education and one of the highest numbers of under-age drinkers and teenage pregnancies.


No sex please —we’re Tories

The new curriculum cuts out all references to “sexual health”. It discourages teachers from talking about “how reproduction occurs”. They are expected to talk to children about puberty—without mentioning hormones.

The Sex Education Forum said it gave a “confusing picture” that would fail “to prepare children properly for adult life”.


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