By Michael Rosen
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2223

Gove needs to go back to school

This article is over 11 years, 3 months old
Those of us who work in education frequently have to deal with questions of truth. We ask children to draw conclusions from evidence, to describe things as they see them, and not to tell lies.
Issue 2223

Those of us who work in education frequently have to deal with questions of truth. We ask children to draw conclusions from evidence, to describe things as they see them, and not to tell lies.

It would be fair to say that there are also people like me, who sometimes breeze in and ask children to make up stuff. The principle here though is to keep these two worlds separate.

Occasionally there are children who find this quite difficult and muddle the two.

After some 35 years of working in schools, I’ve got a good eye for someone in that state of confusion—someone like Tory education secretary Michael Gove.

It seems he can’t stop lying and contradicting himself.

In his speech at the Tory party conference, Gove claimed that he was handing out new freedoms: to headteachers to manage and to teachers to teach. And to any old group of people who want to start a school out of the public purse—while at the same time prescribing, say, that the works of a rather unpopular dull poet and playwright like Dryden would be “at the heart of school life”.

He introduced his audience to some evil people called “bureaucrats” who he says try to control schools from Whitehall—even as he cooked up the prospect of arranging the history curriculum from his office.

He claimed that there are “ideologues” who say that children “shouldn’t be doing anything so old-fashioned as passing on knowledge, requiring children to work hard, or immersing them in anything like dates in history or times tables in mathematics”.

I can’t think of anyone who has ever said that knowledge shouldn’t be acquired in schools or that children shouldn’t work hard. Though quite how you “immerse” yourself in dates… it does stretch the imagination a little.


These ideologues, Gove claimed, say that “children should be freed from the tyranny of old-fashioned subject disciplines and liberated from the requirement to pay attention in class”.

Again, I’ve never heard of anyone who says that children shouldn’t pay attention in class.

True, there is a debate about how rigid or flexible one can be with subject boundaries—like history and geography or the different sciences.

To dismiss this interesting debate while complaining about “ideologues” is like Stalin complaining about moustaches.

But Gove wasn’t finished.

He described a Science exam paper—the equivalent of our A-levels—from Massachusetts and compared it with a British GCSE paper. He didn’t say that the US question was from a chemistry paper and the British one from biology.

Surprise, surprise—after that bit of fiddling the Massachusetts question sounded harder. Shock horror, we’re falling behind the Americans!

He trundled off a list of pre-twentieth century authors, as if these were not taught in schools, when many on his list—and some others he didn’t mention, like Shakespeare and William Blake—have to be taught.

He claimed that correct spelling, punctuation and grammar weren’t rewarded in exams, whereas in truth in those subjects where there is “extended writing”, 13 percent of the marks are up for grabs for correctness.

He said that thousands of children are ignorant of grammar—as if grammar wasn’t being taught. In fact, grammar is taught to all children, but what Gove seems unable to figure out is that many children find it hard.

He can’t figure it out, because like every minister of education before him, he isn’t interested in finding out how children and teachers learn.

This has been the gaping hole in education policies of all kinds since someone decided in the late 1970s there were votes to be won if you told three big lies: that teachers, children and schools are rubbish; that there was once a time when everyone was better educated; and that the way to improve education is to talk tough about knowledge, heritage and discipline.

In the midst of our battles over academies, so-called “free” schools and devastating cuts, we should also fight for our principles: that learning happens through consent, co-operation and discussion within a framework of respect for all.

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