On 3 February this year Michael Gove gave a speech about his vision for education at the London Academy of Excellence. Gove painted himself and his project as a historic crusade against “failing schools”.
Gove and his government have been reforming education at breakneck speed. From the break up of the state system in the form of Free Schools and Academies to the overhaul of the curriculum, Gove has left no aspect untouched.
In the same speech the education secretary talked about one of his favourite history books, George Dangerfield’s classic, The Strange Death of Liberal England. “One of my favourite history books is a classic work which analyses how a once apparently secure consensus can be overturned with amazing speed,” he said.
Dangerfield describes how the thought-world of Edwardian Liberalism – which seemed to be intellectually all-conquering – collapsed, never to return, in a remarkably short space of time.
Gove went on to suggest that his educational reforms have similarly overturned the long-held consensus in state education – what he calls the “sink school”, the “bog standard” and the “barely satisfactory”.
But the real educational ideas that Gove has set out to destroy are the ideas of child-centred education, comprehensive education and education as more than a production line aimed at churning out a future workforce.
Gove wants to destroy the idea that education should be a life enriching activity where all subjects and interests are open and available to all children to pursue. This is the “thought world” that he wishes to see “disappear, never to return”.
Gove is intent on fighting the influence of progressive ideas in education. It simply does not fit Tory values to have working class children educated in critical thought, problem solving and creativity.
For all his talk of “raising standards for all”, Gove’s vision is one where the majority of children are taught to know their place, compounded by his addiction to testing at an ever-earlier age.
His plans to introduce “baseline tests” at age four, together with his pass or fail phonics test for five and six year olds, are helping to write failure into the heart of education right from the formative periods in a child’s development. Many educationalists have described such proposals as a form of psychological abuse. For a child to be told at the age of five that he or she has failed will doubtless damage many for life.
Gove’s new curriculum will focus on little other than maths and English. Unlike at the country’s private schools, children at state schools will be denied their right to a broad and balanced curriculum that caters to their interests and talents.
Even within English and maths, the curriculum has been narrowed. Instead of exploring these subjects in depth in order to foster a love of learning, the curriculum offers little but lists of spellings to be learnt each year, poetry that must be committed to memory and recited by rote, and times table drills.
The reduction of education to the testable and measureable is made worse through the introduction of performance related pay (PRP) for teachers, so the test results of children could end up making the difference between a teacher being able to pay their mortgage or not. This can only force teachers to teach “to the test” rather than to the needs of children.
This is why the strikes held by the two biggest teaching unions, the NUT and NASUWT, have been important. While they have been called around the issue of PRP, pensions and workload, they have been built alongside an educational argument about what is right for the children in our schools.
Ask any striking teacher and they will tell you that the reason they are out is because of the way that the government is destroying everything held dear about our education system.
Gove is fighting to stop the influence of any alternative ideas to his. When one hundred academics wrote to the Independent newspaper about their concerns for the new primary curriculum, Gove infamously labelled them “the blob”, dangerous Marxists in our universities that wish to brain-wash the nation’s teachers and children through their positions in academia.
The introduction of new teacher training routes, such as Teach First and Schools Direct, almost entirely cuts out the role of universities. This is part of the cuts agenda, but crucially it serves an ideological function, attempting to turn teachers into deliverers of the government curriculum rather than free thinking educationalists.
But there is hope. Gove looks increasingly like an education secretary whose star is waning. He represents everything that is true of this government in general – nasty, vicious and dangerous. But he is also like a bully – full of bluster but weak behind the facade.
Just look at the recent spat between Gove and the Ofsted Chief Inspector of Schools, Michael Wilshaw. For years Ofsted has been hand in glove with the government agenda of trashing schools and teachers in order to destroy progressive ideas in education.
Wilshaw was the man who proudly announced to a conference of head teachers that if teacher morale was low in their school, they could know that they were doing something right.
And yet despite this, Gove is now arguing that Ofsted is packed with people with an old fashioned, child-centred agenda.
Why? Because some inspectors judged Gove’s favourite Academies as “less than outstanding”.
The rift shows that Gove is in trouble. Wilshaw is not the only person to have fallen out with Gove. Other friends too are turning on him. Matthew Parris in the Times has warned Gove to avoid further confrontation with teachers.
The influential Tory Conservative Home blog wants him to “stop alienating teachers”, and even former Ofsted boss Sir David Bell is warning him to avoid surrounding himself with “yes men”.
Many in the Tory party are now starting to worry that Gove could be a liability. His recent pronouncements on behaviour, where he suggested that children be forced to write lines or run as a punishment for poor behaviour, have been laughed at from every side including his own.
And the further Gove unleashes market forces in education, the more problems he is running into. His mates in edu-business have made big money from Academies and now Free Schools. But the anarchy of a market in education is seeing a spate of stories about corruption or the recent spectacular failure of the ten academies that have now been removed form the E-Act chain.
The recent strike at flagship Free School Stem6 over zero-hours contracts is another example of the kinds of problems that Gove’s project will face as it runs up against resistance in schools.
But Gove is not a “lame duck”. He is weakened but still lashing out to secure the permanent changes that he wants to be his legacy. So the NUT is right to continue with its programme of strike action despite the NASUWT pulling back.
A campaign of escalating strike action coupled with high level public campaigning around educational issues, such as the moves towards a National Campaign for Education, could end Gove’s reign and begin to roll back the right wing ideological onslaught in education.
Last year in the US, Chicago teachers faced the wholesale destruction of their pay and conditions. They took action. They held huge public meetings to win the support of parents and then they struck.
This wasn’t a one-day strike. It was an all out, indefinite strike that made it clear that they wouldn’t teach unless the mayor backed off. Within a week that’s what happened. The “Chicago way” won. We need to put this kind of action on the agenda here too.
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