By Liam Carr
Michael Gove will be judged by history to be the worst education secretary ever. This is not vitriol or hatred .. although I do hate some of his polices which are not moving education forward but sending it back to a time of greater inequality.
Everyone is an expert in education. We are experienced in that we have all been to school. Some of us may have children who are in school. Everyone has an opinion on education. Conversations invariably start with what do you do for a living … and when people find out that I am a teacher, it always elicits a response;
“I couldn’t do that, I don’t know how you manage with kids these days”
“You only do it for the holidays”
“I was terrible at <insert subject here> when I was at school… I hated my teacher”
Occasionally parents will talk at length about their own children’s experiences at school, but often people will look worried, shake their head, and ask quietly:
“What do you think of Gove?”
This, in itself, is quite surprising. I have been teaching for a reasonable length of time and will have had many of the ‘so what do you do for a living’ conversations but no-one really asked “What do you think of Blunkett?”
The education secretary is well known, some of which can be put down to his exploits way beyond his remit. Does anyone remember the Gove boat? A ludicrous proposal to spend £60M on a new royal yacht for the Queen.
Gove will be remembered as an education secretary because of his insatiable appetite for reform along with a failure to listen to those who may be of a different opinion to himself. Other education secretaries have made an impact. Ken Baker, the architect of Ofsted was also a reformist, and faced great opposition at the time but he will probably be remembered for introducing teacher training days, still known as Baker days by many.
Blunkett also faced criticism but his legacy is that he left behind a more inclusive education system, and while there are many advocates of specialist provision, many students have benefited from inclusion. Blunkett opened the doors of mainstream education to those who previously would not have had the option.
There are other education secretaries who have got on with the job of improving standards of education more quietly; Alan Milburn and Charles Clarke for example.
The flagship policy is to invest heavily in free schools which are set up by individuals who would not normally be able to access a slice of the education budget. This seems like reform for the sake of reform… and targeting funding not to the areas of greatest need, but to wherever an interested party is willing to set one up. This is the key argument against free schools.. that they do nothing to address inequality of provision across the country, or even within a local authority.
It is true that inequality in education is a difficult challenge to overcome. Progress was made by the previous government, for whom education was certainly a priority, but it is still unfair that the strongest indicator of how a child will do at school is the socio-economic background of their parents. While there are many aspects to this problem, some of which are beyond the control of government, equality of access and provision can and should be addressed by the government.
Inequality of provision is poisonous. It leads to parents knowing that they are not sending their children to the best school around… but also knowing that they can’t afford to move house just to get a place. It leads to students who know that their school isn’t the best around… the resulting lack of pride in the school leads to a lack of pride in the work produced. Inequality in education should be challenged, and can only be addressed in a joined up rather than a fragmented system. Gove seems at ease with inequality. Since he took office not only has the pupil premium been cut but also diverted from schools in less affluent to those in more affluent areas. Despite the cuts, Surrey and Rutland enjoy increases between 6% and 26%, while Middlesbrough and the Wirral are hit with a reduction of 46% and 54%1 Just as Osborne did in his millionaire’s budget, Gove is intent on redistributing wealth from the have-nots to the have-lots. (or have-yachts)
There are also valid objections to Ofsted reform. He was forced to back down over ‘no notice’ inspections, but some teachers are dismayed that the satisfactory grade is being replaced by ‘requires improvement’ and a move to put more schools into special measures. My concern is that both policies are being implemented at once. Changing the criteria for observations is fine, the criteria are constantly reviewed, as we learn more about how children learn, but making the criteria more difficult to achieve and coming in with no notice and making it easier to sack teachers will simply give Gove the results he is after: ‘Teachers are not good enough’ and should be replaced, as he has suggested, with those with firsts from Oxford and ex-army officers.
There are other unhelpful policy combinations, scrapping the education maintenance allowance and raising tuition fees, has resulted in a fall in students from normal backgrounds doing A-Levels. Cutting ‘Building schools for the future’ and turning all outstanding schools into academies results in schools that are run down, in terms of facilities, becoming substandard places to learn.
There are other more minor gaffes that are listed on his Wikipedia page, such as when making a speech calling for improvement in Science and attributing some of Kelvin’s laws to Newton, but it is the return to a less equal education system that is most worrying
Mary Bousted of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers describes an education system that is stratified on class lines:
We have schools for the elite, schools for the middle class and schools for the working class, too few schools have mixed intakes where children can learn those intangible life skills of aspiration, effort and persistence from one another… The effect of unbalanced school intake is toxic for the poorest and most dispossessed… [Blaming teachers] if the poor don’t make as much progress as the rich is a nonsense. It is a lie which conveniently enables ministers to evade responsibility for the effects of their policies.”
ATL is traditionally a Union for those who don’t like Unions. They have been on strike for the first time in their history. If even moderate union members will strike, then Gove and his education department need to look at the combined effect of what they are doing. There are enough staff there. He has assigned an astonishing 133 Civil servant in his free school department and there are only 24 free schools in existence.2 That is just wasteful from the party of ‘small government’, when other departments are facing decimation.
Gove’s attack on the state education has gone fairly unnoticed by many, possibly shrouded by attacks on the NHS. I will borrow a quote originally said of the NHS: A truly comprehensive education system will be around as long as there are people around to fight for it.
Much is at stake here. We are risking losing a generation of young people from less privileged backgrounds who will not be able to access the opportunity that the previous generation enjoyed. The Coalition may go on to claim that standards of education under Gove have gone up but only for those whose parents can afford to take advantage of what is on offer.