When a friend and colleague asked me for a ‘ briefing’ on Gove, I went a bit mad! It’s long but it is my attempt to put what I know in context. Can you spot anything I’ve missed?
1. The Macro
From the word go (May 2010), Michael Gove acted swiftly to begin the implementation of his policies, even using parliamentary procedures designed for terrorist legislation to push through the law to enable academies and free schools to start from September 2010. It is clear to everyone that he is motivated by ideology – an apparent belief that ‘the market’ will provide the best and most efficient service, even in education – and is only interested in evidence if it can be used to justify his actions (not unlike many a politician here!). He will cherry-pick or even invent ‘facts’. For example, he chose to implement the Swedish model for free schools despite it being far from clear that they were working even in that country and ignoring some obvious differences of culture (eg there is no private education sector in Sweden). He ignores evidence emerging from Sweden that after 20 years it is not working and is certainly increasing segregation. Gove has also been caught out quoting ‘facts’ culled from very dubious sources and surveys.
In his moves on the curriculum and examination system, Gove has also been guided by ideological prejudice eg his own specialist area of English Literature (prescribing books that children ought to be made to read, which will hardly increase their motivation to enjoy literature) and his imperialist view of History. He has become the darling of the Conservative right because he appears to champion a move backwards to ‘traditional’ styes of teaching (eg rote learning), a focus on a narrow form of literacy, a UK-centric/imperialist world view of History, a preference for a grammar-school/private school ethos, a return to ‘O’ level, the abolition of coursework, down-grading of vocational (ie ‘easy’, in his view) subjects and so on.
He has been helped by three factors. Firstly, the media have assisted in creating a narrative about English education, namely, that state education is failing, that it is poor when compared internationally and that private education is self-evidently better. Secondly, unlike the NHS, the public does not perceive education as a ‘national education service’ and are by and large uninterested in schooling if their children are doing ok, unless their school is threatened in which case, there is often a determined campaign of support for the school. However, few of these issues make the national media (Al Madinah and the recent problems of E-ACT being exceptions) so that a problem with your own local school may seem to be a blip and not part of a national trend, when, in fact, it is. Thirdly, the spectacular failure of the Labour Party to mount any kind of serious opposition to Gove’s wholesale dismantling of the state-funded education system.
The prevailing narrative has become accepted ‘fact’ but can easily be challenged. However you judge it, many schools have done well and are improving, however, most of those schools have been encouraged to move outside the state sector and become independent academies (albeit still funded by the tax-payer) so the illusion continues that state schools (ie LA-run schools) are failing. The international comparisons (OECD ‘PISA’) were seized on by the media, Gove and even, regrettably, Tristan Hunt, but those who have looked closely can see straight away that the tests, the methodologies and even the interpretation of the results, are deeply flawed. These ‘results’ are now being used to urge our schools to adopt teaching strategies and styles that are anathema to our culture eg the Singapore model for Maths. As for Gove’s recent praise for the private sector, dressed up as a desire for all our children to have ‘as good as’, this has been rightly condemned as nonsense. There are many inequalities of funding and a privileged intake that, once stripped away, mean that, in fact, if anything, the best state schools are doing slightly better.
The media have certainly done a lot to establish the ‘narrative’ of failure and poor comparative performance in the public mind, over time (think of the annual claims that improving exam results must be an indication of ‘dumbing down’, going back decades) and they have also done little to challenge Gove or expose the growing evidence of the failures of his policies. Those ‘in the know’ are aware of increasing stories of ‘financial irregularity’, and poor performance in the ‘free school’ and academy ‘world’ and are surprised that an investigative journalist or documentary maker has not delved and exposed. For some commentators, there is a belief that Gove, as an ex-journo himself, gets off lightly. It is also the case that many in the serious media are the products of private schooling so readily buy the negative state schools stereotype.
2. The Micro
At the school level, Gove’s policies and attitudes are doing great damage to our teachers and pupils. There has probably never been a Secretary of State so universally loathed by the teaching body. The Coalition has successfully waged a propaganda campaign against public services and, in education, Gove has used what he perceives to be public antagonism or, at best, indifference, to suppress wages, alter pension rights and attack working conditions. A recent survey suggested that, under Gove, teachers’ actual working hours have increased. Moreover, Gove has attacked and denigrated teachers – the very people whose support he needs to implement changes – at every turn. He has dismissed opposition amongst the teaching profession and the education world more generally as “vested interests’ and “the enemies of promise”. The NUT was branded “an extreme left-wing organisation” and headteachers who chose exam entry strategies which maximised the chances of student success were accused of “gaming” (in other words, cheating). Most Secretaries of State are unloved by teachers but it would be hard to overestimate how reviled this one is amongst ordinary classroom teachers, not simply because they disagree with his policies but because his words and his actions indicate to them that he does not value their hard work and expertise. Unheralded changes of policy, issued as diktats, show how little they are thought of.
In this regard, Gove is given a close run by Michael Wilshaw. No teachers are likely to be fond of OFSTED but, under this chief (appointed by Gove) they have seen regular and bewildering changes that have left them unclear what they have to do. The ‘toughening up’ and renaming of ‘Satisfactory’ as ‘Requires improvement’, means that there is no longer any meaningful comparison to be had between schools and has left schools that have clearly been improving over five or six years, apparently standing still or even going backwards. There is now a great lack of clarity about what inspectors are looking for with recent announcements that no particular teaching style in valued more than others, and the revelation that, apparently, individual teachers are not ‘graded’. Other announcements seem to widen the attributes being inspected even including teachers’ dress and the school’s outcomes regarding careers and student destinations.
Wilshaw has the same people skills as Gove, at least where teachers are concerned and, notwithstanding an apparent falling out between ‘The Michaels’ recently, OFSTED is part of the problem. The number of children alleged to be ‘being failed’ (that is, being taught in schools graded 3 or 4) is a new statistic, devised by Wilshaw (reminiscent of Woodhead’s famous ‘fifteen thousand failing teachers’), and used as part of the ‘failing state sector’ narrative. More significantly, OFSTED outcomes are used by the sinister DfE ‘brokers’ to badger and bully heads into turning their schools into academies. There is plenty of evidence that OFSTED is in cahoots and that the policy has little to do with improving education and a lot to do with enabling essentially sound schools, perhaps undergoing a transition or ‘blip’, to be gobbled up by academy chains who can claim responsibility for improvements that were about to happen anyway. Some of the chains and their ‘heads’ have close connections to the Conservative Party eg Lord Harris, of ‘Carpetworld’, a Tory donor, who is a fairly ‘hands on’ head of the Harris Academy Trust.
3. A note about funding
Even a politician like Gove feels the need to create an impression with the electorate. The impression has therefore been created that education funding has been protected under the Coalition, whereas heads and bursars know that, at the sharp end, that’s not how it feels. ‘Early adopters’ of ‘converter academy’ status often bluntly explained it was for the money. Gove has diverted large amounts – billions – to his pet ‘free school’ and academy projects, to the undoubted detriment of ‘bog standard’ local schools. ‘Free schools’ in particular can often to be shown to be very poor value for money. However, those billions will still show up as part of the overall education budget so no apparent cuts have taken place.
The serious cuts that have gone on in local authorities which are, quite clearly, a deliberate policy of the Coalition, have a knock-on effect on LA-run schools. Services that used to be free are now charged for (examples are work experience checking and careers advice via Connexions, which Wilshaw has recently said will now be part of inspections from September!) The biggest con of all, however, is the ‘pupil premium’. This is a much-trumpeted Liberal Democrat policy which appears to provide support for children from poorer homes but, on closer inspection, is largely an illusion. This is because the money provided less than compensates for the money needed to make up the shortfall from other sources, particularly local authority services and grants. To add insult to injury, OFSTED insists on seeing evidence that the PP is being used for the purpose for which it was intended!
The arguments against academies and ‘free schools’ are well-rehearsed. Despite what Gove and ‘DfE spokesmen’ say, there is no evidence that they are more successful than equivalent LA-supported schools. The inexorable movement is towards chains in place of Local Authorities, which have no democratic accountability and which, if Gove gets his way, will be allowed to make a profit. It is not clear who monitors and supports quality in these schools, other than OFSTED, hence the recent spat over inspecting chains. These chains are technically ‘charities’ but operate like the businesses they really are. Financial irregularities, cheating, fraud even, are emerging – there are certainly instances of links between directors of ‘trusts’ and their own companies who profit from contracts awarded them by the schools – which may be lawful but sounds at the very least ‘inappropriate’.
However, the greatest damage Gove is doing is to the ethos in schools. Gove’s and Wilshaw’s behaviour towards schools, headteachers, teachers and local communities is nothing short of bullying. There is now a lot of evidence that academies and ‘free schools’ operated by chains are run along similar lines where employees are bullied, rather than encouraged, into behaving the way the management wants. To be fair, such an attitude has always existed amongst a few heads who seemed to think the only way to manage people was to threaten them. This could be put down in the past to good teachers being promoted, without additional training, beyond their level of competence. However, this is now on the increase as ‘business’ tries to run schools as businesses, using the very worst ‘business practice’. In such schools it will hardly be surprising that teachers start treating children the way they are being treated themselves.
4. A Word about Labour
The official opposition seemed, at one point, to be sitting it out. Gove moved swiftly in May-June 2010 and maybe the party was shell-shocked by its defeat. Maybe they found it hard to oppose a policy (academies) which they had initiated. The truth is that it was a ridiculous notion when New Labour brought it in: who on earth thought that the problems of an under-performing school could be solved by ceding major influence to a car dealer with a ‘creationist’ bee in his bonnet? (Reg Vardy, in case you’re wondering). It actually makes no sense and leads many to think that Labour and the Tories are really on the same page. In other words, they are, to differing degrees only, both interested in undermining local authorities, which can be irritating to whichever government is in power, and giving our state schools system to business.
The previous Labour education ‘shadow’, Stephen Twigg, seemed to take the ‘shadow’ title literally and was conspicuous by his absence from serious debate. Under Hunt, things have been little better. Apart from asserting that schools ought to employ qualified teachers (which, according to a recent survey, most ‘free’ schools do anyway) his main policy suggestion has been a Royal College of Teaching, which looks suspiciously like the GTC Mark II and whose main point seems to be to allay public fears that poor teachers might not be able to be sacked! More nonsense, of course. The politicians are so very keen on giving the right impression to the public, assuming they have accurately ‘read’ the public mood in the first place. Actually, some surveys suggest the public is further to the left than this and would welcome a full-throated attack on what some believe is an increasingly chaotic and unsustainable mess.
SUMMARY – the main points to be made against Gove are :
– his refusal to look at evidence or to pilot new schemes, but he ploughs ahead regardless, interested only in his ‘market’ ideology;
– an unsystematic development and launch of policy, often coming apparently from nowhere with no notice, leading to an increasingly chaotic and piece-meal education system;
– his curriculum changes also play to the neo-con right, dressed up as ‘rigour’ and ‘improving standards’;
– the encouragement of a negative view of state as opposed to private education;
– his attacks both verbal and in actions, against the teaching profession;
– the appointment of Wilshaw and his support for a campaign by OFSTED that treats schools, heads and teachers very badly with increasing concerns about consistency and fairness;
– the waste of vast sums of money on pet projects that could have been spent on schools;
– with Wilshaw, he is responsible for underhand and bullying treatment of schools, heads, communities and teachers, thereby encouraging others such as unelected heads of ‘chains’, headteachers and governors to behave likewise;
– the undermining of democratic accountability of schools to their local communities;
– the encouragement of business to enter the education ‘market’ for profit (technically, the ‘trusts’ are charities but there are plenty of apparently legal ways being used at the moment to make a profit eg IES from Sweden); and, of course, illegal ways as well!;
– his oversight of an increasingly fragmented and chaotic education world where ultimately the interests of the individual child are forgotten.