Opinion: A letter to Michael Gove

Dear Michael,

I hope this finds you well.

A confession.

Unlike Paxman, I’m a fan.

You’re an unusual Tory with unusual origins. And your passion to change education is laudable.

The 1960s Crosland reforms, implemented by your mentor Mrs Thatcher, were supposed to promote social mobility. The reality is mixed. Overall literacy and numeracy have improved. Higher education has become more accessible across class, gender and race.

But this has come at a cost. Some think general mediocrity is better than a few attaining excellence while the majority attain little. I think it’s still mediocrity. Employers lament school-leavers’ inadequate skills. Our performance in the Pisa education rankings is poor. And mobility? We may not agree with the late Tony Judt that destroying grammar schools actually reversed it. But Wilson, Heath and Thatcher have given way to Blair, Cameron and Clegg, while Finney, Courtney and McKellen have been replaced by Lewis, Cumberbatch and Hiddleston.

Your remedies have merit. Free schools are a liberal idea. Your standards drives might tackle institutional condescension towards working class kids, who should be set high expectations and get the cultural apparatus elites enjoy. Your emphasis on rote learning is overstated. Creativity matters. But you and I would agree with that great transgressor James Joyce, who suggested that to break rules you must know them.

You’ve flatfooted us liberals. We oppose you on profit-making free schools (if they’re successful, why do we care?) and liberalising teacher qualification (an excellent way to supplement a vocational core with skilled people who want to teach for part of their careers). Do it again on selection and streaming, I dare you.

Then perhaps you’ll look at social policy. Consider how your goals conflict with benefits reforms that, while striking rightly at dependency, penalise children, relocating them to crowded accommodation, where homework is impossible. Provoke a radical debate on education standards, conditions and expectations in schools and in the home. Maybe talk to Andrew Adonis about state-funded boarding schools. (Why should only those who don’t need them get such benefits?)

Yes. You’ve turned my head. So tell me this: why do you take leave of your senses when it comes to British history? Your proposed history syllabus was laughable jingoism, especially for someone of your education and cultural breadth. And the First World War! Yes, the war aims were laudable. But as a Tory outsider and a meritocrat you should recognise in its shameful prosecution a patrician disdain for the lower orders and the very worst of Empire.

Great leaders err. Churchill was hopelessly wrong about India and the Empire. But they evolve. Over time Churchill developed a vision of a new, post-colonial order, an ultimately European worldview.

Keep liberalising education. But replace your insular view of history and the world with a broader, more generous one. Oh and drop Murdoch – that’ll help wean you off the populist jingo. Churchill loved Beaverbrook. But, as Atlee said, he was too shrewd to listen to him.

And you’ll cause us problems. You may even be great.

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23 Comments

  • David Allen 17th Jan '14 - 1:53pm

    “Your emphasis on rote learning is overstated. Creativity matters.”

    Let me just pick up on this one. Gove loves to set “creativity” as the opposite pole to rote learning, because it sounds weak. “Creativity” sounds like conceptual art and experimental poetry, oddball fringe activities that perhaps aren’t really essentials. That’s because Govian education fails on so many other equally important criteria, which Gove would prefer to downplay.

    Capabilities and skills, to start with. Cramming your head full of facts does not teach you how to wire a fuse, how to manage money, how to prepare for the myriad professional activities which require mathematical understanding, how to get a computer to do what you want, how to write something which is usefully informative or persuasive, how to make sense of statistical information, or indeed, how to live. Pretty important, huh? A bit more marketable, in fact, than being able to recite all the Kings and Queens of England in correct date order, Mr Gove?

    Even more important, in my view, is simply teaching children to think for themselves. To work things out, not just copy the book out. To take those facts, yes, but then to process them in a way that achieves a goal. To question received wisdom, without just playing the facile contrarian. To work out for themselves what their own beliefs and values are.

    That’s what Tories don’t like. The Tories know that the more people think for themselves, the more often they end up thinking that they are not Tories. That’s why Tories like Gove want to stuff up your brain with a dead burden of facts. This will get rid of the free processing mental capabilities you need to use when thinking for yourself!

  • Graham Evans 17th Jan '14 - 2:03pm

    Why is it that so much time is devoted to arguing about the best way of increasing the number of young people going to university from disadvantaged backgrounds, worthy though that may be as a cause, when we all know the that main failure in our educational system relates to the 40% plus who can never aspire to a university education – unless of course we decide to totally devalue the meaning of a university education? Helen refers to the fact that potentially there are routes to social mobility other than a university education, but in reality she has nothing meaningful to say on the subject. The failure of our education system starts in the schools at an early age; tinkering with university entrance will at best improve the situation at the margins. I don’t fully subscribe to Lord Baker’s idea of university technical colleges, but at least he is devoting his energies to the vast section of the population who deserve our attention more than those lucky enough to be born with the intellectual ability to pursue a university course.

  • Graham Evans 17th Jan '14 - 2:16pm

    Though the world’s greatest mathematicians, scientists and engineers have undoubtedly been creative, we should not pretend that to master these areas of intellectual activity a good deal of rote learning is needed by most people. This is perhaps the biggest difference between the arts and the sciences. You cannot progress in understanding some of the most complex principles without a thorough understanding of simpler systems. Each scientific advance in knowledge builds on earlier discoveries. So while I agree that we want children to learn to think for themselves, all the examples of technical activities which David Allen quotes do require a significant element of what is in reality a type of rote learning. Only once this learning has been achieved can most people involved in technical activities move on to applying their abilities in a creative way.

  • Paul Kennedy 17th Jan '14 - 2:41pm

    I have two worries:

    (i) most of Gove’s changes to school qualifications – such as the ban on modular exams and January A level sittings – are about improving the calibration of school league tables rather than the needs of pupils – and can cause real hardship for students outside the mainstream school system as well as putting thousands of their teachers out of work.

    And his changes have still failed to tackle the real problem which caused all the problems with English GCSE coursework a few years ago. The problem was not modular exams but the application of the uniform mark scale (UMS) (based on proportions of students expected to get each grade) to coursework assessments where for some reason a large proportion of students get full marks. This makes grades very sensitive indeed to the raw coursework marking, and a few dropped marks can take a student who has still produced very good coursework from an A* to an E.

    (ii) the incentives that the academies/free schools programme have created for local authorities to close primary schools so as to sell their land, safe in the knowledge that the gap they have created will be plugged by a new free school funded by the DfE in due course.

    See the example below where a Tory Council is closing a community primary school whose results last year were in the top 2% in the country (thanks to the pupil premium!), so as to sell its land to a selective secondary free school funded by the DfE. Closing this pupil premium success story will create a gap which will need to be filled in due course by another free school funded by the DfE.

    Do come along on Monday!

    http://www.flocktogether.org.uk/event/9422

  • First, Gove is putting schools into the hands into academy barons who are just as unaccountable as all the other items of public spending which need to be robustly accountable. Second, social mobility in his view is far too narrowly focussed. Third, you can’t base your policy on PISA – that would be silly. Fourth, he has forced many schools to teach a more prescriptive curriculum whilst punishing schools that don’t teach his favoured subjects; there is less freedom in education. Fifth, we could argue about the market in education ’til the cows came home, but essentially the consumer is not the parent by the child, and by the time their education has gone wrong, it is too late to buy a new one. So sixth: teaching qualifications are not illiberal, we have not been flat-footed at all. We expect teachers to either be qualified or (and this is important) if not qualified, at least be working towards a qualification (qualifications are not there to be scared of). Finally, Michael Gove has personally contributed to the continued retrenchment of public spending by overspending by at least £1bn on academies and free schools.

    When I speak to parents there is confusion, anger and a simple desire for 1) local accountability and 2) the sensible use of money in education: from there we should just let the teachers get on and do their job.

  • David Allen 17th Jan '14 - 3:14pm

    Graham Evans, I’m not trying to claim that rote learning has no place. It does have a place. It can even be described to some extent as a valuable skill in itself. I am only arguing that Gove hugely overstates its role.

    I would also take issue with your comment “Only once this (rote) learning has been achieved can most people involved in technical activities move on to applying their abilities in a creative way.” The implication of that would be for example that until primary maths pupils have chanted their times tables to perfection, they can’t possibly be asked to do any conceptual learning, such as understanding of place value, which require thinking and analysis. It ain’t so. Children need to learn by thinking alongside learning by rote, and if they don’t do that they won’t thrive.

  • Julian Critchley 17th Jan '14 - 4:11pm

    I posted a longer post pointing out that Gove’s changes have all reduced freedom for governors, parents and teachers, but it seems to have failed to appear.

    Nevertheless, Henry’s post is absolutely spot on.

  • Chris Manners 17th Jan '14 - 6:53pm

    “Employers lament school-leavers’ inadequate skills.”

    What on earth is the evidence that Gove’s improving that? As it happens, McKinsey found it was a problem all over Europe. Maybe it’s a bit harder than Gove thinks.

    http://mckinseyonsociety.com/education-to-employment/europe-report/

    Note this bit too:

    “young people are often not learning a sufficient portfolio of general skills while they study, with employers reporting a particular shortage of soft skills such as spoken communication and work ethic”

    But hey, more exams! That’ll fix it!

  • Martin Lowe 18th Jan '14 - 3:01pm

    I just typed up a massive rant based on the (quite natural) assumption that Gove is a man promoted way above his natural abilities, but had to delete it all as I remembered that:

    (a) he knows exactly what he’s doing
    (b) it involves the running down and eventual selling off of state education to vested interests
    (c) where he and the Conservative Party will benefit financially at the expense of the nation

  • People quick to hail Gove’s genius need to pay very close attention to three very important points.

    1. No Government ever says ‘we’re going to lower educational standards’ or ‘the other lot did a great job on schools’
    2. Saying ‘something must be done’ does not necessarily mean that what is currently *being* done is the right thing to do.
    3. Declaring that you are raising standards is not the same as actually raising standards.

    There is no evidence at all that the current, massively unpopular, centralising, autocratic changes to education by a dogmatic, smear-happy, media-hungry, cover-up-prone, Lib Dem-baiting Minister are making things any better for schools. We do know that they’re costing a lot of money, demoralising educationalists, angering parents and disrupting children, but hey, he’s REALLY rude about Labour and if you’re the sort of person who whom that is the main touchstone of effectiveness (and there are a lot of them in the Tories, and too many in the Lib Dems who think that way), then that’s all you need.

  • Well put Chris —-
    Chris Riley 20th Jan ’14 – 10:34am
    … … but hey, he’s REALLY rude about Labour and if you’re the sort of person for whom that is the main touchstone of effectiveness (and there are a lot of them in the Tories, and too many in the Lib Dems who think that way), then that’s all you need.

    Chris seems to have summed up Cleggism in one short phrase.

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