Gove and the Politics of Education

We need to take a critical look at Peter Wilby’s latest article in the Guardian:

In Michael Gove’s world who needs teachers?

The education secretary’s obsession with ‘spellings, facts and rules’ ignores the professional consensus on child development

In the past we’ve referred to Mr Wilby’s columns with unqualified approval – for example, here and here

Our problem with this latest piece is that he puts a spotlight, very deservedly, on what Michael Gove is currently getting up to as secretary of state for education without once mentioning that it was under the previous New Labour government that many of these practices began.

Gove intends not only to introduce performance-related pay and increase pension contributions but also to revolutionise, at breakneck speed, the content and format of GCSEs, A-levels and the national curriculum. As teachers see it, he is de-professionalising them, squeezing the autonomy and creativity out of their work. In effect, teachers are being told to forget how they were trained and teach in a different way.

Does anyone seriously doubt that it was under New Labour that autonomy and creativity were squeezed out of the classroom like never before? Have we forgotten already that it was New Labour that introduced published league tables of school and pupil performance based solely on test and exam results? That it was New Labour that turned Ofsted into its official arm of compliance? That it was New Labour that bulldozed and micromanaged schools into adopting their National Literacy Strategy which put huge emphasis on “Grammar For Writing” and squeezed out creativity and meaningful self expression in children’s writing? That insisted children’s writing was judged and marked against the number of subordinate clauses and “connectives” it contained and the number of “Wow Words” children were able to toss into any given writing task? And plenty of other ridiculous, counterproductive nonsense.

Let’s not forget it was New Labour that browbeat the teacher trainers into forgetting about “child centredness” and insisted that they drilled trainee teachers in how to “deliver” the New Labour National Strategies (which were never properly trialled and were later abandoned) and in how to “drive up standards” – making test and exam results their sole priority. It was under New Labour that various Directors of Education and Directors of Children’s Services scowled at worried headteachers and told them that the mantra had changed from “Education, Education, Education” to “Attainment, Attainment, Attainment” since all that really mattered were test and exam results. And don’t say they didn’t – because we were there at the time, and we know they did.

Peter Wilby continues,

Most teachers are trained to believe that children don’t learn best through what the philosopher John Dewey called “the piling up of information”, much of which will be forgotten. They should master a range of skills – from basic reading and writing to critical thinking and weighing evidence – and teachers should choose suitable content, varying it according to individuals’ needs and interests. According to this view, too many “spellings, facts and rules” too early will put children off learning, as well as stunting imagination and creativity. Children should “learn how to learn”, not be stuffed with inert and dimly understood knowledge.

Whilst all of these points about pedagogy are correct, teachers were certainly not trained to “believe” in these things during the past 20 odd years. Mr Wilby is surely talking about the dim and distant past. The introduction of a national curriculum and SATs tests changed everything. Teachers may “know” these things – instinctively and intuitively – but it’s been a very long while since teachers were able to function without having to “cover” an overcrowded National Curriculum, and for many of them without “teaching to the tests”. None of this can be attributed directly or solely to Mr Gove. We seriously wonder how many teachers could hold up their hands and say that their basic training, or for that matter their in-school continuing professional development, ever emphasised the development of imagination and creativity. These are some of the reasons why so many teachers have abandoned what they thought was going to be an exciting and creative profession.

No, Michael Gove is simply an extreme version of so many of his predecessors, including David Blunkett and Ed Balls – the man who spat contemptuously on the excellent Cambridge Primary Review, which had tried to draw government attention to many of these issues concerning child development and pedagogy. “Old hat”, was his expression at the time.

“It’s easy to see why teachers, and particularly education professors, are so upset,” says Mr Wilby. HELLO! They’ve been bloody upset for a very long time! Many have left the profession, many have had physical and mental breakdowns as a result of having to simultaneously set aside their honestly-held professional views whilst “driving up standards”, and many have soldiered on, whilst trying their best to do what’s right for both their pupils and for the profession. All of which is a national disgrace. (We’re not the only country that has gone down this road, and we’ve been accompanied all the way down by the USA, even under the well-intentioned Obama administration – as evidenced by so many aggrieved American bloggers and tweeters. They do things very differently, however, in various highly successful countries, as we never tire of saying in these posts.)

Peter Wilby quite rightly draws attention to Michael Gove’s fascination with the ideas of Ed Hirsch on so-called “cultural capital” – but why only now? 3D Eye highlighted this concern last October – , and again in January this year –

The conclusion of Mr Wilby’s article states,

“He ignores what teachers have to say about how children learn and develop. He therefore risks alienating and demoralising the profession.”

Risks!? Why the future tense!!? The teaching profession has long been alienated from professional politicians, thanks to being treated with little respect and a fair measure of contempt over many years. Demoralisation has been endemic for decades, even though many fine teachers have struggled hard to maintain their integrity, and their morale, as well as their professionalism, for their own survival’s sake, as well as for their pupils’.

Even in the so-called high-performing schools there has been demoralisation. It’s a huge issue for many of them if the school isn’t turning out as many Level 5s in Year 6 as their “competitors” down the road, or if their school slips from the top of the league table to, say, third place. And where are the pupils, let alone their imaginations and their creativity, in all of this? Absolutely nowhere.

We’re not saying there aren’t any brilliant teachers and amazing schools in this country. Of course there are. But it’s a very hard trick to pull off league table success whilst remaining “child centred”, as opposed to “curriculum centred” or “test and exam centred” – and many have given up on trying to perform it, if indeed they tried in the first place.

It’s worth mentioning, by the way, that schools such as Wellington College and Eton College DO in fact have a very strong concern for the all-round wellbeing and the development of the multiple intelligences of their students, and do not simply focus on the academic and the achievement of the highest grades in exams. (Easy for THEM to say and do, we might well think – but at least they ARE saying it and doing it.)

So by all means let’s put the spotlight on what Michael Gove is saying and doing – since he is indeed taking education to extreme areas where it has no business going. But let’s not forget the legacy of New Labour and all of its works in education, which prepared the ground for what’s happening now.

How come the New Labour administration was able to do so much damage to children and education, when they arguably had a mandate in 1997 to change the terms of the educational debate – for example, by implementing Sir Ken Robinson’s “All Our Futures” report on learning and creativity (which they had commissioned but very quickly shelved)?

The answer is really quite simple. Left-leaning critics and commentators pretty much left them alone or gave them the benefit of the doubt through blind loyalty to the party they preferred in government. All that David Blunkett (and his chosen sidekick Chris Woodhead) ever understood or cared about was the thought that if a blind person like Mr Blunkett could get to Oxford (seemingly through his own efforts) then any working class child could do the same if only schools put all their energy into raising test and exam scores. Complete rubbish, of course, but very few at the time had the temerity to stand up and say it, for fear of being labelled an “enemy of promise”, “a maker of excuses”, a “maintainer of the status quo”, and all the other abusive phrases used by the manufacturers of government propaganda during that dark and shameful passage of Labour educational history.

Were we also in thrall back then to the massive intellects of those other mainstays of the New Labour education years – the academic cum government advisor Michael Barber and the journalist cum New Labour guru Anthony Adonis? – the unelected powers behind the throne? Perhaps we thought they were astute political operators and strategists who were masterminding political games of which we mere teachers knew little.

Let’s hope we didn’t keep quiet about the return to Victorian values and pedagogies because we just wanted a quiet life, a decent living and a safe place beneath the parapet during the years of the Great Education Wars – regardless of the wellbeing and the rights of our children and young people.

Our concluding thought is this: Whatever David Blunkett did as New Labour’s first secretary of state for education, his successors were very afraid to undo – not least because Tony Blair and Gordon Brown shared all of his Victorian views on education and learning. After ten years or so of banging on about “standards” as the be-all and end-all, it was seemingly impossible to retract, change course or apologise for bad decisions. Is it impossible still?

Or is it possible for the present Labour party to finally take the politics out of education, to enable the profession to re-professionalise, to engage with evidence-based discussions and debates about the future of schools and learning, and thereby enable our children and young people to become educated for living positive, productive and creative lives both now and in the future?

Compass Conference – Radical Approaches to Education (

Rearranging The Deckchairs (

The Politics and Management of Education: A Wake Up Call for 2013 (

Simon Jenkins on Education in England – A Devastating Critique (

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About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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