Speaking Truth to Power – Gove’s Parallel Universe

An article published by the Guardian this week, written by Laura McInerney, revealed some interesting findings from her scrutiny of the latest full PISA report. Essentially the survey reveals that it’s our best independent schools that are flying the flag for ‘progressive’ education and holistic learning.

Tuesday’s Guardian also carried an important article in which Tricia Kelleher, principal of the independent Stephen Perse Foundation in Cambridge, made some trenchant comments about our current secretary of state for education and the direction in which he’s been driving education in England.

Since this article has not been published online we’re quoting extensively from it.

The principal of the British school ranked top in the world in the international baccalaureate diploma has launched a passionate attack on Michael Gove’s education reforms, accusing him of “pressing the rewind button” and warning that attempts to chase global education-league rankings will lead schools into a creativity-free “cul-de-sac” of learning.

Tricia Kelleher, principal of the independent Stephen Perse Foundation in Cambridge, said the education secretary was living in a parallel universe in which he bulldozed through reforms to qualifications and failed to recognise the importance of learning itself, including the role of new digital technologies in the classroom.

Tricia Kelleher

Tricia Kelleher

Stephen Perse equips each secondary-age pupil with an iPad and is working with Apple to publish its own curriculum apps.

Kelleher also rejected Gove’s recent ridiculing of the use of popular cultural references such as Mr Men and Disney as learning tools: “Why not if they contribute to understanding and learning?” Modern pupils had a hugely varied cultural landscape, she said, but added: “I think the sober study of classic literature and dry narrative history do not register highly. Young people need an approach which connects with them and the values in their world.”

Kelleher’s criticisms come just days after the headmaster of Eton college, Tony Little, warned that a relentless focus on exams and assessment targets in schools risks turning teachers into “functionaries in a service industry”. He had never seen a generation of teachers who defined “their purpose as teachers in such a limited way,” Little said.

Cries from the private sector – unbound by the national curriculum and other restrictions affecting state-sector colleagues – for less central intervention and greater trust in teachers’ professionalism come against a backdrop of continuing, far-reaching educational reform.

Gove is pushing through a programme combining structural change – creating academies and free schools – sweeping qualification reform and revision of the national curriculum.

Focus on the UK’s education performance was renewed last week as the latest programme for international student achievement (Pisa), published by the OECD, showed Britain languishing mid-table in reading, maths and science tests taken by 15-year-olds. The league table, whose UK results reflect the performance of children educated mainly under the last Labour government, was topped by east Asian countries, including China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea.

Kelleher, whose school recorded the joint top score worldwide in the international baccalaureate diploma in the Sunday Times table published last month, urged Gove not to narrow education goals to the pursuit of Pisa scores: “My worry is we are now going to be driven towards Pisa because Pisa becomes the next altar we worship at. But it is really a cul-de-sac in learning terms.”

Pisa took no account of individual country’s cultural differences, including the “unrelenting pressure” on pupils in top-performing countries, nor recognised the creativity of British learning, she said. “If Michael Gove is saying we should just value what is in Pisa, then we might as well just collapse the curriculum and teach what will come top.”

Acknowledging the privileged position of her £5,000-a-term selective school, many of whose pupils are the children of Cambridge academics, Kelleher insisted that an approach focusing on sparking the imaginations of children applied across the schools landscape.

stephen perseOn a recent personal blog – she also blogs for the Guardian – she cited her own experience as a 13-year-old, when a BBC miniseries of War and Peace inspired her to read Tolstoy’s epic work, awakening a life-long love of history. “I am sure Gove would approve of such cultural aspiration from a working-class daughter of Irish immigrants, yet I should never have even considered reading such a vast tome without the stimulus of the TV series,” she wrote.

Gove’s dismissal of “low-brow” cultural references missed the point, she argued. “The digital world is a game-changer, and we must change with it. If Angry Birds, the staple digital game of many youngsters, inspires a young person to learn coding, surely that is a desirable outcome?

“If the GarageBand app provides a creative platform for an aspiring young musician, isn’t this to be applauded? We are on the nursery slopes of digital learning. The potential for transformation of the conventional educational paradigm is extraordinary. Yet none of this registers in the world of the secretary of state for education. It strikes me that Gove’s well-meaning attempt to promote excellence for all young people is being enacted in a parallel universe.”

Angry Birds had not featured on her curriculum, Kelleher said, though pupils were queuing up to learn computer coding in other ways. But music teaching included the use of GarageBand to enable non-musicians to arrange music. The school also encourages pupils to submit some homework as films.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The simple fact is our education system is not keeping up with the rest of the world. Our reforms will reverse this situation and give our young people the best chance of success.”

We applaud Tricia Kellaher for her well-aimed criticisms of education policy, and we very much hope that the party political opponents of the current government are taking note.

Regardless of whether this is the case we hope that the teaching profession as a whole is taking note and will find the courage to similarly speak out in support of Tricia Kellaher and indeed Tony Little. It seems the heads of our finest independent schools are prepared to be the vanguard of a movement that seeks to fight for the best interests of all of our children.

Whilst it’s true that it’s easier to speak out in this way if you’re completely bullet proof as far as ‘standards’ and Ofsted are concerned, there are many more heads who are in a similar position and who are not noticeably vociferous in speaking up for the entitlements of children and young people. Like it or not our system of education has become a political football and it’s up to the profession as a whole to say ‘we’re not going to take it anymore’.
It’s up to the profession as a whole to get on with doing the right things that will provide a high quality, holistic, creative and enjoyable education for all of our children, whatever their talents, abilities and needs.

That reply by the ‘Department for Education spokesperson’ to Tricia Kelleher and her criticisms truly takes the biscuit for being witless and pointless and completely failing to address any of the issues.


For those who have a paper copy [or tablet copy] of Tuesday’s Guardian you’ll find Lucy Ward’s article tucked away on page 10.

Related articles

The Great Education Wars (3diassociates.wordpress.com)
Still Learning Finnish Lessons (3diassociates.wordpress.com)
Finland’s education ambassador spreads the word (guardian.co.uk)
Compass Education Inquiry Launch: Part One (3diassociates.wordpress.com)
Finnish school system outshines U.S. education (lisaleaks.com)
The Row About Pupil Progress (3diassociates.wordpress.com)


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 https://3diassociates.wordpress.com/ or see our website at www.3diassociates.com.
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