Does he do it simply to ingratiate himself with the dinosaurs, the flog ’em and hang ’em elements within (and beyond) his party, or does Michael Gove really believe that our first response to poor behaviour in schools should be to hand out ‘punishments’ such as picking up litter, writing “lines” and detentions after school?
This a rhetorical question. The answer is “both”.
Does anyone seriously doubt that every significant thing Mr Gove says and does as a politician is designed first and foremost to further his political career? Or that his political career depends on pleasing the real power brokers within his party? Or that the men in grey suits who run and fund the Conservative party are of the reactionary tendency?
One thing we know for sure is that Michael Gove’s cunning plans, weekly whacky wheezes and dastardly deeds never, ever begin from the actual learning and developmental needs of children and young people. Of course he tells us that this is something he’s “passionate about” (aren’t they all – passionate and concerned about children?) as he bangs on endlessly about driving up test and exam scores – since we all “know” that this is the one guaranteed way to lift the oiks out of their ghastly ghettos. But don’t we also suspect that he’s not really stupid enough to believe his own rhetoric?
This is not a post, however, about petty punishments, or indeed about how good schools actually achieve an atmosphere and an ethos that’s conducive to the physical, mental and intellectual wellbeing of the entire school community. That one can wait till tomorrow, or the day after.
This is not even an anti-Conservative post. We recognise that many people of every political persuasion support the “progressive” ideas about schools, children and learning that are now emerging at an ever-increasing rate from organisations that span the political spectrum.
This is simply a post that asks a simple question – will Mr Gove and his authoritarian, standards-fixated ilk (who exist in all of the major political parties) continue with their course heading back to the 1950s or even the 19th Century – bearing in mind that purpose-built comprehensive schools have actually been around since the middle of the 1950s, which in many ways was a ‘progressive’ era? (Is it at all well-known that our first comprehensive schools were designed and built during the MacMillan era?)
The reason we’re asking this question is that the sheer weight of respectable educational thinking is now so heavily weighted against the reactionaries and conservatives (note the small c) that’s it’s hard to see how the dam will not somehow burst in the very near future.
Of course we’re not talking here about the opinions of right wing so-called think tanks such as Policy Exchange, from where Mr Gove apparently gets many of his ideas. And we’re not talking about the likes of the Murdoch press, which will never, as far as we can see, support any idea that could be categorised as “progressive”.
But we are talking about the Daily Telegraph, for example, whose articles on education have for some time been consistently on the side of thoughtful people who want children first and foremost to enjoy school and enjoy creative learning – and not be treated as mini learning machines that have to be programmed, controlled and made to work for all of the available hours of the day.
We’re also talking about people like the headmasters of Eton College and Wellingon College, whom we’ve written about in previous posts – people who are highly respected within the profession and beyond it (leaving aside Mr Seldon’s musings on school governance and funding) and who insist that learning should be creative, holistic and relevant to the all-round developmental needs of individuals. Mr Little, indeed, has even spoken about the irrelevance of 16+ exams now that the school age has been extended to 18. Tricia Kelleher, principal of the Stephen Perse Foundation, is another who has voiced trenchant criticisms of Mr Gove and his views on learning.
We’re also talking about organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry which has explicitly stated (in its excellent report on education – First Steps) that 16+ exams should be abolished and teachers encouraged to teach more creatively and in ways that match the real learning needs of young people – in order that they develop skills for life alongside skills for work, as they simultaneously develop themselves as individuals and enjoy learning for its own sake.
We’re talking about the British Chambers of Commerce – an organisation that for many years seemed to complain regularly about the poor literacy and numeracy skills of school leavers but whose Skills and Employment Manifesto – hot off the presses last week – is effectively a radical critique of our current system of education and a demand for the reinvention of that system in order that our young people are able to develop all of their gifts and intelligences in order to be fit for work and for life. Exam-passing alone is simply and clearly not enough – not even for the most able.
We’re also talking about the report from the Pearson-funded Independent Advisory Group chaired by Professor Sir Roy Anderson whose report – Making Education Work (also published and reviewed by us last week) – “aims to contribute to the debate of whether the ‘gold standard’ of A level be broadened to include both more academic disciplines and teaching on the so called softer skills, such as communication and team work, which are so important in employment and university.”
We could go on. We could (and frequently do) cite the work of Pasi Sahlberg, now a professor of education at Harvard – whose work explains in detail how the world’s highest-performing education systems have reinvented education according to the needs of their societies whilst simultaneously providing for the learning and developmental needs of students of every level of ability and every aptitude and interest. These, of course, were the aims of Britain’s comprehensive schools when they were designed back in the early 1950s – with their playing fields, their art studios, their woodwork rooms and metalwork facilities – as well as their science labs and their maths, languages and literacy blocks.
The world is changing. There’s little emphasis these days on woodworking or metalworking, and massive emphasis on computer literacy and information technology. Even so, millions of young people earn a living with their hands as well as their intellects and their imaginations. They also depend of personal and social skills, on knowing themselves, as well as being able to empathise and communicate with others.
Of course we want more students to achieve greater success in the high-stakes exams that can give them access to higher education and to the professions – but not at the expense of practically all else, and not necessarily by the age of eighteen. Of course we want higher levels of literacy and numeracy, just as we want higher levels of emotional literacy. Of course we want to teach ‘life skills’, just as we want higher levels of creativity and imagination in our people – young and old alike.
We want a system of lifelong learning that enables and encourages people of all ages and aptitudes to co-create a learning journey that is appropriate, relevant, enjoyable and fulfilling. We want young people to be able to direct their own lifelong learning into a future of infinite possibilities and unknown challenges. Getting three A star A levels is not the sole solution for each and every one of us, let alone achievable for every one of us, or even most of us.
We need to rid ourselves of a ‘them and us’ mentality and a ‘dog eat dog’ ruthlessly competitive society. We need to stop talking about countries we compete with and start talking about the countries we cooperate with. We need education systems that meet the needs of individuals and by doing so create happier and more productive societies.
These were amongst the original aims of the Labour party, before it was hijacked by neo-liberal ‘reformers’ and over-ambitious technocrats. The challenge for Labour now is whether it has the sense and the courage to grasp a new educational agenda, and respond to the challenge that’s been thrown down by the CBI, the BCC and others throughout the world, including Sir Ken Robinson whose ‘All Our Futures‘ report on creativity and culture was studiously ignored by New Labour – the commisioners of that report – back in 1999.
Who, exactly, are Ed Miliband, Tristram Hunt and the Labour Party really listening to these days? And when will they ever learn?