Posted by: mrlock | July 9, 2013

Gove – not all wrong

Gove not all wrong

This was supposed to be a Festival of Education post, but that festival was a few weeks ago and now we’ve had a new national curriculum published, it all seems out of date.

However, I thought I’d use my notes from the festival as a base, or as a spur, to try and articulate what I think of Gove. It’s punctuated by references to the interview he did at the Festival of Education because that is how this post started.

The Govian Paradox

In many ways interviewer David Aaronovitch, who I can’t really stand since he took such a troll-like anti-left position over the Iraq war, outlined the staffroom view of Gove in his opening question. He referred to the ‘Govian paradox’ – that mild mannered people talk about how they hate him with a passion. Meanwhile he’s something of a darling in the Tory party.

I would go further than this. There are some Labour Party members who work in schools who wish Stephen Twigg had a fraction of Gove’s clarity of thought, intellect and all-round knowledge about the education system. And he could do with some of his wit and persona as well.

Considering he is a Thatcherite, it is surprising I don’t get angry with Gove any more. I understand how precarious this makes my position when I consider my working life and my colleagues who hate him more than they hate sugar paper and markers at INSET sessions or responsibilities on Sports Day. I also understand how strange this seems to people who know my politics – I haven’t voted for a main party in a General Election since 1997 (to kick the Tories out) when I partied until well past Portillo. Further than that, at university I was a Trotskyist – many of my friends still are.

And yet Gove doesn’t really make me angry.

I’m sure many people see this as my inexorable drift to the right. I’m sure there’s something in that.

But I also don’t get angry because I agree with Gove. Sorry about that. I found it hard to come to terms with, but I agree with him.

Before I explain what I mean, let me be clear: I don’t agree with Gove on Free Schools (I really don’t know what he’s doing there, apart from being stubborn, and I write as someone who “came a close second” when I applied to be the Head of a Free School – they’re largely not working, are they?), I fundamentally resent Performance Related Pay, and I do think he is too stubborn. I cannot stand his inclination to make policy announcements via a leak to the newspapers first to test the reaction of the public and profession. I disagree with him on his view of the unions and his search for their blood.

But I agree with Gove on his fundamentals on the curriculum. I (generally) agree with him on accountability, and I agree with him on letting schools decide what they do within that framework. I also think those things are the things that make the biggest difference to children – what happens in the classroom.

I believe Michael Gove when he talks about his mission (in terms of education) being personal, and I believe him when he says he believes that poor students can do better. I agree with him that too many professionals (myself included) have dumbed down the curriculum behind the facade of “skills” because we have not believed that the poorest students can achieve in the same way as the privileged.

I cannot believe the left have allowed Gove free rein on a knowledge rich academic curriculum. It’s like they really have given up Gramsci to the right. In fact, Gove claimed Gramsci as his own recently.

I believe that my students can learn to write properly as standard, can know their times tables early, can learn facts and can hence  knit them together into a narrative that forms the basis for new knowledge. And I believe that they deserve that to be taught to them every bit as much as the privileged student.

I remember asking Year 7 students “big questions” like “why do we need algebra?” before teaching them much algebra – and then seeking to get them to think about how to answer the question by asking them what they needed to answer it. It all seems a bit mad now, and I recognise this was poor practice even by standards in the QCDA skills era, but it was led by the curriculum and the need to present big questions and challenge students to develop the “skills” to answer them.

Anyway, back to Wellington Festival of Education – Gove answered Aaronovitch’s point about the Govian paradox by making the entirely reasonable point that discussion in education can encourage strong reactions because they’ve taken a stance in a passionate debate where others have taken a strong position. When you pick one side, the other side is suspicious. I suppose that is a part of the reason that I’m a bit nervous about this piece.

‘Child centred’ education:

Gove continued to talk about child centred or progressive education, saying that over the course of the last two years, there has been an emerging debate where teachers believe that child centred education rooted in the Philosophies of Rousseau and Dewey has let students down. He mentioned the blogger that goes by the name @oldandrew and Daisy Christodoulou. Both have been somewhat influential on my changed view on education, and hence influence why I agree with much of what Gove says in this area. I have some quibbles with how Rousseau is portrayed – not because I want to defend Rousseau but because I think it’s wrong – but that’s not for here.

Pace of change:

Aaronovitch said that Gove had become ruder when arguing recently, and made comparisons with Clare Short and Diane Abbott. Gove didn’t seem upset by these comparisons, but he said “it’s not that I’m tougher or more barbative, it’s that people are annoyed that I am not going to change my view”

I’m not sure I buy that. Gove to me seems annoyed that the unions haven’t yet taken him on. I, for one, am shocked that Performance Related Pay is virtually on us with barely a whimper from any of the teaching unions. I continually see that Gove appears to be picking fights with the teaching unions, poking them – even in this performance by referencing teacher bloggers ahead of unions representing thousands of teachers. And I think Gove is stubborn.

Aaronovitch says “but you’re in a hurry”.

Gove replied that a politician from New Zealand learnt a lesson: “it’s always later than you think”. He continued that we have one of the most unequal educational systems in the world. If you are rich and well connected, you can buy education – if you are poor, you’re stuck there.

Gove referenced Sir Michael Wilshaw holding up Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool as positive examples of transformation despite them being areas with high levels of deprivation – and other places failing to copy this.

Aaronovitch asked “aren’t these the people most cross with you?”

Gove replied abruptly “No. The problem is that historically Conservatives haven’t cared enough.”

I’m not sure this all followed, and I might have missed something. However, this was one of several points where I recognised that at times Gove can be a simply incredible politician. He is either disarming by being direct. In contrast to many a politician, he just answers the question, often in one word. If he doesn’t do that, he can be disarmingly charming, managing to appear to agree with the person asking the question, then articulating his own (sometimes diametrically opposed) point without saying “but” or “however” and hence building consensus. It’s a marvellous skill, and one he has employed with regularity all three times that I’ve seen him speak.

Back to what he said – Gove referred to London and the significant improvements in London. He claimed success for Academies, for Teach First, for London Challenge and the models of serving Headteachers collaborating as the reasons for its astonishing improvements.

By contrast, Gove listed Derby and Portsmouth as examples of places where there have been real entrenched problems. His snapshot of who is being let down – including in heavily multicultural areas – (eg Tower Hamlets and Hackney). Gove said the real problem is white working class boys and girls. He used a biblical quote here to say that there has been an assumption for some time that these children will always be “hewers of wood and drawers of water”.

Again, no real argument from me.

Island of Privilege/ Independent Schools:

During the first session of the Festival of Education, Sir Michael Wilshaw had said of Independent School students’ parents he would ask them:

“Do you want your children to grow up on an island of privilege?”

I remember thinking “they probably do” in contrast to Wilshaw’s view.

Aaronovitch put this very point to Gove.

Gove replied that more independent schools should be involved in challenging underprivilege. Gove said that he thinks that the responsibility that comes with privilege is that they have a role to help the state education system. There are some resources – staff, governance, or alumni or connections.

Aaronovitch explored how he was going to make this happen:

“Are you suggesting they should do so because a future government might make them?”

Gove said “I’d prefer not to do that”.

He continued to say they shouldn’t fear, and this is a pure moral example.

Aaronovitch makes a good analogous point about tax avoiders.

I was surprised that Gove tried to reply to this, but he did. He said that schools are run by people who don’t think about profit maximisation like other places do. He added that people who run those schools are not calculating and are sometimes the opposite.

I am not convinced, but I know that independent schools may be under pressure regarding their charitable status. We’ve had three offers from independent schools of support, including resources, and I fully intend to grab these offers for my students.

GCSEs and the National Curriculum

Aaronovitch asked:

“It occurred to me after looking at the latest iteration (of GCSEs)- why are we doing this again?” Aaronovitch continued to laughter referencing his children’s studies “I’ve now finished my third lot of GCSEs – why don’t we just abolish the bastards? Do internal examinations and go on to the A-Level and vocational qualifications at 18?”

Gove avoided the question at first and talked of the AS level, but then said on the specific question of GCSEs that there being lots of institutions that go up to 16. There is a natural break point. Says some think a break point is 13/14. Gove says 16 is better. He seems to claim this is just because of the accident of when many schools currently have students leave.

I’m not convinced.

Then Gove adds “The longer you have a core academic curriculum and the more options you give students”

I’m convinced and I do believe that.

The whole thing continued and goes into some specifics on the national curriculum. This is now out of date and was really tedious because Gove was hinting about announcements that would be made on the curriculum that evening. The most interesting part was learning that the latest draft of the History National Curriculum had to be signed off by the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister.

Aaronovitch also got mixed up on the History curriculum in my view, but I can’t remember the specifics of what he was saying.

There were then some questions asked by students, and an Apprentice person promoted her business in a sneaky but ineffective way.

I don’t like agreeing with a Tory. The left tend to either be indifferent to the arguments on a knowledge rich challenging curriculum, or they just oppose because they are playing their role. I’m ashamed they’ve allowed Gove free access to this fertile land. I think it’s convenient for the left to pretend that an academic curriculum is an elitist one, because it means that they don’t have to consider what would be a difficult argument.

But a system with a dumbed down curriculum is the real elitist one, and the elite are not being taught that curriculum in such a system.



  1. “I cannot believe the left have allowed Gove free reign on a knowledge rich academic curriculum. ”

    Free rein, I suspect. One piece of knowledge is, of course, the derivation of phrases which come from horsemanship…


    • Thanks. I have amended my spelling error (so your comment might not make sense without this reply).


  2. I loved your post. Just to say that in nearly 20 years teaching in independent schools I have never come across one that aims for profit as an end in itself. There are no share holders looking to pocket a surplus. I know there are a few chains of ‘for profit’ independent schools but most aren’t and I would never work in one of those. If I was to summarise main goal of an independent school it would be for the school to flourish. Financial stability is important to ensure a school does not go under so there is a concern to retain charitable status but making profit is certainly not the purpose of independent schools.


  3. […] Gove – not all wrong […]


  4. It isn’t just about the immediate profit motive though, is it? (Although there are certainly corporations that would love to get their hands on free schools for precisely that reason.) More important is the role educational institutions play in reproducing the existing social relations of domination and subordination, i.e. the existing class structure. For all Gove’s rhetoric about supporting underprivileged children, his so-called reforms are all about bolstering and strengthening existing social relations, not challenging and undermining them.


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