Michael Gove’s keynote speech to the Conservative Party conference was an extraordinary mixture of old rhetoric, unsupported assertions and an attack on the so-called bureaucrats and ideologues who he claims have destroyed maintained education. He started off by paying a tribute to the teaching profession which was kind of appropriate on World Teacher Day and said that teaching was the most wonderful job in the world but, by the end, he was talking about the entrenched enemies who have betrayed a generation of children. There appears to be some overlap between these two groups.
At times, he came over like Tony Blair arguing that schools had to do better and that falling down the international league tables was unacceptable. His solution is to make mathematics and science examinations harder which could be a confusion of horses and carts. At other times, he was Margaret Thatcher and anti-intellectual to the core, attacking the experts who demolished the basic building blocks of English by saying that children should not be independently assessed for spelling, punctuation and grammar and calling for the return of Pope, Dryden and Dickens as if that would help accelerate the disadvantaged free school meals cohort to universities.
He also had a Ken Baker moment enthusing about how children no longer appreciate our island history and announcing that he has asked the historian Simon Schama to advise him on how history can be put back into the curriculum. He said this without a hint of irony only minutes after saying that teachers had to be given back control over what they teach. He was cheerful about the Academy programme and the prospect of sixteen free schools already in the planning stage. The new academies are schools identified as outstanding by OFSTED largely because they have excellent examination results so this neatly contradicted his other pledge, also made a couple of minutes earlier, to devote more funding to closing the educational inequality gap. He got round this by saying that these new schools will be encouraged to take over less successful schools in poor neighbourhoods which seems a backhanded way to approach the problem. It also didn’t seem to have occurred to him that the people who want to start free schools are, as might be expected, highly aspirational in character and focused on education. They are not typically socially or economically disadvantaged.
Apart from reintroducing an emphasis on spelling, punctuation and grammar in GCSE English exams which was already there, he also gave teachers new powers to control behaviour in the classroom which they already have. He told headteachers that they could now be responsible and accountable for children’s behaviour on their way to and from school as well. They are bound to relish that challenge…
It is hard to know what to make of all this in policy terms. It was in 1988 that the state started meddling in education and implemented a national curriculum to balance the perceived leftist tendencies of the teaching profession. Gove was keen to attack this curriculum which was introduced, of course, by a Conservative government but is totally confused about what to replace it with. At one moment, he wants teachers to have the freedom and flexibility to work within a very simple statement of curriculum aims but, minutes later, he is listing classic books and historical events which he expects to be covered. Dismantling the quango which should have supervised the introduction of the new curriculum probably hasn’t helped either and he is incapable of making the obvious link between student disaffection and the curriculum offer.
He didn’t mention the Pupil Premium, the unspecified injection of cash which is going to address the inequality in failing schools although he blathered about their weaknesses and he has just abolished the school self-assessment and evaluation form, the SEF, which is the basis of the school inspection process. In these and other areas, the department is currently lost at sea, chasing media coverage and distributing accountability in one area while centralising in others. Maybe it is not that surprising that he is giving teachers more freedoms this week while eyeing the introduction of compulsory redundancy procedures before the end of the month.