Why Mr Gove is right… and yet so wrong.

Having posted this:

I felt that a more detailed clarification was in order.

So firstly, let me deal with the part in brackets: I happen to think that a lot of what Mr Gove says is… reasonable. This is not always a popular view, but actually there is much that he says that it is hard to argue with, without sounding foolish. He talks frequently of having higher expectations of students in English schools. With that, I agree. He talks also of the importance of providing opportunities for those who come from poorer, or otherwise educationally-disadvantaged backgrounds. Who could not agree with that? He also speaks of the importance of a sound understanding of grammar. That is perhaps a more contentious point in some senses, but I happen to agree.

I also happen to think that there is some merit in his calls for increased focus on knowledge acquisition. It is too easy to talk about Google, or 21st Century learning, or of ‘skills’ without giving this point of view the credit it deserves. It is not enough to say that proposals are old-fashioned unless you can also demonstrate that what we have now is unquestionably better. And I’m not sure it always is.

I have met with Mr Gove’s former ministerial colleague, Mr Gibb, who has explained clearly to me his concerns about lack of knowledge. He bemoans the lack of quick recall of things like Victorian Prime Minsters. I struggle to share his concern, and happen to think that in an information-rich world, the analytical skills of interpretation, source evaluation and analysis are vital for our young people . But I do understand that there is a risk of the emphasis on skills in some areas being at the cost of some knowledge in others.

Take the Geography curriculum. At present the KS2 curriculum requires that we teach children to “ask geographical questions”. This strikes me as a rather meaningless objective in a world where children’s curiosity should be assumed and fostered. In the draft proposals for the KS2 Geography curriculum we will be required to teach children to “name and locate counties and cities of the United Kingdom”. That strikes me as a perfectly reasonable aim for 11-year-olds – and one that is likely to be of some use to them. And it’s been lacking.

I have no objection, therefore, to a review of the National Curriculum. Indeed, I welcome it.

However, I rather suspect that Mr Gove hopes to achieve a good deal more with curriculum reform than is possible. He seems to yearn for a return to a golden heyday of Latin and Dickens which probably never existed, and certainly isn’t appropriate to 2013. And he seems to believe that the National Curriculum can achieve that. Or at least, he did.

He was wrong.

The National Curriculum is merely text on a page. It has no soul, no life, no real embodiment. That can only come from teachers. Even that other over-used lever of central government – the examination framework – is only a screwdriver in the workshop of education. And it too is blunt.

And as I’ve said already: blunt tools can do more harm than good.

The real power of the education system rests in its professionals. What happens in classrooms, what is taught to our children, what is achieved in schools, remains almost wholly outside of the control of the Secretary of State for Education. And rightly so.

Sadly, what Mr Gove has chosen to do is to try to force his views upon schools. A curriculum drafted in secret, re-drafted in his office, and presented as a fait accompli will not work. Worse, it serves only to fit the caricature of a power-crazed autocrat from the past.

And it could have been oh so different.

Mr Gove could have worked with teachers. He could have used the expertise of people like Willingham to whom he so often refers, and he could have tried to build a consensus view of the purpose and value of the sort of education he desires. And it may even have worked. Not everyone would have been persuaded, of course. And never would there be total agreement. But he might just have managed to take the profession with him on some of those common sense issues; even persuaded a critical mass on some of the more controversial matters. But most importantly, he might have created a common force for improvement, rather than creating a battlefield for opposing arguments.

Politicians come and go. Their ideas often come and go with them. If Mr Gove had really wanted to have achieved real and lasting transformation for the better in our education system, then he should have tried to work with the parts that really make the difference: the people standing at the front of those classrooms, not the folders on the shelf in the cupboard.

Just think what he might have achieved with a more collaborative approach, a good use of real evidence and maybe even some investment in those teachers who wanted to join the journey.

In 2012, Ofsted said

In schools that are not yet good,leadership focuses too much on organisational management and not enough on pedagogy and the leadership of teaching.

I’d like to suggest that Mr Gove change his attention away from attempting to force change through organisational management and turn his attention to the pedagogues. If he can persuade them on the key points then he’d find his journey much easier.

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