By Andrew Gimson
Follow Andrew on Twitter
“No.” This was the instantaneous reaction of my
13-year-old son on hearing at breakfast today of Michael Gove’s proposal
to cut the length of the summer holiday from school. Many adults will have the
same instinctive reaction. We recall our summer holidays as a wonderful expanse
of time, the end not even visible when it began, during which we could dream
the idle thoughts of youth and refresh ourselves from the rigours of the school
Gove dismisses such nostalgia: "I
remember half term in October when I was at school in Aberdeen was called the
tattie holiday, the period when kids would go to the fields to pick potatoes. It
was also at a time when the majority of mums stayed home. That world no longer
exists, and we can't afford to have an education system that was, essentially,
set in the 19th Century."
Modernisation turns out to mean working longer hours even when we are
children. Gove pointed out that in East Asia “the expectations of mathematical
and scientific knowledge are more demanding than in this country”, and lamented
that “we are running in this global race in a way that ensures that we start
with a significant handicap”.
of any sense will agree with Gove that expectations of what our children can
achieve are often set far too low. Many teachers only entertain with the utmost
reluctance the idea of allowing their pupils to compete against each other.
They instead hand out fuzzily defined grades and shun making public comparisons
between different members of the same class.
children are denied a proper initiation into the tensions and pleasures of
competition. Just as if one wants to get better at tennis, it is enormously
helpful to play against a slightly stronger player, whom one has some hope
of beating by improving one’s own game, so in school work it is helpful to
compete, week by week, against children who are better than oneself. There
will, after all, be a reckoning in the end, when some children get excellent
exam results, and others do not.
With many schools so disinclined to encourage children to aim high, the
burden of doing so falls even more completely on parents. As I observed in a
piece last year for the Spectator,
it is possible to tell from a child’s level of development at the age of 22
months what his or her educational attainments are likely to be at the age of
26 years, provided you also know a bit about his or her parents.
The children who do best at school are those from
aspirational homes. The better our schools become, the better these already
high-achieving pupils will do, and the wider the gap will grow between them and
children who do badly.
Good education magnifies existing inequalities. That is
why the Left turned so decisively against good education, and in the name of a
bogus and unattainable equality, committed the crime of setting in train the abolition
of the grammar schools.
Gove is quite intelligent enough to know all this. His
energies would be better devoted to encouraging greater competition, both
within schools and between them, than to the Gradgrindish project of cutting
short the summer holiday, which is a time when those children who have been working
hard all year need time to relax, and perhaps even to read books for pure