The author is a teacher. Stephen Edwards is pseudonym. He is not Joe Baron, another teacher who writes pseudonymously for ConservativeHome.
Consistent with the culture war narrative that now engulfs the education debate, it has become common to be regaled with tales of how Gove is single-handedly bringing the Blob, that progressive crust that stands in the way of educational excellence, to heel. Which, in fairness, is in some senses true. But there’s rather less critical reflection on the effectiveness of Gove’s strategy for doing so. And that is because, as one might expect from a politically charged Punch ‘n’ Judy show, there is little space for critical reflection: if “they” (teachers/unions/anyone who criticises Gove – they’re all the same really) are the bad guys, then whatever annoys them must by definition be right, right?
Well, no. Whilst it might not fit neatly into the caricatured landscape with which we are presented, the space exists to criticise both Gove and the educational dogma that has been corrosive of standards in schools. In fact, there is an Achilles heel to the Gove revolution: despite the slogans faithfully repeated by those involved often at only the most superficial level, Gove is actually vulnerable on the issue of standards, and a good number of his reforms have served to undermine his crusade.
To begin, Gove has strengthened the role and remit of both school management and OFSTED, ostensibly to whip into shape that recalcitrant body of teachers that, we are urged to believe, are the principal obstacle to the future success of our children. So far, so understandable. But the argument depends upon a whole infrastructure of assumptions that might hold sway within the cloisters of the DfE, but which disintegrate with the merest brush with reality.
For the truth is, the Blob which Gove so despises is populated less by those at the chalkface, and more by those who jinked their way up the career ladder over the course of the last couple of decades and now hold positions of authority and influence. The real obstacles to Gove’s reforms are less classroom teachers, and more often their bosses. Which means OFSTED inspection teams and school management.
This disconnect between presumption and reality, the failure of the DfE to grasp the mechanics of the teaching world, was demonstrated forcefully in a recent speech by Liz Truss on the use of textbooks in teaching. Whilst making the reasonable point that progressive educational orthodoxy tends to be opposed to the use of textbooks, the implication (that textbooks are no longer used in schools because most teachers sign up to this ideology) did little but invite scorn from those at the chalkface. The reason? It is OFSTED that have long discouraged the use of textbooks. And since what OFSTED says can have an inordinate impact on a teacher’s career, and inform policies adopted by school management teams, then any abandonment of textbooks has been driven as more by OFSTED and school management than by trendy teachers refusing to use them on ideological grounds. (It should also be noted that no school will spend money on textbooks when the curriculum changes so often and the books quickly become obsolete).
And this fundamental naivety appears elsewhere. Both Gove and Sir Michael Wilshaw have said, regularly, that they are not opposed to traditional methods of teaching, and indeed have made changes to inspection frameworks in order to accommodate this. But it would take a brave teacher to test this principle in an OFSTED observation. The (not so) “rogue” inspectors are legion. If you doubt it, spend five minutes reading some recent OFSTED reports and see for yourself – the buzzwords of progressive, “child-centred” teaching are all there; or rather, teachers and schools are being marked down for their contravention. Indeed, Gove himself has acknowledged it.
All of which creates a dilemma for anyone entering the profession having bought into the vision of offering a rigorous academic education to the nation’s children. For those whose careers were forged during precisely that period seen by Gove as an aberration have power to judge their lessons, manage their development, determine their promotions and now, with the advent of performance-related pay, set their wages. Katharine Birbalsingh, for a long time the poster girl for the Tory educational revolution, sets out the multiple problems with PRP here – one must add that PRP gives remarkable power for the progressive outlook to be imposed on the unwilling. It is perfectly natural that inspectors will judge and Heads will appoint/manage in their own likeness – this is a cycle that Gove, for the success of his reforms, needed to break, but which he has instead further entrenched.
And so to the academies programme, a Labour idea pursued with undimmed vigour by Michael Gove, with the argument that greater local control over things like staffing and curriculum will lead necessarily to a rise in standards. In reality, the autonomy granted such schools means they break free from safeguards designed to protect minimum basic standards – a danger attested to by the footsoldiers of the Gove revolution.
It is this principle that underpinned the debate over whether unqualified teachers should be allowed to teach in schools. For some, this was an example of unions asserting a closed shop mentality, stopping a school from employing the local professor of astrophysics to come and teach some Year 9s for a couple of lessons a week. Yet, in an age of restricted budgets and growing class sizes, the much more likely (and common) scenario is a Head employing an ill-qualified-but-personable babysitter to sit in a room with a non-core subject for a couple of lessons a week, not to teach but to supervise, for a fraction of the cost of an actual teacher.
Which brings us to the constant throughout all this: the teacher. If there is a creeping incentive to take poorer teachers for a fraction of the cost, then there is equally a supply issue too. After all, teaching is a difficult job and not all that many stick it out. Quite apart from the squandered investment this represents each year (something Gove has previously acknowledged), it also means that the pool of CVs for any particular job is limited. Graeme Archer recently questioned why we might have “semi-literate” teachers in the classroom. The sad truth is that poor teacher recruitment rates and even poorer retention rates impact on workforce standards.
Meaning that, to raise standards, we must ask why so few stick with teaching. Gove might think he has made teaching more attractive – mostly because of the economic downturn nudging recruitment and a system of pre-training bribes that are nonetheless nullified by the low retention rates – but if he really wishes to improve teaching standards then he needs to address those things which put people off joining and what drives so many out. As such, Gove must reject the temptation to play to an ill-informed gallery and instead begin to address excess workload, working conditions and poor behaviour, these being the three factors most cited by that large band of teachers who leave the profession. And for two of those factors, at least, the case can easily made for Gove having made them worse.
For these reasons, the education revolution is in the midst of an act of self-destruction. Reforms pursued in the name of raising standards are often having, ironically, the opposite effect. Unless he tweaks his policies, history might judge Gove not as the Education Secretary who improved school standards, but as another Education Secretary who unwittingly helped diminish them.