The author is a teacher. Joe Baron is a pseudonym.
Like Thatcher’s before him, Michael Gove’s demise was greeted with gleeful cheers from the militant Left and disconsolate tears from the libertarian Right – peppered, of course, with a fair bit of enraged apoplexy. Peter Oborne, for example, columnist for The Daily Telegraph and unapologetic Govian neophyte, described him as ‘the greatest education secretary since the Second World War’, and angrily dismissed his removal as ‘an act of sabotage’ orchestrated by George Osborne’s Machiavellian desire to dispense with his rivals and succeed David Cameron as Conservative party leader in the not-too-distant future.
James Forsyth, another centre-right commentator and passionate Govian apostle, bemoaned his departure as a sop to the cosy Etonian club that dominates political and public life. Children schooled in the old Etonian art of power, he lamented (something Michael Gove wanted to extend to all, regardless of socio-economic circumstance), will now remain unchallenged by their state-school-educated contemporaries, courtesy of the former Education secretary’s dastardly removal.
On the other hand, Christine Blower celebrated the apparent efficacy of her union’s strike and menacingly, if indirectly, threatened Nicky Morgan, Michael Gove’s replacement, with a similar fate should she dare to upset her members by, among other things, attempting to improve our schools.
It may or may not surprise you to know that I do not agree with either view. Neither do I share Peter Hitchens’ typically surly and uncharitable assertion, though, that Michael Gove ‘is the most overrated Education Secretary in recent British history’. On the contrary, Michael Gove, in my view, deserves credit for some courageous and long-overdue reforms.
Through his refashioned National Curriculum, for example, the core subjects have been injected with more rigorous, knowledge-based, intellectually challenging programmes of study – a reform that not only reverses a child-centred obsession that’s scandalously led to nationwide, multigenerational ignorance and entrenched disadvantage (especially when one considers the private sector’s unwavering focus on rigour), but one that really does force teachers to adopt a culture of high expectations, rather than one that simply pays lip-service to this hitherto overused, largely meaningless, shibboleth.
After years of government- and teacher-sponsored dumbing down, moreover, he has imbued our national qualifications with real value again. Many so-called BTEC equivalents have been abolished; others toughened up to more accurately reflect their stated value. Likewise, GCSEs and A-levels have been armed with gold-sheathed rocket boosters as end of course exams replace their modularised, easier predecessors. Thanks to Michael Gove, no longer will our children be hoodwinked into taking meaningless courses, cruelly convinced of their artificially inflated value by venal politicians and their self-interested colluders in the teaching profession. For this, the former Education Secretary deserves considerable credit.
He also deserves credit for redefining what makes a good teacher, debunking long-held prejudices that outstanding teachers talk less, encourage children to work collaboratively (in other words, in groups) and reject didacticism in favour of emollient facilitation. It’s now, thankfully, all about pupil progress, without reference to teaching style.
He’s granted Head teachers greater autonomy over behaviour management, allowing them, for the first time, to permanently exclude unruly pupils without the threat of having their decisions overturned by detached, all-powerful appeals panels. In addition, teachers no longer have to give 24 hours’ notice before detaining a pupil – another potent, enabling reform that should, if used, make a profound difference. On reflection, I find these changes extremely difficult to oppose and, quite honestly, feel baffled by the profession’s general hostility to an Education Secretary with the vision and courage to push them through.
However, as welcome as they are, these reforms will only expose rather than reverse our educational decline. As a consequence, and with much regret, I do not view him as the ‘great reformer’ he’s reputed to be by the likes of Peter Oborne and James Forsyth. Increasing demands through tougher exams and a more challenging National Curriculum, for example, and for all their merits, will not lead to higher standards; instead, as pupil outcomes get worse, unable to cope with the extra challenge, they will only illustrate the system’s shortcomings, shortcomings that, unfortunately, Gove’s reforms do not adequately address.
His attempt to reintroduce teacher-led, traditional lessons has been thwarted at every turn by Ofsted’s refusal to play ball. Just last week a Civitas report exposed the organisation’s unwillingness to enforce the will of its Chief Inspector who, in this case at least, fully supports Michael Gove’s reform agenda. In reality, then, away from the headlines, child-centred learning continues unabated, leaving yet another generation to wallow in a morass of ignorance and want.
Most significantly, though, and this will come as no surprise to those of you familiar with this blog, he has not done enough to challenge the truly appalling behaviour so prevalent in our schools – behaviour that leads to such poor educational outcomes for so many of our children. OK, as already acknowledged, I concede that he’s given Heads more power over behaviour management, but, quite often, those same Heads are unwilling to use their newly acquired authority, so indoctrinated by fluffy group-think they’ve become. My Head being just one example.
During his tenure, furthermore, Michael Gove made lots of noise when it came to behaviour, but much of it was hot air, platitudinous drivel designed to get a headline. For example, the use of reasonable force to restrain uncontrollable pupils is too vague and open to question – I can certainly see the lawyers rubbing their hands together at that one. Increased powers to stop and search those suspected of skulduggery are equally nebulous and frankly, unwanted – we are not police officers. Moreover, surprisingly, some of his reforms actually work to encourage the bad behaviour he said he wanted to eradicate. Through financial penalties, for example, schools are now discouraged from permanently excluding persistently disruptive pupils. This is absurd. Schools should be encouraged to follow clear, easily understood sanctions ladders. If this means permanent exclusion as a last resort, a final sanction when all other avenues have been exhausted, so be it. They certainly shouldn’t be penalised for following their own procedures, procedures that exist to protect the education of the majority.
‘So what needs to be done?’ I hear you say. Simple. Through a refashioned Ofsted, school leaders must be forced to address the issue of behaviour in a much more meaningful way, only then will we see lasting improvements. Inspectors must indeed make it their number one priority. This will need, I suspect, especially when one considers their continued defiance of Michael Wilshaw’s leadership over teaching styles, a drastic, wholesale change of personnel – preferably to include the voices of commonsensical teachers and educational bloggers (here I am!) – accompanied by root and branch reform. They must forensically examine behaviour policies, question students and classroom teachers and, most importantly, and this is where Michael Gove again deserves some credit, arrive without prior warning. All schools, not just some, must be seen warts and all, only then will inspectors get an accurate picture.
If adopted, this approach will initially lead to an increase in permanent inclusions that should be facilitated and supported through the creation of more specialist schools specifically designed for children with behavioural and emotional needs – something that could be encouraged through Michael Gove’s Free School programme.
A similar remedy should accompany the long-overdue reversal of David Blunkett’s cruel Inclusion policy – a policy built upon the tacit, misguided assumption that children with, often severe, special educational needs should be educated in mainstream schools.This can only be seen as a missed opportunity.
Finally, for all their fanfare and the impassioned hysteria surrounding them, Academies and Free Schools are not really a game changer. They are, for all intents and purposes, a continuation of the Marx-inspired status quo: the same Leftie group-thinkers dominate the top positions and, thanks to Gove, now have more freedom to do their worst.
In short, you can create as many Academies as you like, but, in my experience, as someone who works in one, it will make little difference without recasting Ofsted and through it, addressing the issues at the heart of our educational malaise: poor behaviour and trendy, child-centred teaching methods. Who knows? Perhaps Michael Gove needed more time in a bid to become, like Thatcher before him, a truly great reformer.