Exploring Michael Gove’s Daily Mail rant

My initial reaction to Michael Gove’s latest Daily Mail outburst was similar to that of Melissa Benn:

Unfortunately, I’ve taken longer than I wanted to get around to writing a response to it – I felt I should but have been otherwise occupied with the small matter that is my thesis. Anyway, here it is, and I’m sorry if my response is more ‘playful’ than it should be, but it’s somewhat necessary as a way to get rid of the frustration!

Our joyous Education Secretary has concocted a conspiracy theory that probably had many teachers, academics, researchers and probably lots of ‘ordinary people’ staring at their screen, mouths agape at the sheer audacity of his claims. In summary, he claims that the university academics who wrote to the Independent criticising his reforms to the National Curriculum are actively trying to prevent poorest children getting a good education, and are Enemies of Promise, who are part of a homogenous Blob of researchers who sit around praising each other’s research regardless of its application to real life. This is a great response to his argument from Laura McInerney – much better than I could manage, and I’ll avoid some of the areas it covers, but I’m going to make a few further points.


Fighting Excellence

Let’s start with Gove’s central claim – that the hundred academics who wrote to the Independent are ‘actively trying to prevent millions of our poorest children getting the education they need’. ‘Sadly,’ he adds, ‘they seem more interested in valuing Marxism, revering jargon and fighting excellence.’

OK, let’s have a quick look at this letter. The academics warn that Gove’s curriculum ‘could severely erode educational standards’ and ‘will result in a “dumbing down” of teaching and learning’. It is unclear how this represents the academics ‘fighting excellence’. Rather, I think it would indicate that they, to put it as Gove would like them to, ‘value learning’. At worst, they are honourably wrong, but regardless of whether they are or not, Gove would do his best to engage with them, rather than rant about them in the Daily Mail.

Now we get onto a much misread point of the letter – that the curriculum ‘consists of endless lists of spellings, facts and rules’ and ‘mountains of detail’. Gove suggests that this means they oppose children being able to spell, use vocabulary and do their times tables, and sarcastically asks ‘What planet are these people on?’.

But if you actually read the letter, it’s clear that they are not saying anything of the sort. In fact, they are worried about Government prescription – it is the ‘endless lists’ and ‘rote’ learning that the letter is expressing concern about – because it ‘betrays a serious distrust of teachers’. Is Gove seriously suggesting that unless the National Curriculum contains precise instructions on what children should learn, that they will emerge from school illiterate? More to the point, if it is so important to prescribe the curriculum at a central level, why are Academies exempt from the National Curriculum? The incoherence is astounding.

Marxist values

What about these Marxist values then?

Gove states:

“One of the letter’s principal signatories claims to write ‘from a classical Marxist perspective’, another studies ‘how masculinities and femininities operate as communities of practice’, a third makes their life work an ‘intergenerational ethnography of the intersection of class, place, education and school resistance’.”

I think it’s safe to assume that this is where Gove draws his assertion that the academics ‘revere jargon’ from.

It’s first interesting to note that his description is lifted straight out of a post on the independent blog ConservativeHome, but doesn’t reference it. I’m sure if a school student or academic was found to have done that, they would be in trouble for plagiarism. That’s not a point against its validity, but it’s a lead in to my next point:

These are just summaries of their bios. Has Gove taken the trouble to read any of their research? We don’t know. At no point has he actually expounded any criticisms of their work, although he did take the trouble to describe it as ‘bad academia’. His attitude appears to be to point at words such as ‘masculinities’ and ‘communities’ and call them ‘jargon’ – startlingly anti-intellectual, and in any case, not particularly true. Furthermore, why is the only indication of any engagement with their research at all a reconstitution of someone else’s blog post which is a summary of three of the hundred academics’ biographies which are themselves summaries of their research? Is it too much to expect our Secretary of State to read the research of those who criticise him? Or at least to take the trouble to read their biographies himself?!

Is he seriously suggesting that those who spend their lives researching education have nothing to contribute, and that their work can be collectively summarised as universally bad, despite not having read it? Perhaps ‘communities’ and ‘masculinities’ are not words on his list of National Curriculum spellings, and therefore unworthy of use.

Finally, to portray the critics of his reforms as ‘Marxists’ who are ‘fighting excellence’ is absurd – the letter quotes a CBI report that says ‘we need to end the culture of micro-management’ (furthermore, treat teachers as professionals and avoiding a prescriptive curriculum), and a headmaster of the independent Perse school has written in support of the academics and in opposition to Gove. May I also remind you of the headmaster of Eton’s criticisms of the EBacc? Clearly businesses and private schools are also Marxist Enemies of Promise plotting to overthrow the government.

In any case, what scandalous demands are the academics making of those who read their letter? Rebellion? Revolution? No, the outrageous lengths to which they will go to ruin education is such that they ask “parents, teachers and other stakeholders to respond to the Government consultation”.

Do they know no bounds?

Teachers as Enemies of Promise

One of Gove’s most audacious claims is that “there are still a tiny minority of teachers who see themselves as part of The Blob and have enlisted as Enemies Of Promise.”

I will let the absurdity of the sentence wash over you. I’d love to know where it is you enlist as an Enemy of Promise. Do you get a membership card? Perhaps we could rank schools in league tables based on the number of staff members who are official Enemies of Promise.

Meanwhile, apparently Enemies of Promise oppose performance pay because they ‘resent the recognition of excellence’. It may also be because performance pay doesn’t work. Still doesn’t. Again doesn’t: “Providing incentives to teachers based on school’s performance on metrics involving student achievement, improvement, and the learning environment did not increase student achievement in any statistically meaningful way. If anything, student achievement declined.”

Ben Levin has a great summary of eight reasons why this is the case, and here’s another thoughtful piece from Exeter University and another from Donald Gratz. The latter two of these both describe the impact of the ‘payment by results’ system in the 1800s which was abandoned after it resulted in extensive teaching to the test and a narrowing of the curriculum. None of them preach militant or fundamental opposition, but raise genuine concerns which Gove would do well to listen to.

Update: OK, I probably jumped the gun here a bit – whilst it has widely been reported as ‘performance pay’, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Teachers’ pay won’t in any way be directly connected to exam results. Rather, headteachers will be able to exercise ‘discretion’ by using what were previously fixed points on the pay scale as reference points, based on teacher appraisals which don’t just look at exam results. So there is a human mediator between the exams and the pay cheque. BUT, I don’t think this changes the fundamental point, which is that increased pay is not an incentive for or predictor of improved performance. One of the big rationales is to make the profession attractive to graduates, but I expect that people looking to enter the teaching profession should, and tend do, make decisions not based on the pay but on their own desire to do so. After all, teaching is not a particularly well-paid job for a graduate in terms of starting salary.


Falling Standards

A fourth theme of Gove’s article is the idea of low or falling standards. “All too many children” still don’t leave school literate and numerate, he says. “Businesses report that school-leavers lack basic literacy and numeracy.”

Firstly, Warwick Mansell has written a great journal article which illustrates just how warped media reporting on levels of literacy and numeracy can be. The Evening Standard once claimed that 25% of London children were leaving primary school illiterate. Unfortunately, they were quite simply wrong. The actual figure? More like 6%. It’s easy to get caught up in exaggerated claims and realise that the problem is probably not as bad as you think. That’s not to say there isn’t one, but to emphasise the importance of rigorous use of statistics. Of course, we want 100% literacy and numeracy, but Gove would do better to make clear actual levels. Similarly, businesses are clearly not completely satisfied, but it’s improving – in 2011 42% of businesses were concerned about literacy, in 2012 it was down to 35%. Meanwhile, numeracy was 35% and fell to 30%. In fact, the CBI has found that businesses are more worried about school-leavers’ self-management skills and business/customer awareness. These findings are all in a report, the foreword of which warned the government not to lose sight of ‘creativity, teamwork and written and oral communication’ – in line with the letter’s criticisms of his reforms.

In his rant, Gove also makes an assertion about GCSE science:

“Expectations in science have been so dumbed down that children could be asked if grilled fish is healthier than battered sausages in their GCSEs.”

Channel 4’s FactCheck had a look at this in 2009, when Gove used three examples from a Science GCSE to indicate low expectations (thanks to Local Schools Network). It turns out that Gove has used a Foundation Tier paper, chosen one of the first questions from it, taken one part of it which is worth just one mark and then simplified it to make a soundbite out of it. Is that fair as a representation of the state of GCSE science? His rhetoric, you might say, is hardly scientific. And even these early questions include asking students whether X-Rays are longitudinal, seismic, electromagnetic or ultrasonic – that’s question 4 on a Foundation Tier paper, or whether bones reflect, emit, absorb or transmit them – question 2. Neither of these are quite as easy to simplify or make quite as effective a rhetorical case, which might be why Gove ignored such questions.


Finally, the reform

Having expounded the crisis, Gove lists his reforms:

1. Academy-status for schools (‘so they are free from the influence of The Blob’s allies in local government’)

For anyone who wants a great summary of the issues with Academies, read this. Gove’s particular claim in this article is that Academies will help disadvantaged pupils do better. Unfortunately, the evidence shows that they don’t. Oops.

2. Moving teacher training into our best schools

In particular, his SchoolDirect scheme. Unfortunately, it’s not going to plan (ironically because of the poor quality of applicants).

3. Reforming curriculum/exams (in particular to avoid modules).

This is such a complicated issue that a brief response is impossible, but attempting to avoid ‘teaching to the test’ by making fewer tests of greater importance does not seem to be coherent. If anything, there is even less time for a thorough assessment, which will presumably lead to greater teaching to the test. I’m not saying that the module system is perfect, but that Gove’s logic is not necessarily coherent. Questions of assessment are actually phenomenally complicated, as the GCSE English marking fiasco showed. Even Ofqual was extremely worried (pdf) about his EBCs (and yes, nominally they have been scrapped, but in doing so he only addressed one of Ofqual’s three major concerns – that of introducing a new qualification and removing provider competition).


That’s it!

And that, in summary, is my response to his article. It’s actually longer than his was, but that’s not a surprise really – there’s so much to criticise. Even then, I’ve left some parts out (just to preserve my own sanity) and not listed all of the reams of things I would like to link to. After all, his article is effectively a defence of his entire programme of reform, about which many thousands of words have been written.

I would love Gove to be more constructive in his criticism, and to engage with teachers more. Based on the above, though, it’s him who is a true Enemy of Promise.

Meanwhile, to end on a happy note, here’s an image that circulated Twitter shortly after the article went online:

Gove vs the Blob