27 May 2010

Academies, academies, academies: Michael Gove's 3 Rs?

Education is, of course, something on which everyone is far more expert than the professionals who dedicate their lives to it.

And they don't get much more expert than former journalist Michael Gove, the new Secretary of State for Education.

Parents are keen to run schools?
Somewhere or other (Sweden, perhaps) he came up with the bizarre idea that parents not only can't wait to run their local schools, but would also make a far better job of it than those who are doing it at the moment.

Somehow or other, he managed to sell the idea first to the Conservative party and now to the new coalition government - and has apparently already started writing to primary schools to tell them the good news.

But there are two rather serious flaws in his argument:
  1. Most parents only take a passionate interest in the running of schools for the very few years during which their own children are at school - as almost any chairman of school governors (or parent over a certain age) could have told him had he bothered to ask.
  2. Only a tiny minority of parents are willing or able to spend the huge amounts of time involved in running a school - as almost any chairman of school governors (or parent any age) could have told him had he bothered to ask.
But, as you'll see from this video clip (originally posted on webcameronuk last August), Gove's attitude towards evidence is a bit lacking in the kind of rigour that he claims is lacking in our exam system, especially when it comes to examining 'rigorous' subjects like mathematics and science. And, with an Oxford B.A. in English, Mr Gove knows a thing or two about which subjects are 'rigorous' and which ones are not.

As a former president of the Oxford Union and debating adjudicator, he also knows enough about rhetoric to know that you don't need much in the way of evidence to make an argument sound plausible. All you have to do is pick three examples that support your case, wrap them up as three questions, each of which juxtaposes two contrasting categories, and the conclusion will be obvious for all to see:

Now for some research to prove I'm right
Having 'established' that maths and science exams obviously aren't rigorous enough, Mr Gove goes on to tell us about a rather ambitious project to prove that his assertion holds true on a much wider front.

He doesn't mention what objective (or rigorous?) measurement procedures will be used to assess the quality of exams over the past hundred years - yes, 100 years. But why bother with trivial details like that when you already know in advance that the answers to your two main research questions will be "No"?

Gove's 3 Rs?
For me, the thought of anyone with such a cavalier attitude towards evidence being being allowed to meddle with something as important as education is, to say the least, extremely worrying.

It's reminded me of some lines I wrote for the first speech I ever worked on with Paddy Ashdown - for the launch of the SDP-Liberal Alliance general election campaign in 1987, when he took the platform as their education spokesman.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, the most depressing thing is that the same words apply so aptly to Mr Gove:

"When it comes to education, the Tories have come up with their own 3 R's: rigid, ruthless and reactionary. [APPLAUSE]

"Putting a Conservative minister in charge of education is like putting Herod the King in charge of the Save the Children Fund." [APPLAUSE]

Almost as depressing is the failure of the LibDem coalition negotiators to veto the elevation of Mr Gove to such a crucial job, not to mention the inclusion of his 'fast-track' Academies Bill in the Queen's speech.

An interesting discussion of the schools issue is also developing HERE.


Anonymous said...

if the parents don't want the schools they they will not open. & what about the benefits for teachers? excellent teachers could be paid real salaries and go about their profession with far less bureaucracy in their way. it represents a shift of power from state to society.

Max Atkinson said...

Anonymous - I'm grateful to you for taking the trouble to comment.

Your first point is obviously true. But do you really believe in all the rest? If so, you're massively outnumbered by all the tweets I've had on the subject, not to mention everyone I've discussed it with out here in the real world.

Might there not just be a case for letting the professionals get on with educating children for a while, without yet more disruptive meddling from amateurs like Balls and Gove?

And where's all the extra money for these 'real salaries' (and presumably for new buildings, equipment, etc.) going to come from without draining resources away from the many existing schools who are doing a fine job?

I'm also puzzled about your claim about a 'shift of power from state to society'. I may have got this wrong, but are you suggesting that self-appointed groups are to be preferred to democratically elected local government when it comes to running education? Or, if the real aim is to take responsibility and accountability away from local authorities, shouldn't you, Gove, et al. come clean about it?

One problem is that, to those of us who've been involved in education all our lives, the whole thing sounds like an ideologically motivated fantasy dreamt up by people who went to and/or wish they'd gone to public schools.

Another is that, given Gove's willingness to use a few carefully selected examples to 'prove' his point and then to speak so 'authoritatively' both on that and his guaranteed-to-come-up-with-the-results-he wants 'research' project, I can't take him any more seriously than I did when reading his rants when he used to work for 'The TImes'.

Dave said...


The real world? Your blurb doesn't mention your years of experience as a classroom teacher!

Could it be that you are playing the same game of rhetoric, and careful selection of "facts" such as little video clips that you accuse Gove of?

I'm married to a teacher and as someone who has been at the sharp end, recruiting 16-18 year olds as Engineering apprentices I am glad to see that at last something is being done about our failing education system. So does my "real world" cancel out yours?

Max Atkinson said...

Dave: one thing we have in common is that my late wife was also a classroom teacher - so, until the day she died, I witnessed at close quarters the frustrations of school teachers at the endless changes brought about by the whims of each next government from the early 1970s until the early 1990s.

As a university teacher during the same period, I also witnessed the damage inflicted on higher education and research during the Thatcher years, when the number of British academics who joined the brain drain to North America exceeded the number of Jewish academics who fled to the USA from Germany during the 1930s.

So I do get more than a little irritated when people like Gove, with little or no experience in education, are given a free hand to inflict their latest fantasies on us.

Nor am I alone in my worries, for more on which I suggest you have a look at the piece by Simon Jenkins (accessible from the link now at the bottom of the original post) on this). By way of trailer to that, at least two quotes from him stand out:

'After decades of research, still no one knows if a smaller class, a new building, a simpler curriculum, a better-paid teacher or a bigger budget makes any difference.'

'These schools (academies) cost a fortune. The average was £30m per academy, with private promoters rarely giving more than £2m. The equivalent funding to the local school was £10m. A steady trickle of reports indicated that there was no evident "academy effect". An Edinburgh academic calculated that the academies were costing £5m for each "improved pupil", staggeringly bad value for money.'

As for your suggestion that I might be 'playing the same game of rhetoric' as Gove with my video clips, you may have a point. But, unlike his rhetoric, mine isn't serving as 'evidence' to justify potentially disruptive, divisive and expensive legislation. Nor is there much chance of anything I ever say on the matter harming children or their teachers.

Anonymous said...

Michael Gove has cannibalised the questions that he is quoting as evidence for lack of 'rigour'. The CD/wooly hat comparison is almost certainly part of a 'circle the items that reflect light' multiple choice question, of which the two would have been part of a set of other items. These questions invariably occur at the start of a test paper and are usually followed by much more in depth questions. He has misrepresented and effectively lied about the nature of the KS2 NCT test. Now I, for one, am not at all in support of these tests, but I am also NOT in support of them being used wrongly to bolster up a flawed argument that we are not teaching subjects as rigorously as is required.