The Rings of the Gove

Even amongst the reactionary gargoyles in Lord Snooty’s cabinet, Michael Gove is truly a piece of work.     Ever since he wrote his banal neocon screed Celsius 7/7, Gove has presented himself – and unfortunately been accepted in certain circles – as some kind of deep thinker.

The New Statesman loves him for his charm and intellectual ability, which is surprising and somewhat alarming to me at least, since Gove really comes over as an unctuous, shallow reactionary without the shred of an original idea.

This is the man who told Mail readers back in March of his one-man crusade against   the academic Marxist hordes and ‘enemies of promise’ who have kept the nation’s disadvantaged youth in ideological shackles for decades.

In it Gove declared that

Survey after survey has revealed disturbing historical ignorance, with one teenager in five believing Winston Churchill was a fictional character while 58 per cent think Sherlock Holmes was real.

According to Gove, this ignorance was due in part to the kind of academics who had signed a petition criticizing his over-proscriptive national curriculum, since

You would expect such people to value learning, revere knowledge and dedicate themselves to fighting ignorance.   Sadly, they seem more interested in valuing Marxism, revering jargon and fighting excellence.

Goodness, what absolute blackguards, you can hear Mail readers thinking.   What’s the country coming to?

This drivel was accompanied by a photograph of Marx himself, the greatest enemy of promise in human history, a man who – unlike Gove and the Mail –   did not value knowledge, facts or empirical thinking and dedicated his life to making people more ignorant.

But now, thanks to the intrepid efforts of   retired teacher Janet Downs, it turns out that our great educational crusader wasn’t so rigorous after all, and that his ruminations on the ignorance of British children were based on a survey carried out by, ahem, UK Gold on the impact of British fiction, and another by Premier Inn.

In other words,   the savior of British education is either lazy, shallow or dishonest, or a perhaps a combination of all three,   and has about as much academic rigor as Kerry Katona.   Or Ian Duncan Smith, who was reprimanded by the UK Statistics Authority for quoting made-up figures suggesting that his benefits cap was getting more people back to work,   that were ‘unsupported by the official statistics published by the department’.

But then, why shouldn’t a reactionary zealot fake statistics or look to UK Gold or Premier Inn to back up his arguments?   Gove, like Duncan-Smith,   knows what he believes, and what he believes, he knows, and he also knows where to find the information to support what he knows.

After all, we are dealing with a man who wants the nation’s children ‘ to acquire the stock of knowledge required to take their place in a modern democracy’.     Who could argue with that?     And we should be grateful that the Education Secretary has given us all such a sterling lesson in how to do it.

















Michael Gove: Failure is an Opportunity

Downstairs on the living room table, the envelope containing my daughter’s GCSE results sits unopened, awaiting her return from Edinburgh later today.   We have resisted the temptation to fling ourselves upon it – or steam it open and take a surreptitious preview – because an agreement is an agreement.

As the moment draws near however, I feel for those children and their parents who have seen their aspirations crushed by the arbitrary redrawing of the GCSE grade boundaries that has transformed C grades into Ds and resulted in the first fall in overall pass rates in the exam’s history.

Whatever my daughter’s results, they will not be affected by the changed criteria in English, for the simple reason that she took her English GCSE in January before the changes were introduced.

The kids who took their exam in June had no way of knowing that the goalposts had been moved in order to make it harder to achieve a C grade, and no wonder they and their teachers are angry – and not only with the exams regulator OFQUAL.

A number of teachers and headteachers have pointed the finger of blame at the ghastly Michael Gove, and attributed the first fall ever in GCSE/A Level results to political pressure from the government.

John Townley, the head of two academies in Leeds and one of Gove’s favourite headteachers has condemned the boundary changes as ‘butchery’ and said that he and other heads are ‘ incredibly angry on behalf of the children.’

Unusually, Townley has promised a united response from academies and other schools that may involve mounting a legal challenge to the results.     Meanwhile one of Gove’s senior advisors has declared that ‘It’s difficult to avoid the assumption that there’s an orchestrated campaign going on somewhere [to reduce pass rates].’

Both Gove and OFQUAL naturally deny these accusations, and insist that the changed criteria are a natural and legitimate attempt to prevent ‘grade inflation’ and ensure that pass rates are in line with previous years.     Such denials can certainly be taken with a pinch of salt.

It may be that the changes were intended by the exam regulators to avoid the usual criticisms that rising pass rates signify not rising achievement, but an overall process of ‘dumbing down’.

But the introduction of the changes so late in the day and without warning – coupled with the fact that some pupils took the English GCSE in the same year under very different criteria – is so blatantly unfair and obviously geared towards a certain outcome – that it is impossible to avoid the suspicion of direct or indirect political interference from a government that plainly loathes the comprehensive education system and is always looking for an opportunity to dismantle it.

Such interference is difficult if not impossible to prove.     But there is no doubt that a fall in grades is likely to be privately welcomed by the toad-of-toad-hall-like figure who occupies the position of education secretary, for whom any evidence of failure – whether genuine or artificially engineered – invariably adds to the pressure to transform schools into academies.

Already the changes in Ofsted’s assessment system have   resulted in a rise in the number of schools categorized as ‘inadequate’ or placed in special measures. This year’s reconfigured results are likely to be used as further grist to the mill for Gove and Ofsted’s Chief Inspector and hitman Michael Wilshaw.

Because in this country, if schools score well in their exam results, it’s because exams are too easy; if they score badly then their results are proof of failure.   Either way the government – and not only this one – will find evidence that schools are not doing well enough, the better to open them up to ‘market forces’.

Even the Olympic Games were dragged in to serve the government’s anti-comprehensive education system agenda, as the preponderance of medal winners from independent schools was presented as evidence of an ‘all-must-have-prizes’ culture in the comprehensive system that supposedly discourages competition – a fantasy that ignores, among other things, the huge discrepancy in sports facilities between the two systems.

Gove will undoubtedly seek to use this latest debacle for similar purposes.   But the crude and clumsy manner in which the boundary changes have been introduced without regard for the thousands of children who have had their life chances pointlessly blighted –   means that he may not succeed.

On the contrary,   the general outcry has now cast a harsh spotlight on the would-be gravedigger of   comprehensive education, and it may well be that it reveals more than he or the public are able to bear.

Hey politician, leave those teachers alone

For the last eleven years I”ve been going to the National Union of Teachers Easter Conference, which my partner attends as a union delegate, so you could say that I’m a little biased when it comes to my assessment of these events.

I only attend the conference as a sporadic observer, but whenever I do I’m invariably impressed by the passion, insight and dedication of so many of the speakers, and by the intelligence, thoughtfulness and breadth of opinion that informs their debates.

Every year I”m always struck by the discrepancy between what I observe at these conferences and the way they are portrayed in the British press.   This year”s conference in Torquay has been no exception.   Writing in the Sun – that bastion of cultural and educational achievement – Michael Gove”s friend and free school advocate Toby Young has engaged in the usual lazy smears about NUT “nutters” and bearded men in Che Guevara t-shirts (there aren”t any), in an opinion piece on ‘why we must protect kids from the NUTs.

Poisonous caricature is only to be expected from a man who has clearly made his own ideological choices, but it is hardly unique to him.  And the ritualistic media response  to the teaching unions’ Easter conference season is only one expression of a wider contempt and hostility towards teachers in general that increasingly permeates British society.

No other profession is so relentlessly pilloried by the political establishment and the media.   For decades, Labour or Conservative politicians have routinely depicted  teachers as backward-looking ‘apologists for failure’, who don”t really care about the children they teach and whose overriding concern is to hide their incompetence from the outside world.

Soldiers may be “our finest men and women”, and the old Florence Nightingale mystique still produces a soft spot for nurses.   But teachers it seems, always know less than the politicians who tell them what to do.   With a few exceptions, the UK press has followed suit.

Whenever teachers complain of stress, demoralisation, deprofessionalisation, excessive workload, or question the endless and often ill-thought out initiatives imposed upon them by politicians, the British press tends to follow the official lead and present them as extremists, whiners,  stick-in-the-mud reactionaries, or a lazy privileged caste clinging onto their long holidays.

It’s a measure of the dominant Philistinism of British society that a once-respected profession entrusted with the crucial task of educating the nation”s youth should be now be held in such low esteem, and that the opinions and expertise of teachers should so often be regarded as somehow irrelevant or even as an impediment to reform and improvement, by politicians and journalists who have not been anywhere near a classroom for years.

But teacher-bashing is also politically convenient.   More than any other profession, teachers make useful scapegoats for the manifold failings of British society.   For politicians, a populist discourse about   “failed” teachers and “failed” schools avoids a more problematic debate about social inequality, class and investment in state education.

If there is unemployment, then it is the fault of teachers for not providing their pupils with the requisite grades to compete in a globalized economy.     The recent Riots,  Communities and Victims Report naturally listed “bad schools” as one of the causes of   the riots, and recommended that schools that fail to achieve designated literacy and numeracy targets should be fined.

This terrible proposal is par for the course.   The belief that teachers cannot be trusted with education is reflected above all by Ofsted, a destructive and malignant institution that essentially acts as a tool for the government-of-the-day to bully schools and teachers into jumping through their ever-changing hoops.

Under the leadership of Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted has changed its inspection criteria so that more schools are listed as unsatisfactory or failing an objective which overlaps seamlessly with Michael Gove”s privatisation agenda, in which schools are bullied and bribed into becoming academies.

This September, there will be more academies than comprehensives for the first time a transformative moment that threatens the future of state education and the pay and conditions of those who work within it.  Under the new dispensation,  local pay contracts are being negotiated that will undermine years of collective bargaining arrangements.

Teacher pensions are being cut and future teachers will be obliged to work till they are 68 or 70 in order to get them.  Under new government regulations, schools will no longer even be obligated to provide staffrooms.

So it isn’t surprising that the mood at conference is angry, with overwhelming support for a boycott of Ofsted inspections and industrial action on pensions.  And it isn’t just the NUT.   The NASUWT has also voted in favour of strike action, in response to what its general secretary Chris Keates called an ‘unparalleled vicious assault’ on teachers, schools and state education.

Faced with such opposition, the government and its supporters will be even keener than usual to attribute these decisions to the ideological agendas of militants, extremists and the SWP.  

But in my eleventh year as a conference observer,  what I’m seeing  in Torquay is a profession that has had enough, and which now senses that only the most dramatic action can force this most ideological of governments to change course.

Kick your local teacher now!

Apart from, say, deporting more asylum seekers or walking out on EU summits, there are few things politicians can do that are more guaranteed to warm the cold shrivelled heart of the Daily Mail than engage in a little bout of teacher-bashing.

The Mail‘s loathing of teachers is rooted in a reductionist insistence on an education rooted in the ‘3 Rs’, in its  ideological hostility towards ‘trendy’ teaching which often equates with the concept of a liberal education per se, and its loathing of the ‘militant unions’ which it invariably portrays – as most governments do –  as vested interests deliberately blocking ‘reform’ and stubbornly resisting any attempt to ‘raise standards’.

So it isn’t surprising that the toad-like monstrosity known as Michael Gove chose Dacre’s rag to give an interview in which he announced his new proposals to deal with ‘bad teachers’ – or that  a Mail editorial  praised these plans as an ‘overdue lesson in putting children first and finally restoring excellence.’

The main thrust of the government’s proposals, is that schools will be able to sack teachers within a term rather than the current period of a year.  From September onwards all teachers will be assessed every year according to a new set of professional standards.

All this has been presented by the government as  a ‘simpler and faster system to deal with teachers who are struggling’ – which seems to assume that if a teacher is ‘struggling’ then he or she should automatically be got rid of.    Gove has earned a reputation of being some kind of intellectual, but it is difficult to see why, when he makes fatuous observations like this:

“You wouldn”t tolerate an underperforming surgeon in an operating theatre, or a underperforming midwife at your child”s birth.  Why is it that we tolerate underperforming teachers in the classroom? Teachers themselves know if there”s a colleague who can”t keep control or keep the interest of their class, it affects the whole school.’

Gove’s dim populism ignores the fact that there can be many reasons why a teacher ‘underperforms’ and many ways of judging ‘underperformance’ – as Ofsted’s constantly shifting criteria often demonstrates, none of which  necessarily stem from the personal qualities or degree of expertise of individual teachers.

There is no doubt that some teachers are  incompetent and ‘bad’ – and that this can be frustrating for their pupils and their pupils’ parents.  But their ‘badness’ may stem from many different factors that are not necessarily rooted in their personal qualities, from class sizes to difficult pupils.

Judging teaching ability is not the same as assessing the result of an operation or a childbirth – both of which produce very clear results one way or another.  Despite the obsessive and often self-interested emphasis of governments on exam results as a measure of achievement, education is not always instantly measurable and nor are the strengths and weaknesses of those who deliver it.   As Alice Robinson, the president of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers puts it

A lot of the time, when teachers are struggling, it’s the context. Some teachers may struggle in one school, but get excellent results in another. And a teacher who for many years has been teaching Year 2, and teaching well, might due to the school’s requirement be asked to teach Year 6 and struggle. And 12 weeks is a very short space of time to identify the problem, put in place help, support and guidance, and then see an outcome.

And contrary to Gove’s assertions, politicians do not make blanket statements about rooting out ‘bad doctors’, ‘bad soldiers’ or ‘bad policemen’, not to mention ‘bad politicians’.   For more than a decade politicians without the competence, integrity or gumption to stand up to the banks and financial institutions that are currently enforcing ‘austerity’ down the throats of the population, have relentlessly undermined and denigrated the teaching profession – or at least teachers who work in the state education system.

This isn’t just a Tory trait.  Labour politicians also like to present themselves as courageous iconoclasts challenging an intrinsically corrupt and reactionary profession that is supposedly blocking the pursuit of educational ‘excellence’.  More than any other profession, teachers have become scapegoats for the various pathologies produced by a dysfunctional and unequal society.

Ever since the vindictive Tory apparatchnik Chris Woodhead claimed that there were 15,000 ‘ bad teachers’ in the UK, politicians and sections of the media have subjected teachers to a level of inquisitorial scrutiny that is unimaginable in any other profession, regardless of the fact that Woodhead’s figures have been rebutted.

Now Gove has told the Mail that he would also like parents to enter the classroom ‘ in sensible numbers’ to assess whether teachers are doing their job properly, since

If a teacher knows they”re struggling, they will welcome someone coming in and saying to them afterwards how they can do it better. If a parent says, I would like to come along and watch when my children are being taught, then I think teachers should not be afraid and encourage that level of commitment.

Gove’s plans to put parents as well as soldiers into classrooms assumes, as much of anti-teacher rhetoric of politicians generally does, that teaching is something that anyone can do and that anyone can judge.   So perhaps surgeons should also allow members of the public to observe and rate their performance as well – in sensible numbers of course.

All it is likely to achieve is to undermine and demoralise teachers still further – especially if their ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ becomes dependent on their ability to meet the constantly shifting criteria of Ofsted and politicians.   When will a politician appear with the courage to say that teaching in an underfunded state education system is a difficult and challenging job, and those who do it deserve support, respect and recognition?

Don’t hold your breath.