The Case for the Defence

Posted on January 20, 2013

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Okay. This is likely to be the bravest/stupidest post that I have ever written. I may upset people I like. I may anger people I respect. I may lose people I would rather keep. In all reality it is intended as a piece of advice to myself to avoid falling into a beartrap that I have already prised open the jaws of once or twice. To allow oneself to step into the beartrap once is unfortunate, but to do so repeatedly is folly.

Enough of the preamble I hear you say. Although you may change your mind when I tell you that subject of the case for the defence in the title of this post is none other than our erstwhile Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove MP.

Do I sense a sharp collective intake of breaths? Do I detect a slight chilling of the already frozen landscape? Do I feel the weight of expectation pressing down more heavily (surely he’s not REALLY going to defend the indefensible)? Perhaps, and yet defend him is precisely what I intend to do. Buckle up folks. Strap yourself in. This could get quite bumpy.

Let me start by mitigating myself, partly to attempt to avoid a mass migration from this post and partly by way of balance. I am a Labour supporter, and ardent advocate of truly comprehensive, coeducational, non-selective, faith-free, not-for-profit, state-provided and child-centred schooling. Not only would I instinctively oppose much of what the current government is doing with education but I would happily dismantle much of the structural damage that I believe has been done since the Education Reform Act of 1988. In fact I would go further still, all the way to the catastrophic decision (IMHO) of the Wilson government to not impose comprehensivisation upon all local authorities. I would urge him to sacrifice his electoral ambitions and DO THE RIGHT THING!!!! But I can’t and he didn’t and the rest, as they say, is history.

So why am I defending Michael Gove? The answer is threefold.

Firstly, somebody sensible has to defend him and his policies: if we don’t pick the good out from amongst the bad then we risk putting ourselves (and our students) on the wrong side of history – the losers rather than the winners.

Secondly, the demonisation of Michael Gove is dangerous: if we fail to see what the good intentions are of a man who was rescued from a potentially awful life by adoption then we cheapen ourselves as human beings and may fail to deliver those good intentions for perverse reasons.

Thirdly, in seeing only the offensive in what this government and our Secretary of State are seeking to do we are in danger of willingly and wilfully handing over all self-belief in our agency and ability to make the best of a bad deal. If we are not careful we may find that agency, once given away, is not so easily regained.

Okay. That’s the easy bit done. Now onto the matters of substance where I think I can mount a robust defence of our Education Secretary. A half-hearted, cynically-minded defence won’t do if I am to be honest to my concerns above, although you will have spotted my linguistic techniques for distancing myself from seeming to like, approve or care for the man himself.

So here they are, the top ten ways in which I agree with the work of the Right Honourable Michael Gove MP.

Vocational Education
Although there is much I don’t like about the Wolf review and the recommendations it makes (let alone what they may become in the hands of DfE policymakers) Michael Gove was right to take a sledgehammer to this creeping menace. BTECs, when done well, are a magnificent alternative to GCSEs, A-Levels and Degrees, but too often in schools they have been done appallingly thanks mainly to the equivalence. I am a major fan of equivalence and had no problem with the Horse Husbandry qualification so roundly mocked when the review first started. So long as the BTEC does what it says on the tin (ie Is genuinely vocational learning that is applied in nature) then I am satisfied, and by that token Horse Husbandry had more right to equivalence than many of the qualifications not culled by the DfE. In the case of vocational learning I think Michael Gove should go further and ask Ofqual to ensure that all applied qualifications produced by exam boards have a genuinely vocational element that can only be delivered through workplace experience, employer engagement and rigorous assessment verified by agencies relevant to the appropriate vocation. Furthermore I think that he should resurrect the element of the abandoned Tomlinson reforms that ensures these robust (and we all like our robustness and rigour these days) qualifications are accredited as complete equals to their so-called academic equivalents.

The Resit Culture
Tom Bennett’s latest blog, which partly inspired this post, is brilliant on this calling resits the equivalent of a ‘snooze button’ on alarm clocks. Whilst I don’t agree with Michael Gove on moving to a purely terminal examined assessment system I do entirely agree that we needed to do something about the ‘snooze button’ mentality that we, as school leaders, teachers, students and parents have got into. The only people who have gained from this approach have been the exam boards, gleefully pocketing the taxpayers’ bounty and laughing all the way to the bank. At A-Levels the damage done to learning during the January module series is immense, although I hope the government don’t chuck the AS baby out with the resit bathwater: I have seen all too often the damage done by two-year A-Level courses on students and universities should be the model for informed modularisation.

Teaching Schools and Specialist Leaders of Education
If there is one policy brought to life by Michael Gove to which I wholeheartedly subscribe it is the self-improving school system approach contained within the Teaching School and SLE programmes. The only qualm I have about them is the lack of substantial and sustained funding provided to support them in their work: a business model threatens the integrity of the initiative. Having seen at close hand the poverty of ideas from local authority improvement partners, divorced from the classroom by decades in many cases, the notion that current practitioners (both institutions and individuals) have the talents and temperament to best support the needs of other schools, school leaders and teachers is inspiring and potentially transforming.

Autonomy
This is probably my most nuanced and least convinced elements of my defence of Michael Gove and one where I may diverge from certain readers more than others. I believe that schools do need to have more autonomy from governmental interference: the curriculum, teaching and learning, pastoral care and assessment not least of all. I believe that government can supplement this with a rich supply of supporting advice, model policies and guidance documentation drawn from the best schools and best academics independent of political interference, much like the thinktank discussed in @Xris32’s recent blog. But it needs only to be supportive and must avoid repeating the technocratic command and control measures that the National Strategies sadly became over the life if the last Labour government. Autonomy of pay and conditions does, however, need to be resisted wherever possible because it is fundamentally unfair to pay people and treat people differently for doing the same job, is divisive and will swiftly become one of the worst elements of the free market within education. Nationally it will only serve to entrench the north-south divide further and fuel the mass migration southwards and eastward.

Languages
There is loads to not like about the EBacc and the future EBCs, but I am so glad that this minister for education has stepped in to rescue Languages. Much to its discredit the previous government had allowed the subject to suffer a slow and significant spiral downwards. I speak as an enthusiastic amateur as regards to languages because I grew up on a council estate and it wasn’t really expected at the school I attended that we speak a language and so precious few of us did. Since then I have taught exclusively at schools serving similar students and seen the same casual disregard, bordering on self-policing educational apartheid, for language teaching. On twitter recently I have even had conversations with people who teach at schools where KS3 Languages are abandoned for students with low prior attainment so that they can ‘catch up’ with their literacy: an idea so ironic that even Charley Brooker would be left speechless. Although the EBacc is so flawed that it isn’t even a baccalaureate in the true sense the focus on languages (modern moreso than ancient) is wonderful.

Adoption
Because of the dominant discourse about Michael Gove (that he is a Voldemort-esque master of the dark arts) very few people in education give him any credit for the massive reforms he has made to facilitate increased adoption. Driven by his own personal story this is an area of the wider brief of the Secretary of State that is hidden from view by his detractors because it is humanising. And we can’t have our folk devils as humans, capable of as much good as bad, can we?

Pupil Premium
Forget for a moment the fact that the pupil premium is masking cuts to school budgets elsewhere. Instead, focus on the fact that at a time when government departments are removing most ‘ringfencing’ from budgets in order to allow the autonomy discussed above, Michael Gove is now partially ringfencing (by accountability not by budget code) £900 to be spent upon the poorest, most vulnerable students in the education system: differential achievement by social class trumps inequalities arising from gender and ethnicity by some way. Beyond this the main accountability measures of the league tables and Ofsted now explicitly focus on the impact of this funding on these students. And it goes further still with the DfE making the funding based on any free meal eligibility within the past six years, widening the net of eligibility when the cynical may have expected generosity of sum but not of number. As a boy from the benefit class I cannot applaud more wholeheartedly and loudly the nature of this focus.

Exam Boards
There can be no doubt that the amount of money spent by schools on exam boards has too often got out of control. Alongside the main publishing organisations the three main boards have lunched heavily on the bloated carcass of an over-testing, re-sitting and board-switching education system. Given the willingness of schools to part with so much cash intended to help students learn these boards have got cannier and cannier at complicity. But whilst I agree with MG’s diagnosis of the illness (can I use the initials given my agreement, or is that a little too close?) I diverge massively on the solutions, preferring to see a re-forging of the links between schools and university-led exam boards rather than the establishment, or carve up, of subject-monopolies being proposed (maybe I should hold off on the MG).

Phonics
Now I have to hedge my bets here and say that I am no primary teacher and no specialist in language development, but I was fortunate enough to spend a day learning about phonics teaching when it first came to these shores from Australia (as I recall it) and I learnt more about how the sounds and spelling of my language work in that day than in more than thirty years within the education system. It was revelatory and almost epiphanic (is that a word?). We are rubbish in this country a teaching how our language functions and this has become cyclical: how many of you secondary teachers are graduates of Literature degrees like me? At some point some government needed to legislate about the best way of teaching language acquisition, not least of all to narrow the gap between those with so-called cultural capital and those without. This Education Secretary did.

League Table Reform
Although I can’t bear the marketisation of education that has been the prevailing nature of almost all educational reform since 1988 if I am going to work within an imperfect system I at least want it to be the best it can be (I guess that this is the theme of the whole post). The changes made to the league tables last year have made them far more effective in seeing the reality of the progress made by the students in that school. The identification of students with low, mid and high prior attainment puts pressure on how coasting leafy suburban schools help their ‘less able’ students and on how schools in challenging circumstances achieve with their ‘more able’ students. The demonstration of pass rates and average points scores both with equivalents and with GCSEs only puts pressure on Heads not to dilute their KS4 curriculum with BTECs that do not actually help students, again especially the students from the kind of backgrounds I grew up in.

In conclusion, like rinsing one’s mouth with a minty mouthwash after consuming something unpalatable, I want to reassert that my personal manifesto for education could not be much more different to the man whose defence I have just mounted. Michael Gove’s sensibilities are so far removed from mine that if they were converted geographically one of us would have to move to the moon. I hope after reading this post you would still rather retain my presence on this planet.

But I am a great believer that opposition for the sake of opposition is not a position for professionals to take if we are to retain the respect of the students we serve. Too often we allow the attitude of the media, who are not unlike those students who provoke fights and then cheer from the sidelines “fight fight fight fight” whilst keeping their own hands unsullied, to dictate our attitudes to both the politician and the policies. We have so much agency as teachers and school leaders to work with whatever is thrown at us by the likes of Michael Gove. Agency to comply to the letter of poor policy rather than the spirit. Agency to discard the poorest elements of policy with which we do not wish to comply. And agency to identify and promote the best aspects of poor policy, or even supplement these with our own special creations. But we can only exercise this agency if we retain our independently critical faculties, refuse to be drawn into a bare-knuckle fight which we have every chance of losing (and losing on behalf of our colleagues and students), pick out the peaches from the prickly pears and give credit where credit is due.

Michael Gove may be far from perfect, but if we don’t commend him for what he gets right we can’t expect him to listen to us on the things he gets wrong and heed our suggestions on how to improve. After all we would apply the same principles to the students we teach, wouldn’t we? Well, wouldn’t we?

Postscript
Having completed this post at the back end of Sunday afternoon I tweeted a link to it then returned to my timeline to find this wonderful post by my sometime twitter tango partner (I’ve been told it takes two to do so more times by people following our sword-crossing than ever before in my life, so it must be true). Serendipity indeed, particularly as he references The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, a novel I was wholeheartedly recommending only the day before. It is well worth a read from someone who clearly knows his education history with far more clarity than I do, and there are significant points of agreement with my own post. I enjoyed it greatly.

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