England & Wales

Gove’s education speech to Conservative conference


I can’t say, because I wasn’t there, but it sounds like Michael Gove has delivered a barn-storming speech. I thought his speech on vocational education was stirring. But you’d need a heart of stone not to be moved by this one:

Teachers transform lives as very few others can.
They are there at the moments in all our childhoods when new horizons beckon.
The moment mere shapes on a page suddenly become living words, with a gripping story to tell.
The moment a child who has struggled to make sense of a jumble of figures suddenly grasps the mystery, and beauty, of maths.
The moment a pupil who says she’s never seen the point of books — or, for that matter, school — sits enraptured by a performance of Hamlet.
These moments are the gifts that teachers give and I believe no gifts are more precious.

No one can doubt the fire in Gove’s belly. He’s absolutely genuine when he says that:

I couldn’t live with myself, if, having been given the chance to serve I put the enjoyment of office before the power to do good – so that is why every moment I have in this job – every day I do it, I won’t stop pressing, pushing, fighting to give every child the chance to succeed.
I can’t rest when more than 800 primary schools can’t even get half their children reading, writing and adding up properly.
I can’t rest when nearly 600 secondary schools can’t get more than 35% of their pupils to secure decent passes in GCSE Maths and English.
And I won’t rest when the learning of thousands of children who’re desperate to do well and get on is disrupted in classrooms where discipline has broken down.

I’d have to take issue, however, with some of the detail. He argues that:

For far too long, the authority of teachers has been undermined by an unhealthy ideological pincer movement.

On the one hand were the bureaucrats – those in the political class who have said the answer to educational failure has been more and more central control from Whitehall, more regulation, inspection and bureaucracy.

And on the other hand have been the ideologues – those educational theorists who have argued that teachers shouldn’t think they have the authority to instruct – they shouldn’t be doing anything so old-fashioned as passing on knowledge, requiring children to work hard, or immersing them in anything like dates in history or times tables in mathematics.

In Gove’s new world teachers, unencumbered by ideological dogma and bureaucracy, will be free to return to their natural instincts and eulogise about narrative British history. I’m not sure, however, that Gove quite has the courage of his convictions. In fact, I’d argue that Gove is setting about creating a different, but equally limiting, ideological pincer movement to capture teachers.

He has said that he will:

Restore the requirement for students to be able to write clearly and have sufficient grammar abilities

Promote science and mathematics so that Britain could compete against other countries

Appoint Professor Simon Schama to advise the Government on how to put history back at the core of British teaching

These initiatives have two things in common: they rely on the authority of central government; and take a traditional view of what the curriculum should contain. Gove is, of course, perfectly entitled to champion and impose this view on schools. However, he needs to be clear that that is what he is doing. He shouldn’t hide behind a rhetorical sleight of hand.

Having said that, I’m almost certain that Gove recognises this tension. He’s busily promoting a traditional view of education and swinging his department behind it. At the same time, however, he’s also creating a system that will almost certainly allow some of the most progressive of the progressive education camp, such as Montessori and the RSA, to establish a far bigger presence in the state system. In this situation, hiding behind rhetoric’s probably the only option.