The departure of Mr Gove – what did he get right?

It was quite a surprise. In fact, it was a shock.

Michael Gove has certainly been one of the most instantly recognisable public figures in education for years. He has also been one of the most controversial.

When his departure was announced I wondered what the reasoning behind it was – dislike of his policies, or his personality? Ollie Orange (@OllieOrange2) made the point that Gove is unpopular at the moment, and the conservatives are beginning to focus on their aim of getting re-elected. This, of course, makes perfect sense. No political party would want to have such an unpopular figure in such a prominent position. And Michael Gove has been in the unique position of angering two opposing sides of the educational divide – teachers and parents. His departure has been greeted by much crowing from both the teaching unions and many educational professionals, but parents are also said to be celebrating, illustrated by the following Tweet by Fiona Millar:

Which rather overlooks the point that it is the job of the Secretary of State for Education to ‘meddle’ in educational policies!

Looking, in retrospect, at some of his ‘meddling’, I wonder if the changes can be regarded as such a universally bad thing.

QTS skills test reform

In order to gain QTS, a prospective teacher had to show proficiency in English, maths and ICT (the latter now no longer required). This involved passing three short computer-based tests before the end of the PGCE. Each one lasted 20-30 minutes and was (I believe, I could be remembering this wrongly – please correct me if so) aimed at showing that the trainee teacher was able to demonstrate a minimum ability in each test, around the level a 14 or 16 year old is expected to achieve.

If a teacher failed any of the tests they could resit them an unlimited number of times. On my PGCE course there was a girl who, by the time we all said our goodbyes at the end of the Summer term, had sat the maths skills test 5 times. And failed it five times. She intended to receive private tutoring in order to have a better chance of passing the test on her 6th attempt.

As a supply teacher I’m often left notes by the class teacher, some of which are barely coherent. I’m also provided with worksheets peppered with spelling errors. How many times should a teacher be allowed to attempt to pass a basic skills test in English? In 2010 a teacher at Gleed Girls’ Technology College was ridiculed after they emailed a summary of a child’s progress to a parent who had missed a meeting. The Daily Mail summed up its reporting thus:

Yesterday, the school’s head, Liz Shawhulme, said she was ‘shocked by the number of mistakes, many of which appear to be typos’.
‘It was obviously written in haste and not checked but this is no excuse and I will be contacting the parent to apologise.’
Marie Clair, of the Plain English Campaign, said: ‘Teachers who do this should wear their own dunces’ hats.’

And in May this year, the East Grinstead Courier reported that Ofsted had criticised teachers’ spelling when marking work at Dormansland Primary School:

A letter addressed to new head teacher Sarah Stokes, who was appointed in January, states: “Marking remains inconsistent. It does not give clear advice to pupils about how they can improve, nor does it address all the mistakes made, for example in spelling or punctuation. Sometimes the teacher’s own spelling is not correct.”

 

Northgate High School in Ipswich was so worried about poorly written reports going out, that it advertised for a proof-reader. Yes, teachers are busy; yes, we all make typing mistakes; but no, we have no excuses for not checking our work. There may be one or two errors that may go unnoticed by the writer, but not so many that a proof-reader is necessary. Some primary schools insist on staff reading each others’ reports to ‘help those who find it difficult’ to write correctly.

It might, therefore, be assumed that the changes to the skills tests (maximum of two re-sits within two years for each subject, higher pass mark at 63%, more challenging content) would be welcomed. Far fewer instances of the press seeing badly composed or miscalculated work, far less admin for teachers to carry out checking other reports.

But no, in this article by Melissa Benn for the Guardian, on the possibility of some of Gove’s reforms being overturned, there is this comment by Shipyardwelder:

“On a personnel level , his rushed introduction of Pre-teacher training Skills tests, prevented a promising student from even starting her Teacher Training.”

 

Phonics

I’m stepping into shark-infested waters with this one, but I’m a firm supporter of phonics. Giving children the ability to attempt new words based on the letters on the page is far more effective than looking at the beginning and end of the word and trying to guess what’s in the middle based on the pictures. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this done more than once.

And yet there are plenty of teachers who claim that it is too prescriptive, that it turns children away from reading books. Michael Rosen gets quite worked up about this, and when the phonics screening tests were introduced he penned a rather peevish missive.

I do find the concept of testing children on made-up words odd, and although I understand the reasoning behind it, I would rather see children tested on unfamiliar words containing those same letter patterns.

Phonics, though, is a very sound way to base the teaching of reading. There are too many children who still need ‘clues’ to help them read when in Year 6, those same children are completely lost in Year 7 when the ‘clues’ are no longer in their reading material.

Giving them the opportunity to access the same material as their classmates cannot be a bad thing. As for the assertion that it turns children away from reading, surely being unable to work out a text when there are no ‘clues’ present does that anyway? Or is it best to condemn some children to a lifetime of reading picture books – even as adults?

Term-time abscences

Very controversial, mainly because of the extra financial loading on holidays during the Summer months. However, this is aligned with a clamping down on the requirement for children to attend school regularly, and fining or imprisoning the parents of persistent truants.

I have taught in deprived areas where children regularly miss school because their parents couldn’t be bothered to get up in the morning. Some simply couldn’t care less whether their children attended school or not, just as long as they kept out of their way. Those children invariably ended up in trouble with the police, with no -one chasing them to be in school the devil made work for their idle hands. Fines though, have had some impact, mainly because those same parents don’t want to lose the fags and booze money.

This has mainly been overlooked in the backlash against the removal of access to cheaper holidays. I sympathise with the parents who are complaining, but a foreign holiday is still not a right, it is a luxury, and should be treated as such. There are other ways to enjoy the holidays with your children, flights are not an imperative part of this.

The main point here, though, is that it is difficult to teach a child if they’re not actually in school.

Primary Maths

Very often poorly taught, with the emphasis on ‘exploring’ ways to solve problems. Works a treat if you’re good with numbers, not so great if you don’t understand why things keep changing and end up using half of one way to solve something, and half of another, thereby constantly getting the answer wrong.

Pupils who find maths difficult need fewer options. They may never understand ‘how something works’ but they should be given a fail-safe way to tackle the problem. Not many people can explain exactly how a TV works, but they know that if it isn’t plugged in and switched on there’s no picture. It’s simple to execute, quick and you don’t need to take the set apart to apply this. The same goes for maths.

I taught in one school where the children who didn’t know their times tables were encouraged to use multi-link cubes in arrays to show them the answer. They were encouraged to say out loud how they had arranged the cubes (eg: six rows by seven columns) before counting them to get the answer. “Six times seven equals, one, two, three, four, five….”. Madness anyway, but this was in year 5, and no, the child was not on the SEN register. I used to wonder what would happen to him when he went into Year 6, let alone Year 7.

NC Levels

Originally intended as a measure of progress throughout a child’s school life, the expectation was that children at primary school would make two sub-levels of progress a year. Essentially the measure became a target in itself.

This brought with it the attendant problems of the target being used to measure the school, rather than the child. When this happened, it became imperative for a school to show that a child was making the expected progress, if they didn’t then the local authority would start asking questions. As would Ofsted. But it soon became apparent that it wouldn’t be the school that was accountable for the perceived ‘lack of progress’, that would fall to the class teacher, and possibly the headteacher.

If pressure was brought to bear on the head, that would definitely be passed down to the class teacher, so obviously, the two sub-levels of progress became a minimum that each teacher recorded in their end-of-year results.

Darren can’t write his own name yet? But he came into year 1 on a level 1B, so I’ll have to say he’s a 2C… Lucy never uses capital letters or full stops, but she came into year 4 on a 3A, so I’ll have to say she’s 4B… Anna doesn’t know her times tables and can’t tell you how to calculate area, but she came into Year 5 on a 4a, so I’ll have to say she’s a 5B…

All this does it put inordinate pressure on the Year 6 teacher to try to get the children to gain those grades in the SATs tests, they have to try to get the children to the claimed level they were when the entered Year 6, never mind with an additional two sub-levels of expected progress!

It’s all nonsense, and the reason why so many children have intensive SATs coaching lessons from January onwards, in a desperate attempt to make the results fit with the paper trail. And all for what? When the children go on to secondary they’re usually given another assessment as the schools don’t trust the SATs scores or the teacher assessment.

 

***

 

None of these things can really be considered to be problematic, but they were all contentious. They were all brought in with the aim of raising standards and this can only be a positive move. The phonics and maths reforms both have research behind them, the skills test and attendance requirements are simply common sense. The National Curriculum levels one removes the need for the farcical circus that is grade inflation. And yet each was met with derision when announced. Why?

These were also relatively ‘small’ things, yet they resulted in a very vocal opposition, so loud that it began to take on a life of its own. Gove’s departure gave rise to numerous statements by the teaching unions, bloggers, journalists, heads and classroom teachers, all cheering his removal, as though this was something with universal support.

But there isn’t universal support.

There really are many teachers who felt that Michael Gove was beginning to make headway in terms of reforming state schools in this country. Not everything he did was great, and there are things that I disagree with profoundly, PRP being one of those, but in general I have no argument with his curriculum reforms.

For too long children have been short-changed by the education they receive, one that deifies progressive teaching methods and a policy of valuing everything equally, to the detriment of a content-rich curriculum. I had hoped that the reforms that were beginning to make inroads into this would continue, but I now have my doubts.

I wonder though, because Gove was seen as such a caricature of unpopularity, whether the areas in which he brought a common-sense reform will be quietly altered to appease voters – both those who teach and those who have children?

It would be a great pity if this were to be the case.

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6 Responses to The departure of Mr Gove – what did he get right?

  1. Simon says:

    Worth noting that Fiona Millar is the long-term partner of Mr. Alastair Campbell, the former Press Secretary to Tony Blair and a long-term member of the Labour Party. As such she is politically motivated and hardly unbiased.

    • Indeed. As a journalist she has a large readership and is seen by many as the voice of both some parents and education professionals. The personal political affiliations are not always made quite so clear.

  2. “… it is the job of the Secretary of State for Education to ‘meddle’ in educational policies!”

    Not necessarily. For decades, English secretaries of state for education tried to meddle as little as possible – or at least to appear to meddle as little as possible, because many people were deeply suspicious of the idea of centralised control of education, and rightly so. The 1944 Education Act distributed the responsibility for education across parents, schools and local authorities in part because people were aware of the impact of government control of education in totalitarian regimes.

    The UK is, in theory at least, a democracy. The main task of government is to maintain the external and internal security of the realm, not to tell people what do. Government ministers are public servants, not members of some glorified senior management team deciding how the population should or shouldn’t behave. The people involved in the education system and those benefiting from it, are perfectly capable in principle of designing and running it without the government needing to ‘meddle’. If funding is centralised, the SoS will need to keep an eye on the budgets and to make sure the system is functioning, but the micromanagement that’s gone on since the 1988 Education Reform Act – the one that introduced the national curriculum – has been extraordinary, and hasn’t delivered the improvements it promised. You could argue, in fact, that the more government meddling there’s been, the more problems have resulted.

    • An interesting point. I have only ever taught under the auspices of the National Curriculum, thus only have experience of working to the instructions of the incumbent Education Secretary.

      I do wonder how things would be if there was less direct central control. Historically there would have been far more consensus on the direction of education, which may be why you say it worked in the past, whereas now we have many disparate groups running schools. These encompass differences in both religious and educational ideologies.

      Without an overall decision on the direction things should take, I believe some children would receive a very polarising experience of education. At the extreme this could result in schools such as Summerhill.

      I’m interested in whether you think a more ‘hands off’ approach could still work.

  3. The easiest way for a comic to get a laugh is to mention Michael Gove irrespective of the evidence (no more News Quiz for me). Articles with nuance about Gove get to the core of the issues more successfully than cheer-leaders from either side of the “traditionalist-progressive” spectrum – thank you for writing this post.

    The only thing I would add is that the reason why made-up words are used in the phonics test is to diagnose if a child exhibits good language understanding but who have difficulties in decoding. I am no psychologist but Dorothy Bishop does a very good job of explaining why made up words are used in the phonics screen. Sadly it does not appear to have convinced Michael Rosen very much.

    If there is one reason why the “traditionalists” are “winning” it is probably because they are more willing to have their ideas falsified by empirical test. Some of the most vociferous criticism of randomised controlled trials in education came from progressives. For some teachers the loathing of Gove is so visceral it overwhelms any reasoned discussion of the benefits and costs of a policy. I have had many criticisms of Gove (such as the initial exclusion of arts and design subjects from the EBac and the uncertain future concerning Music Hubs). However any rational analysis has to accept that he had to take action on grade inflation and move the curriculum away from skills towards knowledge and content. It will be interesting to see whether the reforms stay in place.

    • Thank you for your comment.

      I’m not sure how I missed this when you wrote it – but somehow at that time it seems to have been filtered out of my ‘pending comments folder’.

      I think you’re certainly right about the reluctance of some progressives to have their ideas held up to scrutiny. I firmly believe that ALL and EVERY idea on educational policy or theory should be subject to examination, criticism and debate. If it survives those, it must have genuine merit. Any idea which is lauded without scrutiny is essentially worthless.

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