The Miseducation of Michael Gove

October 10, 2009 at 7:52 pm | Posted in Education | 3 Comments


Given where I am and what I’ve decided to do with my life, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I’ve been casting an apprehensive eye over Michael Gove’s plans for education reform. Like many people, I’m not exactly reassured.

I suppose it’s worth bearing in mind that there’s a difference between the harmless conference season patter Gove practices now and the more mundane – but massively consequential – steps he’ll take as Secretary of State. On arriving at the DCSF, he’ll hopefully be informed that most schools do, in fact, have school uniforms, that classes are often set by ability and that for all the horrid neglect of Winston Churchill in history lessons, kids are at least not being taught that WWII was won single-handedly by a smilin’ Joe Stalin. What plays well in the papers and to a conference crowd often gets forgotten or watered-down when the realities of government actually set in, and that probably holds true with these proposals as well.

But what I’ve found interesting – and very frustrating – about the past week has been what it’s revealed about Gove’s narrow, straightjacketed view of what learning is for, and how it’s best achieved.

For instance, take this list of topics Gove wants kids to be taught in history lessons. All our Greatest Brit hits are on there: the Roman invasion, 1066, the Bill of Rights, the Napoleonic Wars, the Great Reform Act, both world wars (with particular emphasis on the awesomeness of a former Tory PM!) and something rather vaguely called “Modern history to the present”.

Now, there’s nothing at all wrong with having knowledge about these or any other areas of British (or even – gasp! – non-British) history, and it’d come in extremely handy if your son or daughter ever wanted to work in a museum or on Time Team. However, the emphasis here is on what is taught, when it should really be about what is learnt.

A few years ago, former Ofsted chief inspector Mike Tomlinson produced a report offering a vision for quite far-reaching reform of 14-19 education in which GCSEs and A-Levels would be replaced by a range of different diplomas. The suggestions were mostly ignored by the government but for two key areas: a range of diploma lines would be rolled-out (albeit very slowly), and the whole curriculum would pay much greater attention to developing skills.

It is this ‘skills agenda’ which is currently writ large on the education landscape. Under greater competition from developing economies than ever before, Tomlinson was just one of many people to identify the need for children to develop a generic, transferable set of personal, learning & thinking skills which could equip them to thrive in a jobs market that none of us can predict. The accumulation of knowledge is still important, but developing a child’s innate ability to acquire knowledge for themselves is equally vital.

These aims aren’t ‘fashionable nonsense’ dreamt up by an ‘educational establishment’ hobbled on ‘political correctness’; they were devised with the express wish of sustaining – nay, revitalising – the economic competitiveness of UK PLC.

Does the Conservative Party share these aims? If this prescriptive, restrictive list of history topics is at all representative of how the Tories view teaching, I would assume they don’t. It’s a list that reeks of rote learning; of cramming hundreds of tiny little facts in a child’s head, with less time to help them learn how to think, argue, critique, or imagine. What this kind of thing is really about is satisfying our mystifying fetish to test, test, test children into automatons.

I could, of course, be reading too much into a little list which was passed onto a curious journalist, and the Tories might be fully committed to allowing the skills agenda to flourish. Nonetheless, it’s important to ask these questions because Gove’s attack on educators was so broad, so uncharitable and so hyperbolic that it acted as though the past 10 years have been nothing but a long line of ‘fashionable nonsense’, ‘political correctness’ and miserable failure.

Such thinking would be deluded. Labour’s not got a great track record on education, but it has got some key decisions (Every Child Matters, promoting inclusion, developing skills) correct, and it’s always difficult to overturn good policy. Besides, times and attitudes have changed, teaching practices have altered, ways of thinking about teaching & learning have transformed and I suspect that Gove’s apparent intention to revisit the flawed old practices of the past will be met with even greater resistance than he currently expects. He may find, as another history-bound Tory might’ve said, that the teachers are not for turning.


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  1. Do you have any evidence that rote learning is a bad way to acquire these learning skills? Or that arguing and critiquing is a good way? That’s the problem isn’t it.

    I’ll give you a datum: I went to a school where I did a huge amount of rote learning, and I have found that this is very useful to me in later life in the highly skilled, varying jobs that I do, where the unexpected and new is the norm. However that’s datum, not evidence.

    The Tomlinson Report (the one linked from the Wikipedia page) appears almost evidence-free, unless there is some other supporting materials which I’m missing out on.

  2. I wouldn’t want to dismiss rote learning entirely, as there are a bunch of different learning styles and they all have some advantages. However, education should always allow for the fact that there are many different ways of learning, and that children themselves learn in a variety of different ways. So if your lessons cater to just one type of learning, you’re not going to be taking your whole class with you

  3. […] is everything, and in writing I’ve often used it far more pejoratively. When writing about education or crime & justice, I’ve often described both excessive testing and incarceration as […]

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