How “facts” do not a good education make: Michael Gove and the Curriculum Review

This week we heard that Michael Gove is launching a curriculum review, in order to create a return to more “traditional” teaching. Quite apart from the dubious aim of the review, the enormous irony of launching a review of something and simultaneously declaring its result is obvious; as Chris Keates, the General Secretary of the NASUWT union, said, the review is “pointless” as ministers have “already determined that children should have a 1950s-style curriculum”.

This only underlines what everyone already knows: no Government act is independent from the political context in which it is carried out. Despite having no political figures leading it, the review panel has been told by Government what its findings should be; it will now proceed to confirm those findings. Michael Gove is a journalist turned political ingenue, while those leading the review are all involved in education and include some pretty big names – who have, ironically, reached their pre-eminent position by advocating and implementing progressive and non-traditional teaching, in an attempt to interest all children in school, not just those who would enjoy learning whatever style of teaching is used. However, the academics and practitioners on the review panel will have no opportunity to voice what they actually think about the way the curriculum should be reformed: they can never come to any conclusions other than those they have already been ordered to come to.

There is, of course, not much that’s new here; only, perhaps, the phenomenon of this political skewing of apparently “objective” reviews being reported openly and as a matter of course in the press. Governments have always used academically credible and politically impartial review panels as a mask for fulfilling their own agenda. The Rose Review, a so-called “Independent Review of the Primary Curriculum”, was Labour through and through. Led by Sir Jim Rose, who had long been a favourite of the Labour education policy people, it advocated in 2009 a massive overhaul of the the primary curriculum. It was clearly an enormous undertaking, consulting widely and emerging with some genuinely radical and well-thought-through ideas.

Of course, as soon as the Coalition took power around a year later, any steps towards implementing the Review’s findings were dropped immediately, and the Review was never heard from again, hidden in the archive of the Department for Education website. This is the kind of wastage that Government should deal with, over and above the ubiquitous “efficiency savings”: despite being an “Independent Review”, the Tories could not – even if they had wanted to – have used any of its ideas, for fear of assimilating what was effectively Labour policy.

On a personal level too, I find the ideas behind Gove’s new review somewhat chilling. He has explicitly said he wants more “facts” in the national curriculum, as if “facts” were somehow of value in and of themselves. Teaching over the past twenty years has shifted away from this idea of education as equivalent to the accumulation of facts, towards a view that it is concepts, skills and analytical processes that a child really learns at school. It is easy to see why: is it important to know the fact that George shoots Lenny at the end of Of Mice and Men? No, of course not. But it is important to understand the thousands of reasons why he feels he has to do it, his feelings afterwards, and how Steinbeck’s skilful writing allows the reader to understand the significance of this ending to this book.

It is Gove’s understanding of education as simply this process of empirical building up that offends me, and it provides a consistent conceptual thread throughout his policy. He has also denounced the idea that GCSE English Literature requires the study of only one novel – as if making pupils study ten novels in the same timespan would somehow make them better-educated than studying one in great depth; nevermind that fact that this is a minimum; and that as well as novels each pupil will also study a good body of poetry, and several short stories, plays and non-fiction texts.

I find myself agreeing again with Chris Keates when she colourfully says that teachers “want another curriculum review like a hole in the head”. This review is clearly nothing to do with what is good for teachers, and especially nothing to do with what is good for pupils: it is an overtly political act, and nothing more.
Paidtoreason is currently a teacher, and has experienced politics from various angles: as a Lib Dem MP’s researcher, a temp in the lower echelons of several Government departments, and a deeply unenthusiastic lobbyist for a morally dubious organisation headed by a former Tory MP. He has been unimpressed with most of what he’s seen, and writes about it at the paidtoreason blog.

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