Gove’s Change Rhetoric: Education Secretary’s speech to ASCL

Michael Gove, UK Ed Sec, spoke at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) conference on the the 24 March 2012 so we thought we’d run through the justifications he could come up with for alienating both teachers and headteachers with his needless reforms.

There was a defence of free schools and academies. There were the predictable references to the educational and aspirational nirvana that is Oxbridge and the euphemism that is ‘challenging’ to describe the poor and lower classses. There were the reminders of “how much latent talent we have in this country” (but if only the Tories were allowed to nurture it!), the typos (“magificent seven”), the all-in-it-together mantra (“We’re all in this to help children”) and the reasoning that academic success is above all not the responsibility of anyone but teachers (“And that with great teaching – and that’s really it – we can democratise access to knowledge, find the talent in every child and make opportunity more equal.”).

There was an attempt to portray the Tories as the party of the Centre, pop-psychology references to brain science and about the mutability of the mind, and a ‘groundbreaking’ solution to the age-old nature-nuture debate: It is both nature AND nurture that determines educational achievement (“it is the interplay between what we inherit and the environment and culture in which we grow up which determines what we become.”). There was even a reference to Martin Luther King!

Apparently with enough effort, hard work, discipline and where “no excuses are allowed for failure” (in exams, you’d imagine) we can like in an MTV commercial be whatever we want to be no matter how poor or rich.

It’s all to do with high expectations, you see. What this means is made clear: all students going to HE, reading of classic texts from ancient and more contemporary literature (“Shakespearean tragedies in depth, Jane Austen, Aldous Huxley and Primo Levi”), longer school hours, “the study of Renaissance architecture of Brunelleschi and Bernini alongside the role of Archbishop Laud and Henrietta Maria in provoking the English Civil War…works by Dickens, Wilde, Blake, Larkin, Matthew Arnold and Tennyson.” This is what Gove calls “the same cultural heritage wealthier children expect as of right.”

Yet what most drew our attention was not this patronising and crude simplification of the complexity of the education process nor the independent school model of education which Gove wants to foist onto the unwealthy masses. What drew our ire was the rhetoric of change i.e. the false logic that the world is changing so fast that reform is needed.

In “The World at an inflection point”, Gove explains that, “Over the next ten years the world we inhabit will change massively. We are at an inflection point in the economic and educational development of nations.”

“Technology will change out of all recognition how individuals work, how we teach and how students learn. Millions more across the globe will go onto higher – and post-graduate education.”

“Globalisation will see the number of unskilled or low skilled jobs in this country diminish further and the rewards to those with higher level qualifications continue to soar further ahead.”

“We cannot ignore, wish away or seek to stand aside from these developments. Not least because they promise a dramatic step forward in the unleashing of talent, the fulfilment of human potential and the reach of our creativity.”

And because the current education system isn’t fit for purpose it needs an overhaul to meet this change: In funding, in human capital, in the curriculum and qualifications, in accountability and in the structures we create to drive innovation and excellence.

For “we need to have an education system equipped for that world – one which equips young people for all its challenges – and opportunities. We need to cultivate higher order thinking skills and creativity. We need to be adaptable and fleet-footed. We need to welcome innovation and challenge as a way to ensure we lead rather than meekly follow.”

This rhetoric is based on the idea that the world is changing so we need to reform. Given that the world is always in a state of flux, this would seems to give reformists carte blanche to do whatever they want FOREVER.

But is the world really changing so fast? And how many predictions of the future have ever come true? Isn’t it the fact the world rarely changes so fast that means that we can all sleep safely at night? If the world was forever changing as dramatically as Gove would have us believe we’d never get anything done for whenever we began a reform it would never be finished as we’d have to reform the reform to keep up with the pace of change (but isn’t that what happens!?).

The fact of the matter is that the rhetoric of change is akin to the rhetoric of fear. If you keep telling people that things are going to change/getting scary with terrorists it is hoped that political reforms/curtailments of civil liberties will go through without a fight. But people like us know that these rhetorics are empty and that behind them is the desire to pay off patrons and do the dirty work of vested interests (doesn’t Gove work for New Corp still?).

And isn’t it wonderfully convenient that the changes wrought by globalisation etc. etc. that Gove identifies are just slow enough for him to implement reforms and talk up the results but fast enough to justify the reforms in the first place?

There were other daft comments in Gove’s speech: the laughable idea that people aren’t attracted to teaching because of the discipline and poor behaviour rather than commonly-known pittance that is called a salary, the excessive paperwork and hours, the lack of management support and autonomy and of course the needless meddling that is Gove-rnment interference.

There was also the other laughable idea that by dramatically reducing the amount of training for new recruits, employing short-term careerist graduates instead of properly qualified, trained, already experienced and fully committed teachers, and throwing the floundering newbies into the classroom, that things will miraculously improve. This is a bad a rationale as thinking that cutting the 50% tax rate to 45% will make people pay MORE tax.

But these reforms take us back to our biggest grumble i.e. that the change that Gove identifies necessitate reforms. Why do we need a National College, Teaching Schools, the growth in academy chains and the work of organisations like the Prince’s Teaching Institute when we’ve got decades and decades of professional experience and expertise in existing and ready-made institutions of teaching and learning?

Gove talks of critics of teaching standards as if that was the common currency (“And if we embrace these changes media and political criticism of professional standards in teaching will become a thing of the past”) but that is simply a ruse. The only critics of teachers are those like Gove who want to destabilise the profession so that they can rebuild it in their own image.

There is his talk of autonomy for teachers but only if the semi-privatised academies will it (and Ofsted of course). So, in fact, there will be no autonomy, just more of the same authoritarian clap-trap of this and previous Ed Secs.

The examination system that has proliferated is the fault of the Tories, too. They privatised it and are now picking up the pieces. Where before the examination companies did nothing more than meet demand, they now compete for contracts. This has already exposed malpractice. We should expect corruption to follow: the same companies devise and mark their own exams, after all. And the idea that universities are somehow going to muscle in without a fight from these companies is simply ludicrous.

The ideology of choice drove the disastrous privatising of the examination industry. Why then do the Tories still think choice will do for schools what it has failed to elsewhere? Parents believe they do not have a good school because the system of league tables leads them to believe there are real differences between schools when there aren’t – when there are only differences of opinion, and differences of income. Gove can say all he wants about the right teaching and higher expectations making up for a single parent with two jobs to make ends meet but he’ll know this is a Good Will Hunting pipe-dream.

Perhaps the most pernicious development over the last 30 years has been teaching by numbers. If Gove was a teacher or had any connection to real schooling he’d know that this is one of the main reasons why it is so difficult to keep teachers in teaching once they’ve got a bit of experience. The inane data collection that goes on in education in the name of science is at the heart of the problem, not the solution.

Teachers then will be closer to the exits when they hear Gove explain that “We need more data not less. We must move away from reliance on just one or two benchmarks to a rich and nuanced account of achievement. Every month, week, day and hour we have data about the economic performance of the nation.”

What have UK teachers done to deserve this man?

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