The Gove Effect - Views from the front line of education

1 May 2013

Anyone who has an interest in education will know Michael Gove is nothing short of revolutionary – but not in a good way. Gove seeks to shake up the education system and take it back in time several decades, to a time when he believed exams were harder, people could aspire to succeed and we had a rigorous and effective education system. However, the academic community, and an overwhelming majority of teachers disagree – his plan simply has too many flaws. 

 

Personally, I believe Gove’s wishes to turn back the clock on education are tripe. My previous article shows my views on his history reforms, but in the bigger picture it doesn’t fare so well for other subjects either and indeed for teachers as well. However, we have for a long time heard the views of academics, unionists, politicians, journalists and students such as myself regarding educational reforms – but what about those who are actually teaching? Those who will be hit the hardest by these reforms – their view isn’t often publicised yet it so desperately needs to be, and so I decided to get the views of four teachers in my school, Blessed Thomas Holford Catholic College over the period of several weeks – and armed with a laptop I went on my way.

Initially I interviewed my head-teacher, John Cornally, to get his view on Michael Gove and his reforms. I sat down with him in his office and asked for his view on firstly, Michael Gove’s reforms overall – he stated:

 “I would say this, that I think that Michael Gove wants high standards, and that every head in the country – including myself would agree with that – but I disagree with a number of his proposals for reaching those high standards. I don’t think that the EBacc which focuses on five traditional academic subjects is the right way to motivate every single child in the country. Secondly, on a wider national picture I still think that the value of Academies and Free Schools needs to be proven because you don’t get higher standards through changing structures, you get higher standards through focussing on teaching and leadership.”

Following this, I enquired if there was anything specific in the reforms that my head-teacher particularly had a concern with, and it seemed to be the omission of religious education from Gove’s educational reforms. It is a subject that educates on issues such as community cohesion and tolerance, and in the multicultural society we are in, education in this couldn’t be more important – but he also misses out several other vital subjects. My head-teacher puts it better than me by saying - “I thought Religious Education was one of those subjects that is an absolute must – there’s no I.C.T, no technology, no vocational subjects, I just think it’s a missed opportunity”. And my interview concluded with the damning indictment that “He’s [Gove] somebody who has a very traditional view of education, and who needs to move on – he needs to catch up with the modern world.”

Following this, I decide to interview the grassroots teachers, those on the educational frontline whose voices on these reforms are often overlooked – so I spoke with teachers around my sixth form to interview, two who teach History at both secondary and Sixth Form levels and one who teaches Religious Education at GCSE and Philosophy at A-Level. 

I put questions to a Religious Education teacher, Louise Fowler, to ask for her view on Gove and his reforms. I enquired about her views on the overall reforms – she said: 

“There’s some value in his ideas that in the education system at the minute, maybe further education at the minute, is becoming slightly devalued as pupils are being pushed into further education when that may not be the best option for them -I do think that changing the whole education system and exam system – with reference to the English Baccalaureate – would be detrimental to schools as it would be more about change that the pupils”. 

I then queried what she thought of Gove’s attempts to reform R.E, or rather his complete ignorance of it - “Children get on the academic side with subjects like Religious Education, such as philosophy and religion, and it offers them more in reference to spiritual and moral development as well as the academic side of a subject – so for that to not be identified may devalue R.E across the country”. I am in agreement here – even as an ardent secularist, religious education is important, and to view it an almost inferior subject shows plain ignorance on those who prosecute it, like Gove. Finally, I wished to ask if she could understand the motives behind Gove’s wish to drastically reform the system: “I understand his motives, in agreeing that pupils should not continuously re-sit as it puts a lot of pressure on the pupils and the staff – but the answer is not completely changing the national curriculum, I think that’s too much of a drastic change. The kind of education he had developed him into an academic and well-achieving person – but that doesn’t mean that education should go back in time”

I proceeded to then interview some of the teachers in my schools History department – as History is without a doubt the most controversial subject that Gove is attempting to reform, and therefore it’s important to get the views of those who would actually teach the topic – rather than say the views of a blogging Sixth Former with a superiority complex. I sat down with one of my own A-Level History teachers, Anna Millican, to go over both Gove’s general reforms and the History reforms in particular. I enquired about her views of Gove’s proposal to lengthen school days and shorten holidays, she said,“some children struggle in the current school day until 3 o’clock yet he is expecting the children to stay longer, as well as staff - depending on the school you are in you use your time productively, a longer day won’t solve that” and went further on to say “the system we have today, albeit based on a 19th Century model has worked effectively for years. To adapt this to Gove’s preferred ‘Asian models’ (e.g. 07:00-17:30) would be simply unworkable!” On this issue – many of my fellow students also find fault with longer days, and admit that the lengthening of the day won’t actually encourage them to work, as many work much better (in terms of revision) at home. 

I then asked about her view on what Gove is doing to the occupation of teaching itself, as well as what the teaching unions are doing in response to Gove. “The teachers are already under pressure, they are working on the weekends and holidays already – but the NUT shouldn’t be too militant in response as it can turn public opinion against them, there needs to be a middle ground“- certainly the NUT doesn’t seem to have universal support, one only has to glance over the Daily Mail’s comment section on Gove articles to see the vitriolic hate they get from certain members of our society. I then quizzed my teacher on the issue of merit-based pay which Gove wished to introduce: “In terms of performance related pay – it has been the case in teaching that bad teachers were able to rest on their laurels in some cases, but receive pay increases. Performance related pay in some aspects will shake the system up a bit.”

I then asked Anna about her views of Gove’s history reforms – as her views on it certainly influenced my previous article, and I wished to delve further. Of the reforms, she said: 

“Michael Gove’s propose changes to the History curriculum would be the worst thing possible to happen for History. History at BTH [Blessed Thomas Holford]has been one of the most popular subjects, specifically due to lower school pupils being excited and engaged on the topics. However, if you are going to make 11 year olds learn dry and unappealing subjects such as liberal reforms and Clive of India – if students aren’t engaged and enthusiastic then students’ behaviour will drop. The quality of students and lessons will suffer… I don’t think young children can grasp some of the concepts he is expecting us to do in the small time frame we have to teach it – it’s just ludicrous, I mean History’s meant to be fun and engaging, History has been displayed like this in the media.”

Finally, I concluded by asking if she could understand Michael Gove’s motives behind what he was doing, but like many teachers, she couldn’t relate to Gove – an Oxbridge educated journalist whose had about as much knowledge of grassroots teaching as Tony Blair had on Iraqi WMDs. In her own words:  “How can we relate to him? Has he ever come and taught in a state school – I don’t feel like he is in touch with the people - I could understand if it would be beneficial for the education system – But I don’t know where he is coming from.” She also wished to make it known that Gove will also not only affect current teachers, but may put off future graduates from teaching: “The biggest issue for me – is what he is going to do to young people going into teaching, it could lead to a tragedy in the future education system where bright graduates turn away from the profession or NQTs are put off from the career – what will retain the young teachers? Not Michael Gove that’s for sure.”

Lastly, I then went to my school’s Head of History – Victoria Kneen, to speak chiefly about the History reforms. “The History reforms are appalling – not just because they are boring, but the sheer amount of stuff you have to get through. This massive criticism that we don’t do the subject chronologically is nonsense”. Certainly Gove has proposed a wide range of historical topics to put in the curriculum, from Benjamin Disraeli, to the Welfare state to the Enlightenment – but is this a good thing? My teacher’s response on the amount of topics was: “We’ve got 78 school weeks over the 2 years – there are about 70 topics, you simply cannot cover any in depth – what’s the point of covering topics as interesting as the French Revolution in just 2 hours?” 

Furthermore, a particularly worrying statement from my teacher that came up in the interview was this: “They will just end up with a little story, they won’t know in depth the reasoning or consequences behind everything, they won’t develop the skills of analysis or evaluation properly” this captures what I was saying in my previous article – Gove is sucking the very soul out of history. Finally, on the overall reforms, and Gove’s motives, Victoria said: “I think the aims of making things more challengeable and ensuring children have a basic bank of knowledge – I’m not against that, but they won’t have time to build on this bank of knowledge as it is too much and too descriptive.”

To end on another damning statement, our interview concluded with this excellent evaluation of Gove’s motives: “I don’t actually know what his experience in education is, I don’t know what qualifies him to make such radical statements and massive changes – he is massively out of his depth, and he doesn’t listen to other people.”

I believe the interviews I made throughout over the last few weeks gave me a general consensus – Gove doesn’t have the support or backing from the teachers, and what is a more damning case against Gove’s reforms than that? I myself have expressed a desire to teach – but I fear of what bleak occupation I would be entering after Gove engages his reactionary reforms. I hope Gove gets a chance to read the views above – for the sake of our education system he urgently needs to. 

Backbench Minister for Education

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