Saturday, 26 November 2011

Is Michael Gove doing a good thing, but in so bad a way as to spoil it's beneficial effect?

My title is a shameful paraphrase of Gladstone from his third Midlothian Speech (Tuesday 27th November 1879). What he actually said was:

"Even, gentlemen, when you do a good thing, you may do it in so bad a way that you may entirely spoil the beneficial effect;"

and he finished his sentence by saying:

"and if we were to make ourselves the apostles of peace in the sense of conveying to the minds of other nations that we thought ourselves more entitled to an opinion on that subject than they are, or to deny their rights - well, very likely we should destroy the whole value of our doctrines."

The reason I've made this quote is that Michael Gove quoted this same speech in his recent address to Cambridge University. I understand that Gladstone was talking about foreign policy at the time, whereas Gove was talking about Education, but I wonder whether I can make a comparison with a speech that's 130 years old. After all, Gove did.

Some real positives hit me from Gove's speech, for example: "I want to proclaim the importance of education as a good in itself. I want to argue that introducing the young minds of the future to the great minds of the past is our duty." and "I think any society is a better society for taking intellectual effort more seriously, for rewarding intellectual ambition, for indulging curiosity, for supporting scholarship, for feting those who teach and celebrating those who learn."

These are sentiments that ring my bells - they make me think this is what I got into education for. They are: A. Good. Thing. I think it's great that he doesn't want to subordinate education to purely economic ends; that he believes our current generation of teachers are the best ever; that he wants us to be connected with communities of learning such as those at Google and Apple. Marvellous. FAB!

However I think Michael Gove is a bit disingenuous about some things and just plain wrong about others - and it's this that Gladstone was hinting at in his speech with the 'apostles of peace' phrase. You see Gladstone's arch-rival, Disraeli had waited through the early 1880s as the Liberal party tore itself apart (partly due to the rigours of getting the country's first Education Act through Parliament). Disraeli was offered the chance to form a minority government in 1883, but could see that the Liberals would only make it worse for themselves and waited for the general election of 1884 to form a majority government then. Disraeli seems to have been characterised as cunning and cynical and it was these characteristics that Gladstone was railing against.

Gove casts a vision of acadamies bringing the excellence into the education system. He talks about a 700% increase this year. But this is nearly all at secondary level, where a school's large size can help undertake the structural change necessary to become and Academy. I don't see a model which works for Primary schools unless there is a significantly active community group ready to support them.

What Gove doesn't say about Gladstone's speech is that there is a common theme of Christianity in it - there is an assumption that his entire audience are Christians. If you then look back at the Education Act of 1870 you see that at that time over the half the children in the country were being educated by the Anglican or Roman Catholic Clergy. The National Education League was set up by mainly secular industrialists, such as Joseph Chamberlain to demand a state education system for the benefit of industry. When the Act went through it was a victory for the League, but the first Education Boards were often dominated by non-conformist Christians such as the Quakers. So the motivation for providing schools was either from religion or from industry.

In Gove's speech he talks about education for education's sake - for the love of the art, or the music, or the literature and I want that as much as anyone. But it isn't right to suggest that Gladstone's audience thought the same thing. The 'rude mechanicals' would have valued education because of their religious beliefs, or because they wanted their own children to have a better quality of life than they, because of their education.

The 'push' for Academies that religious groups could have provided in Victorian times no longer exists - those Christian groups just aren't there any more in large enough quantities. So it makes me wonder what will happen to the rest of schools when all those who have converted into Acadmies have converted. When Gove says he'll be putting greater demands on headteachers and academics, does that mean in supporting those schools who aren't yet elite? And is it elitism for everyone - so that when everyone is elite, nobody will be (I'd like to be quoting Aldhous Huxley at this point, but I realise I'm closer to quoting 'Syndrome' from 'the Incredibles'.

There is also the odd thing in his speech that I consider to be just plain wrong. Like for example when he says that 'children in Singapore are exposed to calculations involving the foundations of algebra' before children in the UK. Our children meet their first algebra at the age of 4 - children in Singapore don't even start school until they're 5 so how can this be true? He also claims that the government are reforming the whole exam system and yet Key Stage 2 SATs remain unchanged. It is KS2 SATs where education starts going wrong for many of our young people, but I'll be looking at this in another post.

The final thing that is wrong with this speech is the context. I have read at least three of Gove's recent speeches and each one has impressed me - I love his ambition and the vision he casts in them - I want to be in the education landscape he paints. However the speeches I have read have been (a) to the Conservative party; (b) to the Royal Society; (c) to Cambridge University. It would be nice to see Gove trying to inspire (like I do) 60 young parents about the virtues of education - then I would see that he was not only doing a good thing, but doing it in such a good way as to enhance it's beneficial effect.

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