Category Archives: Michael Gove

We need a bit more smoke before we start a fire

The case for the prosecution looks flimsy, based on rumour and a juggernaut of twitter-driven opinion, but Micheal Gove is being castigated for ditching American classics from the GCSE English syllabus and narrowing the canon to include authors primarily described as ‘English’ or ‘British’ (terms, interestingly, which are often used interchangeably in this debate).

So out go Lee and Steinbeck and Miller, to be replaced by more Dickens, Shakespeare and a smattering of modern British books. At least, that’s what’s supposed to be happening. No-one has actually seen the exam board lists and nor will they until they are published during the course of this week.

If they do contain more British authors, at the expense of classic texts from other countries, then, as yet, there is little evidence that this was done under the direction of Micheal Gove. All we have is a somewhat pitiful assertion from a man at OCR that the Education Secretary ‘doesn’t like Of Mice and Men’. Should the exam boards have folded under such minimal pressure then much of the internet ire should be directed at the exam bodies, not just the man at the top.

More pointedly, of course, it’s clear that nothing will be banned. Schools are free to study whatever texts they choose, albeit over and above the books that will be included as part of the exam (admittedly, demands on curriculum time, and the realities of preparing children to pass their GCSEs, will of course limit the breadth of study).

All this said, a reduction of the vastness of English literature to fit within the confines of a nation state is so self-evidently ludicrous that it should be resisted with all the fire and energy the education and academic community can generate. How dim-witted would it be to dismiss the qualities of a book, written in English, on the grounds of where the author was born?

However, to start the fire we need to see a bit more smoke. Let’s wait, at least, until we have seen the lists.

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Filed under Curriculum, Michael Gove

Hattie the Hero

Real heroes are hard to come by in the world of education.

Estelle Morris remains on a pedestal. Few days go by without imagining a better, more decent world where Morris is in charge and not Gove. The late journalist Mike Baker falls into the same category, not least for his ability to write well and to strip complex issues and fluffy arguments down to the bare essentials of what mattered and what did not.

But top of my admittedly short list of educations heroes is Professor John Hattie.

The Director of the Education Research Institute at Melbourne University is above all a pedagogical myth buster. He uses the simple test of looking for evidence as to whether any given factor makes a difference to learning, be it a teaching intervention or a socio-economic circumstance. In doing so, he debunks the preposterous or the fashionable and reveals something approaching the truth about learning and teaching.

What sets him apart is his determination – albeit a dry and diligent determination – to bridge the chasm between what researchers have discovered about teaching and learning and what happens in the classroom. His aim is to synthesise all that we know about the former so that it knocks on the door of the latter, invites itself in and becomes the loudest, most persistent, most persuasive voice in class.

Luckily, we live in treasured times: Hattie is currently on a roll with his ‘Visible Learning’ series of books. Managing to be dense, academic yet also accessible they set out a clear rationale for what teachers should be doing and how they should be doing it.

Although it is not his intention, his work inevitably crosses the boundary from the pedagogical to the political. It is hard to read to much of what he says without thinking of Gove.

Take his latest book ‘Visible Learning and the Science of How we Learn’. By page fifteen, Hattie has shredded Gove’s assertion that employing untrained, unqualified experts as teachers is in any vague sense a wise thing to do. Shredded. Utterly shredded.

Knowledge, it turns out, is not quite what Gove thinks it is. It’s not something which can simply be relayed from all-knowing expert to sponge-like child.

In fact, as Hattie quotes, knowledge can be a curse. Research shows that those who are specialists in a subject and who have no understanding of how to transmit the complexities of their wisdom – in other words those who know a lot but know nothing of teaching – are less effective at doing their job than those who may have less subject knowledge but who are expert, skilled teachers.

Pure knowledge does not correlate with an ability to teach. What matters is simple; it’s teachers who know their stuff and who are trained, skilled and passionate about what they do. Professor John Hattie is a giant – if only we had an Education Secretary who would stand on his shoulders.

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Filed under Michael Gove, Politics - general

What lessons can be learnt from Greenwich Free School?

As any decent teacher knows, failure is not something to celebrate. Failure, in whatever form it comes – error, misconception, or simply falling short of a goal or target – is a key part of the process we call learning. If we only succeed, then achievements and progress are woefully constrained. Failure provides the opportunity for reflection, for consideration and for a change of tack.

What, then, are the lessons from the Greenwich Free School, which this week emerged from an Ofsted inspection with the dreaded ‘requires improvement’?

There are few schools that so epitomise the current government’s educational reforms. Lauded by Michael Gove, the secondary school was co-founded by Jonathan Simmons, an adviser to Gove and head of education at Policy Exchange, a think-tank who have long been advocates of free schools. The vice chair of governors is Tom Shinner, now director of strategy at the Department for Education. This school is as Goveian as it comes.

But, just a couple of years in, Ofsted have pulled them up for the quality of teaching at the school; not enough challenge for more able children, shoddy work in books and too little progress for children with special educational needs.

Of course, anyone who has lived through the delights of an Ofsted visit will know that ‘requires improvement’ can be a pernicious judgement, based on a dodgy lesson, an inspector with blinkers on or a blip in exam results. Come another day and ‘requires improvement’ can so easily be good.

Nevertheless, this is an embarrassment for the free school fanatics. It doesn’t fit easily with the rhetoric of unbridled success that such schools were supposed to bring.

And that’s the rub. Such was the expectation, the unrealistic, politically motivated desire to present free schools as the solution to all our educational ills, that they have been set up to fail. Put on so high and so unsteady a plinth, it’s not surprise that some free schools will noisily crash to the ground.

In reality, Greenwich Free School faces the exact same challenges that every other school faces: how to get the quality of teaching right, ensuring every child makes progress, using assessment astutely and wisely, managing staff and all the rest.

Uniquely for free schools, however, these familiar challenges are compounded by the double whammy of the pressures of setting up everything from scratch and the weight of expectation, under a Gove-generated spotlight, to be the best of the best in no time at all.

But this judgement won’t shake the government’s free school policy in any significant way. Gove and the gang are dug in for the long haul. The school may well turn things round and, of course, other free schools have been viewed more generously by Ofsted. That will be enough to keep things ticking over.

In these divisive times, where different types of schools are pitched against each other like football teams and where the team called ‘council-run’ is denigrated at every turn, all we can hope for is for a change of tack; a reigning-in of the rhetoric that seeks to argue that excellence and innovation can only be found in academies and free schools.

There are great schools, good schools, and not so good schools. We should be hunting down and shining a spotlight on the good and the great, wherever that may be – academy, free school or, dare I say it, ‘council-run’.

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Filed under Academy Schools, Free Schools, Michael Gove, Schools

Return to Planet Gove

It’s been quite a while since I’ve had time to blog. Years and years in fact. How time flies. I’m afraid to say life has interrupted the flow. Children, work, work, children, lack of sleep, children, work, lack of sleep.

Of course, there’s been no shortage of subject matter and more than enough piffle from Gove and the gang to justify a bit of cathartic spleen-venting. The real problem is that much of what passes for policy at the moment is so utterly disconnected from the real world it has become dangerously easy to step away from the debate.

At times, the discussion has seemed other-wordly, preposterous even. All that gumph about behaviour, saying teachers should get children to pick up litter and tidy classrooms as a consequence for unruliness. What on earth does he think we do all day?

Then the ridiculous comparisons between private and state schools. Great for headline grabbing but, come on, really. It was a classic public school debating tactic to box in opponents – who could possibly say they wouldn’t want children in their local school to have even a fraction of the experiences of your average Harrovian?

The challenges the children in my school face, growing up with the childhood-sapping complexities of mental health, domestic violence and deprivation, warrant a bit more than clever-clever point scoring.

So, time to return to the fray. Children, work, work, children, blog, lack of sleep, children, work, blog.

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Filed under Michael Gove, Policy

Gove adds fuel to the fire

Whatever your view of this Thursday’s strike action, you would think this would be a time for cool heads. A tense situation needs careful handling yet, in piles the Education Secretary, urging parents to break the strike and take the place of teachers in the classroom.

This is dotty on so many levels. These parents would need to be supervised – so who would be free to do that? What exactly would they teach? What would happen, say, if there was an accident? Or a badly misbehaving pupil? Head Teachers and Governors would have a lot of explaining to do (and be without a leg to stand on) if something went wrong.

Aside from the practicalities, Gove is also sending the message that teaching is an amateurish pursuit which anyone can have a go at, and do to satisfactory standard at the drop of a hat. Causing offence and being provocative at such a time is a very peculiar tactic. The effect of such disrespect, rather than diffusing the situation, will be to rally more and more teachers to the union cause

More perniciously, Gove’s words seek to drive a wedge between the two most important people in a child’s learning and development: teacher and parent. Where there is trust, understanding and dialogue between teacher and parent, the child benefits.

Parents may – or may not – support the strike action. If they don’t, there is no reason why this relationship should collapse as a result; it should be strong enough and mature enough to withstand a difference of opinion.

But why should the Education Secretary decide to strain this relationship, to push it past breaking point, by saying it would be ‘great’ if parents, this Thursday, became strike-breakers.

When a dangerous fire is beginning to burn, Mr Gove, wouldn’t it be wise to dampen it down; to calmly put it out rather than adding more fuel?

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Filed under Michael Gove, Politics - general, Schools

Gove should look to Finland for a Master class

Michael Gove has hopped around the globe to find the ideas and the justification for his education policies; Singapore, Sweden, the U.S, Canada and Finland regularly pop up as the inspiration for everything from free schools to curriculum reform.

Of course, it would be wrong-headed to close our eyes to innovation, whether it’s in a school next door or a classroom in Kuala Lumpur.

Equally, there are difficulties with directly importing policies from overseas, not least because of the social, economic, cultural and historical differences from one country to the next.

As such, transplanting ideas is not simply a case of ‘cut and paste’, much like the wine that tastes sumptuous when gazing at the Adriatic breathing in lemon-scented air, which turns to vinegar when you’re back in blighty watching Eastender and tucking into a chicken chow mein.

With wine and with policy, you have to take great care with what goes in the suitcase for the homeward flight.

It is hard to know what to pick. The easiest option is to establish your point of view and merely scour the globe for ideas that closely match your own preconceptions. This, however, lacks objectivity. It rules out the genuinely innovative – you look but you don’t really see.

Looking at Gove’s plans, it’s not clear whether this really has been a genuine attempt to scrutinise our friends and competitors and to match – or exceed – the best of what they do (have a read of this excellent article on the school system in Finland, a country often cited by Gove as as an inspiration, not least because they regularly appear top of international league tables – make a tally of ‘similarities’ and ‘differences’ and see which comes on top).

Hence, we choose to import the concept of free schools from the U.S and Sweden, but ignore the fact that Finland has no equivalent. And, where a child aged seven in Helsinki will just be starting school after a play-based introduction to learning, in England we have decided to introduce a reading test at the age of six to see whether they can read not just simple words, but also non-words like ‘koob’ or ‘zort’. Madness!

Yet, staring us in the face, there is one area where we should replicate our Finnish friends precisely; it would make a huge, tangible difference to the quality of education in this country. And it’s quite simple: teachers should be qualified to Masters level.

Imagine this: every teacher undertaking further to study to improve their classroom practice; every teacher familiar with the latest research (and knowing themselves what the best schools in Alberta and Stockholm are up to); every teacher developing specialist knowledge and applying it in their classrooms; every teacher understanding research methods and continually investigating ways to improve what they do.

Imagine the potential for improving the quality of teaching – and try to imagine the difference this would make to children’s learning.

This would not need radical upheaval of school governance, nor (relatively speaking) bags of cash. There would certainly be no need for a shiny new Education Bill. But maybe that’s why it’s been ignored by Michael Gove – the best ideas don’t always catch the eye, particularly when you aren’t looking closely enough.

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Filed under Michael Gove, Policy, Politics - general, Schools

Gove’s induction plan fails to excite

With a distinct lack of fanfare, Michael Gove has announced plans to shake-up the induction arrangements for new teachers.

Admittedly, not a story to compete with Kate and Wills. Even the spin maestro’s at Education HQ managed to generate a press release which was startling only its literalness: ‘Induction regulations for newly qualified teachers’, the headline reads. A job at Ronseal awaits for said press officer.

But enough sitting on the fence; let’s take a peek at the latest to emerge from Michael of Whitehall.

First reaction? It seems entirely reasonable to take a fresh look at this. It’s sensible housekeeping, if nothing else, to check such things as induction processes are functioning properly or, to use the jargon, ‘fit for purpose’.

My experience is that the induction process does the job in a fairly dry, unexciting, predictable way. In completing the ‘standards’ there’s ample opportunity for the teacher to focus on the specific requirements of the job, to ask for help, to observe, to practise, to learn, and to demonstrate competence; they provide focus for what can be a frantic first year. It gives the learning curve some kind of shape and form.

Equally, there is enough scope for a school to identify those who have scraped through teacher-training and who would actually be best suited doing something completely unlike teaching. Not to put to fine a point on it, at this stage, the wheat can be sifted from the chaff.

In terms of the detail of the current arrangements, there is a bit too much repetition and a bit too much ticking of boxes – although it’s not so bad that this hinders retention of good teachers, as Gove claims (without any reference or citation, as is often the case). Nevertheless, a trimming of the unnecessary bureaucracy is no bad thing.

But, and this is the key point, a significant trick will be missed if this becomes solely an exercise in paper reduction.

It will leave untouched the real point and focus of the introduction to such an important profession. That is, to begin the process of turning wide-eyed novice into a pedagogue of some excellence. To do this requires much more than just doing less, and much more enthusiasm than is evident in this drab announcement.

Where is the sense of possibility? Where is there anything clear or concrete about raising the teaching profession to new heights? Where is the ambition?

All we have is a wearisome quote from Nick Gibb which starts off aimless and, from there, fails to improve. The deficit, it seems, has truly left us impoverished.

Once again, when it comes to teacher development – the silver bullet of educational reform – Gove and his team reveal their timidity. On funding and on legislative reform the main man is bold and radical. Too bold and too radical, perhaps, but – whether you like them or not – there is no denying his policies in these areas are imbued with considerable energy.

Instead, we see scraps: disallowing graduates with third-class degrees from teaching; a troops-to-teachers programme and (admittedly a bit more substantial) plans for Teaching Schools. This is not to mention the mixing of messages which results in a raising of the entry level for teaching in a maintained school, yet for Free Schools, the removal of any requirements for a teaching qualification at all.

So far, for Michael Gove, when it comes to the most important cog in the educational wheel – improving the quality of teachers – he fails to excite. His imagination fails.

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Filed under Michael Gove, Nick Gibb, Policy, Schools