Mr Michael Gove – provocative and wrong

What do the Blob, Mr Men and Guardian education writers have in common? They all appear somewhere in Michael Gove’s pantheon of disapproval. The Education Secretary’s latest speech about the problems besetting education is classic Gove. It is very engaging, thought provoking and entertaining. His view on raising the bar of aspiration for all young people is absolutely right. Yet his method is so wrong.

As principal of an academic school where aspiration is part of our DNA, I really do get Gove’s passion for excellence. However, what mystifies me is his very personal take on what should matter in the pursuit of excellence. Gove referenced George Elliot’s Middlemarch as illustrative of the kind of book a 17 year old should be reading for pleasure. This struck a chord with me. As a 13 year old back in the last century I was so inspired by a BBC mini series of “War and Peace” starring Anthony Hopkins and Alan Dobie that I read the trilogy. Whilst I cannot claim to have truly appreciated this classic piece of literature, I knew I was reading something very special which helped awaken in me a life long love of history. I am sure Gove would approve of such cultural aspiration from a working class daughter of Irish immigrants. Yet I should never have even considered reading such a vast tome without the stimulus of the TV series.

TolstoyAnd this is the point. Just as the medium of television opened up the world of Tolstoy to me, today television is one of just a multitude of possibilities for engaging the young. Their cultural landscape is hugely varied. What interests them? Well, I think sober study of classic literature and dry narrative history do not register highly. Young people need an approach which connects with them and the values in their world.

As such, Gove’s dismissive attitude to cultural references which are decidedly low brow entirely miss the point. Mr Men? Disney? Why not if they contribute to understanding and learning. It is not about denigrating, it is about creating. Why not a rap in Latin? Blind Date in the court of Henry VIII? iPad puppet pals for any number of learning opportunities? All tried and trusted approaches in one academic school in Cambridge.

Rather than looking to the familiar, everyone involved in education should be thinking differently about learning. The digital world is a game changer. And we must change with it. If Angry Birds, the staple digital game of many youngsters, inspires a young person to learn coding surely that is a desirable outcome? If the Garage Band app provides a creative platform for an aspiring young musician isn’t this to be applauded? Both activities can be deemed distractions – but they need not be.

We are on the nursery slopes of digital learning. The potential for transformation of the conventional educational paradigm is extraordinary. Yet none of this registers in the world of the Secretary of State for Education. It strikes me that Gove’s well meaning attempts to promote excellence for all young people is being enacted in a parallel universe. The Aunt
Sallies highlighted in Mr Gove’s recent speech will be as nothing compared to future digital “distractions” – sorry, learning.

Final thought. A delegation of teachers from an academic school in Singapore visited us recently to learn about our experience of iPads. I thought that the principal and her staff would be focused on the use of iPads to improve academic attainment. After all, Singapore is flying high in Gove’s favourite international league table, PISA. I was surprised and encouraged to learn that this particular school was, like us, concerned with the holistic nature of education and how the digital revolution impacted upon young people.

We felt a real connection with the educators who worked in a school on the other side of the world. Therefore it is disappointing that the educational policy in this country feels like we are living in a foreign country.

10 thoughts on “Mr Michael Gove – provocative and wrong

  1. 3arn0wl

    More worrying still, as I understand it, in the iGCSE History lesson that Mr. Gove referenced, the students were using the Mr. Men characters to teach younger pupils something they’d learnt. Surely one of the best ways to learn is to teach someone else.

    1. karenhudspith

      Exactly. consolidation of learning over a 6 week period, an extended essay for an adult audience and then an opportunity to precis the key points by writing for a younger audience. Sounds like a fantastic approach to me! I imagine the primary school pupils will remember it too!

  2. neilatkin63

    Great blog thanks!
    3arnOwl If you follow Hattie’s research teaching others is one of the most effective strategies, the Mr Man lesson also hits the highest level of Bloom’s and SOLO taxonomy

  3. karenhudspith

    Just read your blog Sue. an excellent set of advice. the real danger is in the ‘cherry picking’ of facts without providing the whole picture and then using this to denigrate the whole profession in the tabloid press.

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  6. Clara

    I’m nervous about disagreeing with a Principal, but I do think you are 100% wrong.
    I have recently emerged from the education system and whenever our teachers tried to relate stuff to popular culture, we just treated what they said with utter contempt. It was like watching your dad dancing.
    I come from a working class background and hated the way school always tried to connect things with our home lives and culture. Believe me, when your family life is dominated by Hip Hop, you really don’t need it in lessons. I hated Geography because all we ever did had to relate to the local area. We hated the local area – it was a boring dump. We wanted teachers to open doors to magical and fascinating places like China or Peru. But they never did. Unlike you, I did not need a TV costume drama to spark my interest in Russian novels. I was lent Crime and Punishment by a teacher. It was nothing to do with a course. The teacher just said “read this and we’ll talk about it”. After that, I couldn’t stop reading Russian novels for a year.
    As for technology, we looked to the internet to escape from the samey celeb/pop-culture rubbish that our teachers (wrongly) thought we’d relate to or find “relevant” (totally condescending!). Technology should be emancipating, liberating, not just replicating the prison bars already round our minds. Gove is the first politician I’ve seen who even begins to get it.

  7. jameswilding

    I simply don’t recognise your experience as being from the same kind of school that Tricia or I work in, but what I do recognise is the blinding light you show on my ignorance (at least).
    I completely agree with your observations about trying to make education relevant. But – I lead Duke of Edinburgh Bronze award training in my school in our locality because a. the 14+ year olds don’t know their own area and b. it is stunningly beautiful.
    So Going local for stimulus does not mean Going banal. When we hosted a holocaust day this March, we did not need to move 1 cm/inch to feel utterly moved and renewed by the experience.
    What pretty much everyone in education objects about MG’s approach is that his script is unsupported by the evidence he qoes supports it. In short, he traduces schools for the work he says he has seen them do badly, and he has never actually visited. When he quotes academic research and it is no more than anecdotal customer feedback, he loses credibility. When he picks Mr Men from a random revision site and uses it to exemplify that all teachers ‘do this’ and ‘dumb down’, and does it so many times over three years, frankly he is sticking 2 fingers up at experienced experts who lead their field.
    But you are right in highlighting that for some, their school experience is terrible. So what would you rather – set up lots of free schools and cross your fingers, or agree a rigorous placement of those who can’t afford to pay into independent broad or selective ability schools where a truly inspirational educational experience prevails. covers this most weeks – come and see us please.


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