A Letter to Mr Gove

Dear Mr Gove

As principal of an independent school, I have the advantage of not having to toe the government line. I can take a longer view on the edicts coming out of the DfE. As you know, there is a great deal of huffing and puffing among educationalists about your initiatives which I observe with interest. You are certainly not Mr Popularity with the teaching profession as the recent conferences for head teachers and teachers clearly illustrate.

Don’t misunderstand me. I appreciate that you are determined to “remove the cap” on aspiration in state schools which in principle is a good thing. The issues with social mobility are well documented and I think your personal mission to address this is commendable. I am where I am today because of my state education.

What really puzzles me is your view on the purpose of education. Your department is clearly on a mission to change the maintained sector. No shortage of initiatives from the DfE. If busy-ness was a measure of success you would win hands down. But really do these initiatives herald a new dawn in education?

Just this week your department churned out another good idea – every school should be able to determine its school holidays. Academies and Free Schools already enjoy this autonomy but you want all schools to be freed from the shackles of LEA holidays. You feel the long summer holidays were put in place for a nineteenth century agricultural society which manifestly is not the case today. Indeed for contemporary society there are very twenty first century problems to be addressed. Nick Gibb, a former Education Minister, commented on the Today programme on Radio 4 “the staggered holidays mean that it will be easier for parents to obtain cheaper holidays.” Presumably a benefit for teachers as well.

You have also made the point in the past that pupils should spend more time in school because this will both help their attainment and their hard pressed parents with child care.
On a superficial level your arguments certainly have some merit. Surely the longer a pupil is in a classroom the more they will learn. And child care can be an expensive business.

Yet, on reflection, I can’t help but think you are merely shifting deck chairs around on the deck of the Titanic. The fundamental problem is with the value we place on education. When I was growing up back in the ’60/70s my parents, Irish immigrants, fervently believed that the way to a better future for me was through education. As people who had to leave school very young, they jealously guarded my opportunities. At the Wellington Education Festival, which I know you attended, the highly respected journalist Fergal Keane made this very point. His lifetime of experience visiting troubled parts of the world left him in no doubt that education is transformative. It matters because it makes a difference.

Could it be that our focus on the measurables in education mean that too many pupils become disengaged? And that in your pursuit of restoring rigour to the qualifications framework you are alienating even more pupils who find it too high a hurdle? I was in conversation with a friend recently who works in a maintained school with a catchment which can be described as challenging. We had a frank discussion about the attitudes to learning in her school. Teachers essentially had to contend with too many students who regard time in school as a necessary evil. Legislating for them potentially to spend more time in a classroom will not change their attitude to school.

I think we are reaching a point in education when we need to return to first principles. What is learning for? After all, we are caught up on a digital revolution which is having a myriad of intended and unintended consequences in the education of the young. Surely we owe it to our society to be offering an education fit for the world today rather than fetishising about restoring a golden age of yesteryear?

Yours etc.

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