Tag Archives: collaboration

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.

Learning service or Service-Learning?

The Duke of Wellington was famously credited with asserting that the Battle of Waterloo (1815) was won “on the playing fields of Eton”.  Well, in his own twenty first century way, Jesse Norman, Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, Old Etonian, and acquaintance of Johnson clan (various), has claimed another famous victory for his Alma Mater. Defending the preponderance of fellow Old Etonians in the government, Mr Norman declared that Eton uniquely promoted an ethos of commitment to public service:
“(Eton) is one of the few schools where the pupils really do run vast chunks of the school themselves. So they don’t defer in quite the same way; they do think there’s the possibility of making change through their own actions.”

Umm. Apart from smacking a little of “Lord of the Flies”, this highly personal view of Mr Norman’s own education does a great disservice to schools in both the maintained and independent sectors. Schools across the land may not all have the playing fields of Eton (probably been sold off), but they do have what matters more – a community. And the best school communities will have what can be simply described as a heart, promoting a sense of social responsibility and service within the school and beyond. Whilst the government metric for success in schools focuses on examination performance and league tables, much of the fantastic work of our young people goes under the radar. Schools value it because teachers working with young people understand that school is not just about examination success.

Interestingly governments in other countries share this belief. In the U.S. for example there is a commitment to what is described as Service-Learning:

“Service-Learning is a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.”

Underpinning this is a range of activities familiar to us yet valued in a way unfamiliar in our system. Service-Learning is not about short term volunteerism or extra curricular bolt ons. It is about integrating this approach into the curriculum:

“If school students collect trash from an urban stream bed, analyse their findings to determine the possible sources of pollution, and share the results with residents of the neighborhood, they are engaging in Service-Learning. In addition to providing an important service to the community, students are learning about water quality and laboratory analysis, developing an understanding of pollution issues, and practising communications skills. They may also reflect on their personal and career interests in science, the environment, public policy or other related areas. Both the students and the community have been involved in a transformative experience.” ( http://www.servicelearning.org )

Looking through the prism of this model it is striking that the desired learning outcomes are not subject to assessment in a sense we would understand. Service-Learning strives to promote a greater understanding and awareness of the place of a young person in their world and their own sense of responsibility.

If we insist on only valuing what we can measure in this country, let’s think about measurement in a way which takes account of our own version of Service-Learning. After all, Michael Gove believes teachers should create their own curriculum in the future. Surely this offers an opportunity to build on the excellent practice which already exists in our schools. Who knows? We may find future generations of young people from a range of backgrounds and schools aspiring to serve in government because they know through their experience that they can make a difference through learning  Service-Learning.

Mr Michael Gove – let me introduce Sir Ken Robinson.

Tin hats on. Michael Gove has stirred up another hornet’s nest, this time about school holidays (too long) and the school day (too short). Gove attracted the epithet “Gove the Holiday Snatcher” in one of the red tops – a topical reference to Lady Thatcher who, as the Education Secretary, assumed the role of pantomime villain when she was dubbed the ‘Milk Snatcher’ for ending school milk for children.

It is difficult to know how to interpret Gove’s most recent pronouncement. He did not so much open a debate as unleash a cacophony of noise. Gove’s now trade mark tendency of making grandiloquent statements with little reference to an evidence base underpinned his declaration on school holidays. Twitter, where embedded teachers engage in virtual guerrilla warfare against Gove, was on red alert as outraged educators hissed and booed Gove’s latest hobby horse. An inconvenient truth quickly emerged. A document, collated by the European Commission listing term dates in every country in Europe, went viral. It placed this country near the top of Gove’s new league table of countries with the shortest holidays. So if the UK had to think again about school holidays because of the perceived educational advantage of students in Asia then so too had our European neighbours – who, to the best of my knowledge, are not beating this particular drum.

As someone who would value debate about the best configuration of school terms for learning, I find Gove’s intervention really unhelpful. A political approach elicits a political response. And without a doubt, the simplicity of Gove’s panacea in response to a complex set of educational issues can only be explained as the thinking of a politician.

Anyone actively involved in education knows that the physical corralling of students in a classroom does not necessarily equate to learning. Learning is not a mechanical process to be packaged and measured by length of service in schools. Indeed with the digital revolution transforming our lives, it can be argued that the Pandora’s Box is open and learning has escaped its physical footprint. If this is indeed the case, discussions about length of school terms become, at best, about child care and, at worst, a very twentieth century preoccupation.

Yet again it seems to me that Gove is posing the wrong question. And he is hugely underestimating the importance of time outside of formal schooling in the development of a young person. Children do not stop learning just because of location. With the right mindset, learning is everywhere.

Yet herein lies the rub. The curriculum proposals favoured by Michael Gove are characterised by weight of knowledge to the detriment of developing the attributes of a successful learner. The generation of school children entering schools in the second decade of the twenty first century should be engaging in an educational journey which takes them beyond the constraints of a very English curriculum. Our global inter connectedness is an important feature of our lives and will be integral to theirs.

Thankfully there are other voices contributing to the educational debate. Sir Ken Robinson (@SirKenRobinson) enjoys an international reputation for his work on the importance of creativity in education. For him creativity is important for the economy, culture and personal growth particularly in our inter connected world. Indeed his efforts to persuade the previous incumbents of the Department of Education of the importance of creativity in learning were politely rebuffed. Yet his views have become a meme of our age, his talks on the highly regarded TED Talks watched by millions across the world. At the very least there should be some engagement with this thinking in our own national debate. Rather than – dare I say – a very uncreative discussion about length of school terms.

watch here: Sir Ken Robinson on creativity

Responding to Michael Gove in the Daily Mail and The Blob

Snow in late March is as unexpected as Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, embracing the world we live in today.

Michael Gove, The Blob

Michael Gove

Unlike the weather, Gove does not disappoint. True to form Gove uses his media platform of choice, Mail Online, to articulate clearly his contempt for those who oppose his reforms, castigating them as Marxists. Indeed, he paints a picture of conspiracy at the heart of education saying:

“School reformers in the past often complained about what was called The Blob – the network of educational gurus in and around our universities who praised each other’s research, sat on committees that drafted politically correct curricula, drew gifted young teachers away from their vocation and instead directed them towards ideologically driven theory.”

Golly – The Blob has a great deal to answer for if this is indeed the case. Gove’s academy and free school agenda is designed to destroy this cabal, as is his determination to move responsibility for teacher training from the ideologues in universities into schools.

As someone who has worked in schools for nearly 30 years I am struggling to reconcile Gove’s world view with my experience. As Principal of an independent school, I can hardly be described as a Marxist or indeed a card carrying member of The Blob. Yet I share the concern of fellow educators about the direction Gove is determined to take us. His talk about standards and rigour is all sound and fury. Standards and rigour are not antithetical to an education which values higher order thinking.

The trigger for Gove’s diatribe would appear to be a letter published in the Independent, signed by 100 eminent academics and teachers, which is acutely critical of the proposed educational reforms. Referring to a recent CBI report (not known as a hotbed of Marxism), it notes the “need to end the culture of micro-management” in schools and (citing the Cambridge Primary Review) the propensity to value memorisation and recall over understanding and inquiry. The driver for Gove appears to be the PISA international tests where the UK is slipping in performance. Setting aside the debate about the true validity of this particular league table, the 100 academics make for me an unanswerable argument:

“Schools in high-achieving Finland, Massachusetts and Alberta emphasise cognitive development, critical understanding and creativity, not rote learning.”

In the internet age, this particular trivium is absolutely essential. Of course knowledge matters but to focus on this without any reference to the learning challenges of the digital revolution is not just shocking but irresponsible. At the touch of a finger on a myriad of devices young people can access so much information. How are they to understand this world unless they learn in ways appropriate for this century and not the last?

It strikes me that Gove is living in a world of certainties which looks in upon itself with wonder – he will slay The Blob and all its works and the Holy Grail of standards will be achieved. Actually, Mr Gove, the future is uncertain and the rigidity of thinking evidenced in the Mail Online article is deeply concerning.

Living in Cambridge cheek by jowl with Silicon Fen, we enjoy an insight into the future. It is extremely odd that whilst other ministers in the government fete this city for its innovation and excellence, the Secretary of State for Education does not appear to understand how our future success depends on an educational system which values “cognitive development, critical understanding and creativity.” Our young people deserve better from the true “enemy of promise”, Mr Michael Gove.

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