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.
And 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.