Tag Archives: Gove

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.

“Riot after Chinese teachers try to stop pupils cheating”

You couldn’t make the headline up: “Riot after Chinese teachers try to stop pupils cheating” (Telegraph). Yes, in the country held up as a model of educational attainment there are problems of the most fundamental kind. The pressure on students to perform well in the “gaokao” examinations which open the way to China’s elite universities appears to have resulted in cheating in the exam hall.

What is particularly shocking about this story is the apparent acquiescence of the invigilators in industrial scale misconduct. The scandal erupted in the city of Zhongxiang in Hubei province where the performance of students had attracted the wrong sort of attention from the authorities. Suspicions were aroused by students each year winning a disproportionate number of places at the country’s elite universities: “Last year, the city received a slap on the wrist from the province’s Education department after it discovered 99 identical papers in one subject. Forty five examiners were “harshly criticised” for allowing cheats to prosper.” New external invigilators were drafted in an effort to stamp out the cheating. “The invigilators wasted no time in using metal detectors to relieve students of their mobile phones and secret transmitters, some of them designed to look like pencil erasers.” The twist in this tale is that students and parents – far from feeling chagrin at the discovery – were furious. An angry mob surrounded the school chanting: “We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.”

The situation is beyond extraordinary and casts our examination issues into sharp relief. The pressure on young people in China is clearly unbearable. A report in the “Washington Post” suggests the Chinese government is acutely aware of these issues and is undertaking a series of reforms aimed at countering the culture of teaching to the test. The Chinese Ministry of Education has engaged in numerous systemic reforms over the last few decades aimed at limiting the impact of testing on teaching and learning. “However, due to internal and external factors, the tendency to evaluate education quality based simply on student test scores and (university) admissions rate has not been fundamentally changed,” says a document from the Ministry. “These problems [of evaluation] severely hamper student development as a whole person, stunt their healthy growth, and limit opportunities to cultivate social responsibilities, creative spirit, and practical abilities in students.”

Now this is the thinking of the Ministry of Education in the People’s Republic of China. The contrast with the direction of education policy in our country is stark. Whilst China seeks to establish a more balanced approach to education apparently oblivious to its standings in the PISA tables, our government is determined to increase reliance on terminal examinations at every stage of education because of the PISA tables. The notion of teaching to the test sadly is inevitable when students are faced with the one stop shop presented by the end of year exam. And the pressure on students who have to achieve ever higher grades to win coveted places at universities is increasing every year.

I am somewhat bemused at this topsy turvey state of affairs. China seeking a balanced holistic approach to education and England moving inexorably to a traditional diet of examinations all in the name of standards. Whatever next? China becoming a democracy?