Why Mr Always Right is wrong

3 Jun 13
Melissa Benn

For Education Secretary Michael Gove, every critic of his reforms is an ‘enemy of promise’. But there’s a reason he can’t carry the profession with him.

It’s a puzzling paradox that within Conservative Westminster and media bubbles, Michael Gove is rated one of the most dynamic education secretaries ever, yet among those working in state schools, he is one of the most derided. The ‘no confidence’ vote head teachers passed on Gove at their annual May conference indicates a rising professional rebellion against the pace and tone of change.

The current clashes go back to the original, damaging national split between a privately educated elite and a state-educated majority. It’s a sad but salient fact that most of the Tory front bench – plus our newspaper editors, leading broadcasters and columnists – are privately educated, and educate their children the same way. They neither know nor understand the state system.

So they cheer when Mr Gove lectures state schools about their appalling low standards, citing everything from George Eliot’s Middlemarch (a book that apparently every 17-year-old girl should be expected to read) to Mr Men, a children’s book series Gove believes should never be used to teach history. They cheer loudly when Gove claims it is he who is the true progressive, since only his reforms will transform the educational chances of poorer children.

‘High standards for all’ is a powerful mantra: who could possibly oppose it? However, what those who work in and actually use state schools easily grasp is that the private – or ‘elite’ state grammar model – can’t, by definition, be transferred wholesale to a system that must successfully educate children with a range of talents and abilities, and from varying social backgrounds.

Rising to this challenge requires a different approach. First, it requires a recognition that far from being broken – the irresponsible Gove-ian mantra – state schools have improved remarkably in the past 15 years, thanks to investment, increased collaboration, and incremental improvement in teaching and leadership.

Second, many of the reforms that have  been introduced since 2010 are an increasingly toxic combination of a narrowing, prescriptive curriculum; unrealistic targets; and a punitive and inconsistent inspection regime. These risk damaging rather than enhancing the achievements of our schools, and the wellbeing of both staff and pupils.

Then there is the gross unfairness (as recently confirmed by the Public Accounts Committee) of a strategy of shifting billions from schools run by local authorities serving poor children in the maintained sector in order to support a widespread ‘conversion’ (of already ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools) to academies. The forced academisation of primary schools and increasingly divisive free schools are also hugely unpopular.

This rapid structural change has been justified on the grounds that ‘academies raise results’. But the facts simply do not bear this out. A Local Schools Network comparison shows that, like for like, non-academies marginally outperform academies on a range of markers.

It’s no surprise education professionals are desperate for a new direction. They want a clear, broad definition of national educational aims that would include not only those heading for a top university, but also those children with special needs who are simply not served by this ‘elite-lite’ strategy. Classroom teachers want a balanced, flexible curriculum that allows them both vital professional freedom and a chance to inspire, as well as a less rigid exam and accountability system.

If Gove were one of Roger Hargreaves’ Mr Men characters, he would surely be Mr Always Right. To him, every opponent is an ‘enemy of promise’; any critic, a closet Marxist. But he must know that the greatest reformers carry people with them – they inspire, not deride; they consult, not command.

In fact, to improve Gove’s self-awareness and public effectiveness, I prescribe a closer reading of the superb George Eliot for the minister over his surely much-needed summer break.

Melissa Benn is an award-winning writer, journalist and campaigner

This article first appreared in the June edition of Public Finance

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