My response to Michael Gove's response to my response to his speech


Overall, Michael Gove’s response to my seven questions is being interpreted as a more moderate defence of his traditionalist perspective on teaching and learning. This is a relief to some, a disappointment to others. Here are some of my thoughts.

I do think Michael adopts a more conciliatory tone than in his speech at the RSA and than other traditionalists. This may be because he has tempered his views or it may be simply to reassure progressives like me.

My concern – one have shared with Michael – is that if he is the Secretary of State the position ‘this is what I think is right but, hey, it’s up to schools and parents to decide’ will be hard to sustain. The powerful traditionalist lobby will expect a sympathetic Secretary of State to stamp down on those progressive practices which they are convinced are damaging children and society. There will be orchestrated pressure and Michael will need to be strong and subtle if he is to espouse his beliefs without becoming prescriptive.     

There is a very specific charge that Michael makes, and which is repeated by Joe Nutt. This is that schools are encouraging pupils who could achieve good passes in ‘more challenging’ GCSEs to take media studies (or other non traditional subjects) because it is easier for the school to get a pass and thus improve its league table position. The Conservative response to this is – as I understand it - to introduce qualification weighting so that ‘hard/traditional’ subjects have more value in terms of assessing school assessment.

If Michael and Joe are right that schools are encouraging children to aim lower so as to improve their scores this is a depressing reflection on the ethical standards of school leaders. If heads are only driven by self interest the danger is that one set of perverse incentives is replaced by another, so that someone who is potentially brilliant at media studies or sociology is forced to spend a miserable two years being crammed to achieve a ‘C’ in further maths or additional science.   

There aren’t many facts or stats in Michael’s reply. In some ways this is a relief as a lot of ‘evidence’ in educational debates is anecdotal or tendentious. However, I find the reliance on the words of a social democrat educationalist, who apparently agrees with Michael on the curriculum, interesting but unconvincing; as if I tried to make Michael into an enthusiast for the European Union by quoting Ken Clarke or Chris Patten.

At an event here yesterday the Young Foundation’s Geoff Mulgan (someone who immerses himself in the evidence) asserted that there was now overwhelming research support for the importance of interventions at schools designed to develop the emotional and social competencies of children. This too is what I hear from employers (but this isssue is well covered in yesterday's comments).

In other areas, like community engagement, project based learning, schools as part of the broader fabric of children’s services, Michael seems less opposed as indifferent, which I guess is fair enough.  Some heads seem to be hostile to the idea of wider community engagement (a stance which dismays other heads and public agencies); I guess they will feel their stance is validated. I believe schools need to be active, both bringing the wider community in and seeking to instill a culture of learning in that community. There are reasons to believe these strategies work and the RSA aims to explore this further. If we do develop some successful practice, let’s hope Michael will be receptive.

My final reflection concerns question 7, on which no one else has yet commented. Over the last thirty years (under Conservative and Labour governments) participation rates in higher education have risen sharply (a higher ratio of children go to university now than went to sixth form when I was at school). There is evidence that over this time underlying attainment (measured for example in IQ scores) has also risen, but not nearly as fast. So, being logical (as Michael insists) rising participation relies on a  combination of raising attainment and a deliberate policy of making it easier for moderately bright young people to go on to higher education (this, by the way, is the explicit strategy in most developed and many developing nations). And, in this combination, it has been the commitment to increasing participation that has been the main driver

My question – which I think was pretty clear - was whether Michael intends to abandon this policy. His answer is that he will increase participation purely by raising attainment. This is a fine ambition but it is also long term and very challenging. The question is whether in the meantime a Conservative Government will abandon a policy of making it easier for young people to get into university. I interpret Michael’s answer as a ‘yes’. Which, again, is fine, although, as I have suggested before, it doesn’t seem to be quite the position being espoused by Conservative HE spokesman David Willets.

Anyway, that’s enough of that. Thanks again to Michael Gove for taking to time tor reply and now I think I’ll give education a rest for a few days.

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