I started writing this recovering from the Death by Nativity Play Rehearsals. Every teacher has to put up with these and you can see the fear in their eyes growing from October onwards. Given bad luck being placed in schools, however, and a supply teacher can end up viewing 20 Nativity Play rehearsals of varying degrees of quality. I think I saw 10 in the end and also oversaw a reception Christmas party. My tinnitus, needless to say, only got worse. For many reasons, I am only picking it up again at Easter. I am lucky – a lot of teachers probably still have too much teaching work – marking, planning, etc – to do or really couldn’t face writing about education in their precious time away.
It seems time that I should address the G-word. In a way, it seems redundant to write about him as his every loopy utterance is quite rightly attacked in the media, blogs and on internet forums and message boards. Indeed, I tend to zone out at his pronouncements nowadays as they are so out of touch with anything based in evidence and experience. I should probably pay more attention to that which will probably affect me so greatly and directly but feel somewhat like a saturated sponge. Almost needless to say, the man is an idiot but, like Boris Johnson, not some harmless comical one. He is a man who is dangerous to education and, by association, to the country.
What I will say is that Gove’s pronouncements are so little based in robust evidence-based thinking that he would have been thrown off my Education Studies cause after the first assignment. As an example, in a document called “Training our next generation of outstanding teachers“, Gove (through the DfE) made claims that school-based training is better for teachers. He made three references to “Musset et al. (2010)”. In a manner that would have got him marked down by my lecturers, however, that is the only reference. Perhaps the reason for the obfuscation is that, after a bit of Googlery, you find out that the paper is an OECD Education Working Paper called “Initial Teacher Education and Continuing Training: Policies in a Comparative Perspective” (http://tinyurl.com/n3uufnx) which was written for the OECD-Mexico Co-operation Agreement to Improve the Quality of Education in Mexican Schools. A working paper written about Mexican schools. Not only that but the paper merely refers back to the existing school-based education in the UK in the literature review. It also has appalling typos. Anyway, I digress.
Anyway, aside from that bit of Gove-bashing, my main argument is that, for all his idiocy, he is only the logical conclusion of a process that has been evolving over the last 30 plus years and, with the Liberals now in the coalition, is the fault of all three major parties.
From the start of universal free schooling straight after the way to the mid-1970s, a non-partisan post-war consensus between political parties ensured curricular and pedagogical autonomy for the teaching profession. The state had no involvement in curriculum or pedagogy, these were the sole responsibility of teachers while the LEAs appointed and paid teachers and for buildings, equipment, resources and materials and Her Majesty’s Inspectors cursorily oversaw the system. Let me put my cards on the table and say that this, to me, is the ideal system for running an education system more or less (I would also rid the system of religious, private, selective, single-sex and, obviously, Free schools and academies).
This was a period of almost-complete teacher autonomy. Local Education Authorities encouraged teacher-led curriculum innovation in schools, increased professionalisation of teachers and the high degree of autonomy which they enjoyed. However, a foreshadowing of the death knell of this golden age was soon upon the profession, during the 1970s, with the demise of the post-war consensus on education prompted by concerns about teacher autonomy and progressive teaching, illustrated clearly by the Willam Tyndale school controversy. The latter is an event that continues to be bashed about teachers’ heads 40 years after the event and in the shadow of an education system that continues expand the inequality of education. The real reason that politicians were worried was the economic recession fuelled by the OPEC oil crisis with those pesky Arab countries wanting their oil to themselves. William Tyndale etc. was just a useful scapegoat, an excuse to get politicians and outside interests involved in education so that the country could ‘compete’.
Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech in 1976 announced the politicians, parents and, more ominously, industry would be getting involved in education. This precipitated a major sea-change in the involvement of the state in education. Firstly, education was no longer being seen as a benefit for children administered by the state for the benefit of the rest of society as well – including such hitherto unconsidered figures such as industry . To this end, Callaghan suggested a “basic curriculum with universal standards” that would “equip children…for a lively, constructive place in society” but, also, conscious of the mass unemployment, “to do a job of work” . Education being a process that providers what Marxists would call a semi-skilled workforce – and they would be right. Not only did this signify a remodelling of education as form of technicist training but paved the way for later developments such as introduction of the National Curriculum by Thatcher’s later government. This from a Labour government, don’t forget.
As it happens, Thatcher’s government’s education policies were fairly restricted in its first two terms. However, the appointment of Keith Joseph, a free market advocate, as Education Minister in 1981, led to much more control of education being taken by the government and the genesis of the decreasing of teacher autonomy over curriculum and pedagogy that would not only be seen over the period of Thatcher’s government but henceforth. In 1980, they did introduce open enrolment whereby parents could now choose the school that their children were sent to, subject to available places, and had a chance to sit on the school governing bodies. As I have mentioned previously, this has led to a widespread change in the attitudes of many parents not only towards teachers but also to the idea of sending their children to the local school. After a third election in 1987, however, the Conservative government introduced the National Curriculum which proscribed the core subjects to be taught in all state primary and secondary schools. This curriculum was notably written by the government with no input from teachers – the Schools Council, which had had great involvement in the design of curriculum and examinations previously having been disbanded in 1982. Indeed, it shows the control that was given to the Minister of Education, Kenneth Baker that he could proscribe that 10 subjects that were to be taught compulsorily until age 16, even despite disagreement of Thatcher who wanted a core of English, Maths and Science. This bill also introduced funding attached to individual pupils through Local Management of Schools in 1988 which, along with the previous open enrolment, was to effectively usher in marketision on education by introducing competition between schools. It also marginalised the influence of the Local Education Authorities by funding schools directly along with creating the opportunities for schools to opt out of LEA control completely by becoming ‘grant-maintained’ (a precursor of Free Schoos and academies). Control of the education system was also to be further strengthened with the establishment of the Ofsted replacing HMIs and further reducing the teachers’ professional autonomy.
In many ways, this Act opened the floodgates for state involvement in education. Further adjustments to the education system under the Major government. The introduction of state involvement in pedagogy as well as curriculum with the Literacy and Numeracy Strategies in 1998 – coming in, again, from a Labour Party – was merely building on the foundations of 1988 . Indeed, considering that Blair’s New Labour carried on the Conservative policies of ‘parent power’, neo-liberal marketisation in education and Ofsted inspections, it was as natural a development as anything a Conservative government would have implemented.
Of course, after this, the introduction of Academy schools in 2000, which partly resurrected an ultimately doomed Thatcherite idea of City Technology Colleges, as well as an increase in faith schools, reduced further state involvement in the curriculum and pedagogy in education . Academies put the control of education into the hands of private sponsors and religious bodies rather than returning it to teachers, especially in remaining state schools still bound to the National curriculum. With the continued move away from true comprehensive education, e.g. the introduction of specialist schools that were allowed to select a small number of their pupils and widening of the academy system by the coalition government in 2010, teachers and local education authorities have been almost completely bypassed in involvement in the governing of schools and choice of curriculum and pedagogy.
This brings up right up to date with Gove who has further marginalised the latter’s control with his implementations of Free Schools where, theoretically, parents and teachers will be able to run schools outside of local education authorities and with their own curriculum. However, running a school being such a huge and complicated undertaking, it was always more realistic that these schools would be run by private companies who could manage such an endeavour. What has happened with these Free schools (and, indeed, academies) and the companies that run them are for another day.
Although the state control of education has gradually increased and, to an extent, decreased again since the turn of the last century, this means nothing, apart from its effects on teacher’s autonomy and political ideologies, unless we judge what impact these changes have had on the children in the education system. While it would be tempting to look at at numbers of passes in public exams, education has to address social inequalities and provide equality of opportunity to all children entering schools. In their flawed but useful book ‘The Spirit Level’ the authors posit that it is not only beneficial for individuals to have equality of opportunity but also for society as an educated working population contributes more and is less reliant on society, is more likely to have good health and less likely to commit criminal acts . The 1944 Education act was introduced to provide an education system that closed the attainment gap between rich and poor and, as such, subsequent education policies need to be judged by how successful they were in this. Evidence of a reduction in inequality in any education system has to be taken into account as well as total attainment.
The current marketised education system, introduced by Tories and enthusiastically adopted and expanded on by New Labour and now the coalition, was supposed to offer more choice and diversity of schools to the consumer of this particular market. With the introduction of parental choice of schools and parental governors, it is arguable that the consumers were the parents rather than the children. The 1996 Education Act was concerned with parental choice and the New Labour government would continue the Thatcherite ideal that market forces would raise standards. When looking at the available attainment statistics of New Labour from 1999 to 2010 and the Coalition government’s figures for 2011, passes of 5 GCSEs at A*-C have increased for the total amount of children entered. However, selective schools outperformed non-selective schools by 47.7% on average and independent schools have outperformed non-selective schools by 32% meaning that, despite increases in the education system as a whole, there are still inequalities between selective schools, independent schools and comprehensive schools . Research of statistics since 2003 of children who are in receipt of Free School Meals – an indicator of low income- and those not receiving FSM shows the disparity is even larger . Non-FSM children have outperformed FSM children on average by 27.5%, albeit with the gap decreasing slightly every year.
While there appears to have been a steady increase in GCSEs, the British education system is still rife with inequality – between independent, grammar and comprehensive schools and, more dramatically, between children who are at the lower end of the income scale and receiving free school meals and those that are not eligible – albeit there is slow small reductions in the disparities year on year. More pointedly, this social class attainment gap has run through the whole post-war education era from the intrinsically unequal grammar school system through the ‘golden age of teacher autonomy” era of the well-intentioned introduction of comprehensive schools undermined by existing grammar schools and middle class manipulation of the system through to the marketised education system of the Thatcherite and New Labour years. State involvement in the education system during this time has gone from ensuring the rights of children to free comprehensive education but with a light touch on teachers and schools to the proscription of curriculum, pedagogy and national testing . Finally, the neo-liberal marketeers of New Labour and, presently, the Coalition Government appear to be divesting control not back to education professionals but to parents, religious groups and private enterprise.
What has this long historical meander got to do with Gove? Well, he is basically the beneficiary and result of a system that started over 30 years ago with the jettisoning of the post-war consensus and has continued with more and more meddling of pedagogy, curriculum and the administration of schools by increasing numbers of completely unqualified non-teachers. He hasn’t just popped up out of nowhere, the last thirty years’ governments’ education policies have paved the way for someone like him.