Sunday, June 19, 2011

Michael Gove and school standards

It's a dispiriting time to be a teacher in Scotland at the moment. CoSLA, the umbrella group that represents the local authorities who employ those of us who work in the state sector, are engaged in a concerted onslaught on teachers' pay and conditions. That some of the changes to the latter will not save local government a red cent rather reinforces the impression that budgetary restraints are simply being used as a cover for teacher-bashing.

Meanwhile, 'union militancy' is, sadly, in rather short supply. The main teachers' union rather gives the impression of having completely lost sight of whose interests they are supposed to be defending. Being not very good at one's job is one thing but one really does despair when we are being represented by people who don't even appear to know what their job is.

Represented by people who don't know what their job is and working for people who don't know what my job is; CoSLA explicitly state here (p 12) that they do not consider that the main job of a teacher is to teach children. It's grim stuff, which was why I was beginning to wonder if some of the ideas coming from down south might not turn out to be rather better? It's certainly difficult to get all misty-eyed about local government if you live in this part of the world, I can tell you - so maybe schools being released from council control might not be such a bad idea?

I don't know but the problem with autonomy from local control is that it leaves the institution with nothing standing between it and central government - and the latter is at least as capable of being as stupid, capricious and belligerent as councils, which brings us to some of Michael Gove's remarks over the last week or so.

First he suggested that schools have 'tough targets' for GCSE passes imposed on them. Those failing to reach this new hurdle will face regime-change. Even one of Gove's most uncritical groupies has argued that this is arbitrary and unfair.

Then more recently he has suggested, at the most inappropriate time imaginable, that standards at the exam board aren't good enough.

Now, I have no idea whether exams in England are getting easier or not but that Gove can't see the obvious contradiction between these two positions is profoundly depressing. We can identify schools as 'under-performing' by the proportion of their intake who pass GCSEs, says Gove. However, if they improve on this record, we already know he would take this as evidence that examination standards have fallen because 'rigorous' exams can be identified by the proportion that fail them.

Here the attitude of Gove towards standards in schools is typical of the general Tory view, which in turn very much like their attitude to crime. Academic standards are falling and crime is rising - and whenever some objective statistical measure suggests this might not always be the case, the veracity of the measures themselves are called into question because what we are dealing with here are positions that are articles of faith rather than observations of how the world actually is.

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