"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Education & partisan centralism

Via the power of Facebook, I came across this post arguing that there's something about Gove that makes otherwise sensible people lose their goddamn minds:
"What is it about Gove that bends even sensible minds out of joint; that drives intelligent people absolutely batty with rage?"
Well, there's some fairly obvious aesthetic reasons - and for my part there's a certain amount of hostility borne from the fact that Gove and his fans persist on labelling those of us who do this job and have the temerity to join trades unions as the enemies of progress, whereas government ministers and departments are entirely altruistic, motivated by a concern for the Common Weal. (People who believe that are capable of believing anything - but that doesn't mean it isn't annoying.)  But beyond that, it's difficult to say. The feeling of extreme hostility isn't one I share, and neither do most of my colleagues. We're watching with interest what is happening south of the border. Some of what Gove proposes is entirely uncontroversial from a Scottish perspective, such as having a single exam board and a core set of subjects. Most of us have at least some sympathy for the idea that it is the purpose of the teacher to impart knowledge, rather than this emphasis on skills.

However, other aspects - if they've been reported accurately, and I appreciate this is a big 'if' - strike one as antediluvian and absurd, like the idea that primary children should be learning ancient Greek or force-fed Dickens. As for this notion that 'faith schools' produce better results? I often think there's very few arguments about education that couldn't be settled by a visit to the east end of Glasgow by some of these people who bring to their keyboards a wealth of opinion combined with a poverty of experience.

But my plea is this: if I wanted to learn more about what is going on in the education system in England, where should I look? Because I am clearly wasting my time reading the sort of posts and articles that I come across on a daily basis. Take the one above. I dare say anti-Gove comment isn't entirely rational but that coming from his supporters strikes me as being the flip-side of a coin that has very little acquaintance with what's actually going on in education in England. Or if it does, they're keeping it a secret. Gove is 'getting things done', we're told - without any analysis of what, exactly, he's doing, or why the author thinks this is a good idea. Without immersing myself in the details, the obvious characteristic of Gove's tenure as Education Secretary is what I've decided to call 'partisan centralism'. Would anyone argue with this description? It's certainly partisan, as his recent comments show - and it's centralised nature can be clearly seen in the way Gove and others have an opinion, and give direction, about every aspect of education: the content of the curriculum - subject by subject, what pupils wear, how teachers arrange the furniture in their rooms, the method by which those of primary age learn to read and so on.

Rather, the question is, why does anyone think this is a good way of running anything? The author of the post above dismisses as absurd the notion that there's something 'Bolshevik' about this - but it strikes the outside observer as a tad Soviet. Try a thought experiment: let's assume Gove is absolutely right about everything. (Bear with me...) In trying to implement a series of education reforms that were the very incarnation of this rightness, one is sure to encounter problems in the execution, given the scale and complexity of the project undertaken. To overcome these, one might want to seek the advice of those acquainted with these predictable difficulties. Now who among these is Gove or anyone at the Department of Education inclined to listen to? Teachers, civil servants, local government? Already dismissed as irrelevant - but here's where everyone, critics and fans, are missing the crucial point: irrelevant because all that matters now is the survival of these reforms as a political project, such is the nature of partisan centralism.  It is for this reason I'll predict that in ten or twenty years from now, you'll get the same complaints about education going to hell on a hand-cart.

Update: Gove making my point for me more perfectly than I could have imagined.  'Gove is getting things done', except by adopting the 'let's lose friends and alienate absolutely everyone we might depend on to implement our favoured reforms to prove how macho we are', it turns out that in fact he isn't getting things done at all.  The irony is the idea of having a core curriculum is a good one, IMHO.  Shame about the belligerent ideologues who have been 'tasked' with its implementation.


Peter Briffa said...


must do better.

Unknown said...

I think I was also on that FB thread. Marbury is a leftie, which is the interesting thing. He's roughly where people like John Rentoul are.

The Scottish education system has been better than that of England for decades. I mean, MUCH better. Nice schools in the Borders teach classics, where in some English schools literacy is hardly achieved by age 16.

The West London Free School has 20 applicants for every first year place. Parents - PARENTS - are desperate for reform.

The bile directed against Gove is the ill-tempered sour grapes and vindictiveness of an establishment that has betrayed children, especially the least-advantaged, systematically for decades. This is why they're so vicious: they're being exposed.

Shuggy said...

John Rentoul's a leftie? Nevermind that... I'm thinking you're missing the point of my post, Mr Unknown. Assuming Gove is basically correct - which I don't but am prepared to pretend for the purposes of argument - what reason is there to think this kind of centralism is the solution?

I also doubt Scottish schools are MUCH better, although maybe this is true. But what doesn't count as evidence of is that they teach classics. We had this at the school I attended and I imagine that most of those presently writing about education in the press these days would be afraid to go into it - and if they aren't, they certainly should be. If Scottish education is so much better, how does one explain this in relation to structure? About 97% of the population go to comprehensive schools under local authority control. There's a small private sector, no grammars and no 'academies'.

Now, I know Toby Young is a hate figure on the left but I don't want to join in for two reasons:

a) I don't really know anything about him and can't recall reading anything he's written all the way through.

b) He was kind enough to reply to my questions on Twatter, which is more than can be said for most hacks.

But the idea that his experience of setting up a school shows free schools are a good idea is, on the basis of the evidence he provided, fairly nonsensical. At the time of my query his school had one cohort of 120. Now it has two or maybe three? Can't recall when I posed the question but the school still hasn't seen the results from certificate classes. Maybe they are a good idea but I certainly can't work out if this is the case from reading the ridiculously partisan stuff I'm reading about it. That was my point.

Unknown said...

I don't know why it has me as Unknown - I had to sign into a Google account to comment. But still, also via Marbury, this might be relevant:


Peter Risdon

Shuggy said...

Ok, Peter - Blogger had my own blog insisting I prove I'm not a goddamn robot. I think I largely agree with the idea of a knowledge based curriculum, as I think I said above. What I'm not any the wiser about is why people think this Tsarist approach is the right way to get one?

Shuggy said...

Oh, here's Gove making my point for me - faster than I thought humanly possible. http://ind.pn/VWEXMo

swiftclc said...

Blogger had my own blog insisting I prove I'm not a goddamn robot. I think I largely agree with the idea of a knowledge based curriculum, as I think I said above. What I'm not any the wiser about is why people think this Tsarist approach is the right way to get one?

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