Sunday 22 January 2012

Michael Gove: Prince of Chaos. It's worse than I thought.

Here's one I missed. Perhaps you saw it. I didn't...

'Reforms to the national curriculum in England will not take place until the autumn of 2014 – a year later than planned – the Education Secretary Michael Gove has revealed in a written statement. However, the changes will be compulsory for a minority of secondary schools because academies are not obliged to deliver the curriculum.

"The longer timescale will allow for further debate with everyone interested in creating a genuinely world-class education system," Gove said. The delay puts back plans to change how schools teach English, maths, science and PE. However, it has been announced separately that history, geography, design and technology, the arts and foreign languages will become compulsory for all pupils up to the age of 16."'

(from December 20 2011)

So let's unpack this:

Michael Gove is at present driving the academies waggon at breakneck speed through parents' and teachers' groups, kicking aside anybody in his way, demanding that 'county' schools (ones that come under the jurisdiction of a local authority) become academies. Presumably, his dream is that over the next eighteen months, many hundreds more schools will become academies - perhaps a majority.

All the while, some nibelungen in the underground caves of the Department of Education are sweating blood over the exact wording of a 'national' (snigger) curriculum for the subject that I'm involved with - 'English' -  in the non-place we call England. In other words it'll be a national curriculum that won't be national and won't be a curriculum. It'll be the combined wit and wisdom of Michael Gove, the nibelungen and whatever thoughts emerged or will emerge from 'consultation', and then foisted on to those schools (and only those schools) which, perversely are NOT funded directly from the same corner of administration as this new curriculum - that is, Westminster! Academies are funded and controlled from national government.

Meanwhile, you could be a successful scrap metal merchant, a US bank (presumably one that hasn't gone bust or proven to be bent) or a religious foundation - or whatever - and you can set up your academy with your 'ethos' and invent your own curriculum for English. In other words money can buy you the right to set the curriculum in an ever-growing part of what we laughingly still call the state system, or indeed 'public' education.

Why should local authority 'county' schools have to suffer the imposition of any part of Michael Gove's fervid imagination? We've already heard him wittering on at Tory Party Conference about a utopia where all children (though, not the ones in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and not the ones in private schools, free schools or academies) will be reading the works of John Dryden. Why, if there is a genuine consensus that there should be national curriculum, where every pupil will leave with some kind of agreed entitlement, is it good politics to have a system where there is no consensus of practice? Either you have a national curriculum or you don't. What's the point of a make-believe one?

Then, in Michael Gove's statement we read of him talking about a longer timescale allowing for further debate. Why am I laughing silently into my beard?  I won't compromise my friends but several people I know with thirty or forty years experience of teaching and research in literacy, literature and education have already had some experience of what the Gove team's idea of consultation and debate is. I've seen at first hand how Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, for example, treated a group of librarians and advocates of reading for pleasure. At the launch of last summer's 'Reading Challenge' (the excellent summer holiday project which brings children into libraries to read books), Nick Gibb decided to give a five minute lecture on the virtues of phonics. This had nothing whatsoever to do with Reading Challenge, nothing to do with anyone in the room. I doubt if there was a single person in the room who, if convinced by the highly unconvincing Nick Gibb, and who then thought they ought to immediately rush out and do phonics with a bunch of children, had even the remotest professional chance or reason to do such a thing. They weren't early years teachers, Nick. They were people excited by the idea of getting children in the summer holidays reading books. Clearly, neither tact, empathy or a sense of occasion are Nick Gibb's strong points. Meanwhile, all accounts of his encounters with friends and colleagues have been one of a similar kind: short, sharp lectures on phonics and complete refusal to listen to or be interested in anything that teachers, practitioners or advisers have to say unless it fits his pre-conceived notions of what will and must take place in classrooms. Actually, by and large he doesn't seem to be interested in anything that any pupil does or might do after they've done phonics.

I had a much more enjoyable and friendly time with the 'Expert Panel' that Michael Gove set up many months ago. I (along with many, many other people) was invited to give opinions and advice and I ended up face to face with Professor Mary James, Associate Director of Research in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. However, on my arrival Mary James made it clear that no matter what I was going to say, several aspects of the outcome were already decided! 1. The final 'national curriculum' was going to be very slim, no more than some guidelines. 2. The people 'up there' had decided that content and pedagogy were two different things. The government would lay down the key areas of content, Teachers would be free to work out pedagogy. 3. At the time of our meeting (perhaps nine months ago?), she said that them 'up there' (my words, not hers) were rather keen on giving teachers and schools a list of prescribed or recommended authors.

I tried to find out how slim (I didn't find out) but agreed in principle that parents were entitled to know what schools were going to do in any given area of the curriculum and what they hoped were the outcomes. Like her, I suspect, I thought that the distinction between content and pedagogy is only really sustainable on a piece of paper but not at the moment of teaching and learning. (In the words of W.B.Yeats,'How can we know the dancer from the dance?' (or vice versa, I suspect)). As for the magic list of authors, I said that this had been tried before with the Cox Report in, (from memory) 1989 and had got booted out by a combination of teachers', advisers', researchers' and authors' contempt, derision and direct action.

My own contribution was around reading whole books, turning schools into book-reading communities, and thinking of English and literacy departments as publishing and performing houses. In that way, the issues so dear to the heart of Nick Gibb and Michael Gove - spelling, grammar and punctuation - take place in the real environment of producing texts for people to read, rather than exercises that end up purposeless and dead books. That sort of thing. And then I went. End.

Given that this was the model of consultation that Michael Gove set up - expert panel receiving guest submissions in face to face encounters - then surely by now they have seen everyone they wanted to see? Perhaps not. Perhaps they're going to go walkabout now? Needless to say, this model of consultation is highly unsatisfactory because it's static. It doesn't involve practitioners showing education in practice, it doesn't involve them researching themselves in action in classrooms. As I've said before, the government has the model for this way of consulting and producing policy with the Language in the National Curriculum Project from the late 80s.

Ironically, at the very moment that the Ministry lets go of hundreds of schools' curricula (to academies, free schools and private schools),  it resorts to the same old authoritarian way of controlling the schools left over. Even more ironically, even as they say that this is in order to perfect education so that it's 'world class', they are quite happy to let another year go by where these left over schools can actually do more or less what they want within the scaffold of the exam system. (I've even heard an adviser stand up in front of a hundred teachers and announce: 'The National Literacy Strategy is dead. Go back to your schools and devise your own.'  And that was over two years ago, on the day that New Labour admitted through its deeds if not its words that the NLS had been a screw-up.)

So, we have a Ministry zig-zagging between diy curricula for some and an authoritarian one for others; a period without direction and a period with direction.

And of course there's every possibility that by the time this new curriculum appears - September 2014, Michael Gove and Nick Gibb will be off frying other fish, spending more time with their families or cooling their heels on the backbenches. And if a new government were to come in in 2015, whatever load of general or specific jaw-ache Gove and Gibb come up with, could be wiped from the record and the whole silly, top-down, piecemeal crap could start all over again.

Do they wonder why we hold them in such contempt?