Here is Michael Gove’s reply to my July Questions. As I said yesterday, I am very grateful to him for finding the time. Instead of giving my response to his response today – which would make an already long post even longer – I’ll wait until tomorrow, by which time I hope also to be able to draw on comments from other readers.
1. Curriculum content should contain the classical canon of history, literature and scientific knowledge and we should pull back from seeking to make content more relevant to the contemporary concerns and lives of young people. Young people should be discouraged from pursuing newer or non traditional subjects like media studies, which are not seen as credible by the best universities.
MG: I know what you’re driving at but I think the distinction you draw, the “dividing line” if you like, is too stark.
I have nothing against new programmes of study per se. I certainly have no wish to dissuade any one who wishes to pursue a course in media studies if that is their whole heart’s desire. And I certainly have no bias against innovation more broadly. Indeed our reforms are designed to encourage new ways of thinking and doing. In particular, they make it possible for teachers to play a bigger role in shaping schools, the curriculum and teaching.
The current problem with subjects like media studies relates to the way our league tables work. They encourage schools to push a subject which, currently, actually limits opportunities.
Irrespective of my views, it’s a fact that some of our best universities consider media studies to be a less rigorous preparation for higher education than other courses. Students who take it up limit their capacity to choose freely between universities. Its a simple truth that a pass in physics or further maths opens more doors.
But some schools still steer students towards subjects such as media studies because they know its easier to secure a pass. That easier pass will boost their league table ranking. It is no accident that the huge rise in students taking media studies GCSE has occurred in state schools, where league tables matter so much, while in private schools, where the interests and demands of students and their families currently hold more sway, there has been no similar rush to embrace the subject.
But let me stress again, my aim is to widen the scope of choice available to the next generation. I would like students to choose the course of study which most inspires them, and best prepares them for the future, by widening the range of opportunities available to them.
In that context, I am indebted to the work of the Scottish social democratic thinker Lindsay Paterson. If you’ll allow me to quote from his essay “The Renewal of Social Democratic Educational Thought in Scotland” he puts better than I ever could what I think is the right approach to take…
“The anger of radical campaigners against a divided secondary education was because it denied working class people access to a general education; they shared the aim of extending access to the best that has been thought and said… the democratic intellect was to be as much about the intellect as the access to it; and yet policy since the 1980s has rather neglected the importance of enabling students to engage properly with intellectual difficulty and intellectual worth. Instead policy has approached the problem of motivation by diluting seriousness, by fragmenting difficult programmes of study into modularised segments and by trying to divert students into intellectually undemanding courses of ostensible vocational relevance.”
2. The curriculum should be delivered though traditional subject disciplines and not through approaches emphasising cross cutting themes and competencies, like for example, the RSA’s Opening Minds.
MG: Again, my view is that choice is what matters, and more schools should have more freedom to pursue the curriculum path which they believe will enhance the opportunities available to their students.
But, also again I would quote Lindsay Paterson:
“Programmes of general liberal education are better at preparing people for life as decent citizens than any other kinds of learning. That was something which old radicals understood well. You could make citizens for the new era of mass democracy by equipping them with the cultural capacities which the aristocratic or bourgeois ruling classes had acquired through their schooling. Citizenship should permeate many types of study – literature, history, geography, politics, science, religion.”
It is instructive that many of those schools with the best record in raising achievement for children from poorer backgrounds – from Mossbourne Community Academy to the KIPP schools in the US follow a traditional curriculum which provides the sort of general liberal education Lindsay admires.
3. (Something I heard emphasised by your number two Nick Gibb), the practice of the best schools shows traditional chalk and talk forms of pedagogy are superior to practical, project based, forms of learning.
MG: It is certainly the case that the tried and tested methods of whole class teaching, followed up by personal tuition for those who need it, are highly effective.
But I am a strong believer in practical learning. I would like to see a bigger place for practical experimental work in science teaching. I believe practical problem solving as part of outdoor learning, whether in geography or sport, is hugely important. And I very strongly believe we need to improve practical education for those who do not wish to pursue academic learning beyond sixteen with much more rigorous and robust vocational qualifications.
4. Schools should focus much more on the core activity of imparting knowledge. Children’s wider development is best enhanced through extra curricular activities such as schools clubs and societies but not through ‘teaching’ life skills or well-being.
Again, I fear the division you’re drawing up may be misleading. I certainly believe that the most important task a school has is giving children the knowledge they need to make the widest possible range of choices about the future and play the fullest possible part in our democracy. To that end the sort of liberal education Lindsay Paterson talks about is the right course to follow.
But I certainly think good schools will also want to impart, complementary, practical knowledge, whether its cooking, sex and relationships education or basic questions of good manners and consideration for others. I’m not sure I like the term “life skills” but the sort of areas I’ve just mentioned would, I think, certainly come under that umbrella…
5. Schools should be institutions that are primarily or even exclusively about learning and should not be required to engage in the wider delivery of children’s or community services.
MG: Schools should be about learning, absolutely. If schools wish to offer other services, wonderful. If other services support learning, fantastic. But schools are places for teaching and learning.
6. Rather than blurring the divide between the academic and vocational learning we should assert it, with, for example, the 14-19 Diplomas restricted to vocational content.
MG: The Diplomas have had a pretty poor reception so far, but I am interested in seeing how we can make the best of them.
More broadly, I certainly do not want a rigid divide between the academic and vocational. I certainly want to see more and more students pursuing academic courses for longer, but I also anticipate that many students, as well as acquiring a basic grounding in an academic core will also pursue genuinely rigorous practical qualifications in fields employers value.
7. Implicitly, strategies to widen participation in learning should not include developing forms of content and levels of assessment which enable more children to succeed: More should rise to the bar, the bar shouldn’t be moved to allow more to jump it.
MG: The question contains a logical flaw. More children should certainly be helped to succeed. But not by lowering the bar. Instead we should help them to escape the constraints of disadvantage which may have held them back in the past, so they can aim higher.
Oh the frustration. As a result of a complaint to the Charity Commission, I willingly agreed with RSA Trustees that I should not use this blog on this site to speculate on political strategy. Apparently, it’s not so much a problem of political bias, more that such matters have little to do with the RSA mission (‘unlike women’s sense of humour of the use of animals in advertisements?’ I hear you comment quizzically).
But I have so much to say! Sadly, I must save it for those occasional media appearances in which I insist there is no reference to the day job.
Suffice to say in this context that – amazingly – the general election is shaping up to be one in which real policy questions may feature. Whether on universalism in the benefit system, promoting marriage, the speed of deficit reduction, the form and content of schooling, immigration, Britain’s relationship with Europe, there are real differences being clearly articulated and debated.
Last week even, at the State of the Arts Conference, there were substantive differences between Jeremy Hunt and Ben Bradshaw’s view both of what is happening now in the sector and what needs to happen next.
Following the agreement of the Party leaders to TV debates, we are hoping to hold equivalent events with a departmental focus here at John Adam Street. We will be inviting the culture spokespeople and the environment leads to agree to answer questions from an audience comprising a full Great Room and thousands watching and listening on-line. And we will, of course, be hoping to do the same for education.
Which brings me to the most exciting news of the day: Michael Gove has replied to my July questions. Maybe now he has published his education manifesto I have finally, albeit momentarily, moved to the top of his priority list (joking and bad puns aside, I am genuinely flattered and grateful). And what a fascinating reply it is. I am holding back for 24 hours in case we can get some take up from the traditional media but tomorrow or the day after I will share his thoughts in full along with some of my replies to his replies.
Given that we are running at nearly 60 comments on my last education post, I am sure Michael’s views will provoke a very lively debate.
This morning, as I walked down St James Street reflecting on an excellent breakfast belatedly to mark the launch of the Times science supplement ‘Eureka’, who should I bump into but Michael Gove. Although he was engrossed in a phone conversation he put his interlocutor on hold, ‘Ah, Matthew’ said the chief intellectual architect of Cameron Conservativism ‘you are most definitely number two in my priority list’.
In this, I assume Michael was referring to the list of questions I publicly posed him after his lecture here last June. ‘Number two’ does sound hopeful as long as this list is both stable and fast moving. I fear however there have been many other top priorities over these last few months and yet more may still emerge.
Indeed it has taken so long for him to reply that I find the ground shifting under my feet. Although my questions were based on Michael’s forthright speech here, I did fall into the trap of assuming that one’s opinions on education line up neatly under two headings: traditional or progressive.
Traditionalists emphasise the importance of core knowledge, the authority of teachers, the need for schools not to be distracted from the task of academic pedagogy, the dangers of mixed ability teaching. They also tend to be sceptical of claimed improvements in standards, alleging widespread dumbing down. Progressives put more focus on the wider development of the child, they think children need to acquire competencies as well as knowledge, they see learning more as a partnership between teacher and learner, they encourage schools to engage with other agencies concerned about children and the wider community. They are more likely to argue that mixed ability teaching can be just as successful in terms of results and is better in terms of children’s self esteem and sociability.
But there are several problems with the dichotomous view:
Close up, the differences tend to become more elusive. For example, supporters of competence based curricula are not anti-knowledge; they think theirs is the best way for pupils to acquire knowledge. Traditionalists recognise the wider development of the child is important but they put more store by things like schools sport and clubs as the way to do this
Arguments about how best to teach cut across other arguments, particularly about how much of what schools do should be centrally prescribed. Is it better for progressives to have a centralising government that broadly supports their approach or a decentralising one which doesn’t?
And, of course, the killer problem with resolving this argument; good traditionalist teaching is better than bad progressive teaching and vice versa.
Almost every review of these arguments attaches the same caveat to its conclusions. Here for example is the last sentence of an article by Andrew Delbanco in the New York Review about books by arch traditionalist E.D. Hirsch (who is often quoted by Gove) and ultra progressive Mike Rose:
‘Whatever the merits of this or that testing regime or this or that curriculum, the only way to break up the impasse would be for governments and philanthropies to put in place real incentives and rewards for tenanted, well-educated, passionately committed teachers – on whom, as everyone knows, everything finally depends’.
If Michael does ever come back to me I hope his response will provide the basis not for a heated disagreement but to start to unpack a traditionalist-progressive dichotomy which, perhaps, both he and I have been guilty of exaggerating.
I spent some time yesterday evening with David Willetts, Shadow Secretary of State for Universities and Skills. I am a fan of David’s, finding him thoughtful, open minded and progressive. Indeed he was the respondent I chose for my second annual lecture. But having heard David speak about his views of higher education I wonder whether I should introduce him to another impressive Tory politician, Michael Gove. It is far from clear to me that they share the same world view.
Last night, at the dinner we were both attending, several people criticised the Government’s target of 50% of your people going into higher education. But David was eloquent in his support for the expansion of HE, even while recognising that levels of participation had gone up faster than levels of attainment. As well as saying that university has many advantages for young people in addition to gaining qualifications, he pointed out that the expansion had largely been in vocational areas and that about two out of three people at university are studying for a degree necessary for them to enter their career of choice. He also explicitly rejected the notion that the new degrees being taught in new universities were in ‘Mickey Mouse’ subjects.
This was music to my ears. At almost exactly the same time David was making his point at the dinner, I was using a very similar argument on this week’s Radio 4 Moral Maze.
But how are we to square David’s view with the thrust of Michael Gove’s lecture here last June. In referring to universities in his speech, the Conservative education spokesman spoke exclusively about the view of the elite Russell Group. He argued strongly against what he clearly saw as Mickey Mouse subjects and qualifications (although to be fair he didn’t use this phrase). Moreover, I interpreted the thrust of Gove’s speech that he was determined to raise the bar of academic attainment, something which would surely lead in the short term to lower levels of participation in higher education.
So, while David Willetts espouses a laissez faire, expansionary view of post compulsory education, his shadow cabinet colleague urges a return to a more rigidly defined set of subjects and content with progression capped by rising attainment requirements.
Perhaps there is a way of explaining this apparent tension but I’m afraid I’m not clever enough to understand it. I blame my school, or should it be my university?
Why is there such a gulf in understanding between popular discourse and the way educationalists see the world?
On Monday, a packed RSA Great Room listened to Professor Robin Alexander and a panel of experts, including Barry Sheerman MP, Chair of the Education and Skills Select Committee, discuss the findings of the Cambridge Primary Review. The report, three years in gestation and three years in researching and writing, is the most comprehensive and far reaching review of primary education since the 1967 Plowden Report. So extensive was the consultation exercise undertaken by the research team and advisory panel it is hard to imagine anyone interested in primary education didn’t have the chance to get their voice heard.
But when the report was published last week it was subject to a concerted critique by ministers, shadow ministers and most parts of the press. Not only that, but its key recommendations were systematically misrepresented. So, for example, the suggestion that English schools come into line with nearly all continental practice and not start formal teaching of a knowledge based curriculum until children are six was widely reported as being a recommendation that children don’t start school until that age. The recommendation that SATS in year six be dropped in favour of a less disruptive and narrow form of assessment was portrayed as a proposal to abandon any form of assessment, and the questioning of the utility of school league tables was seen by many as implying that schools have no external accountability, an interpretation the Review’s authors flatly deny.
So, given the largely negative coverage of the report, after Robin Alexander had spoken I asked the audience of over 200 how many of them largely agreed with what he had said. Nearly everyone put up their hand, and literally no one (apart from one person who later revealed they were just being contrarian for the sake of it) said they disagreed with the main thrust of the report.
I’m not suggesting our audience was a random sample; many were education professionals and, in line with the traditions of the RSA, there would no doubt have been a broadly progressive leaning. Nevertheless, the gulf between the view from inside and from outside the world of education is a real problem. It means, for example, that politicians can say whatever they like about schools (much of it negative) and few people outside education will believe those inside who try to give a more balanced picture.
I have written before that I am dreading the quality of debate about schools that we will have to endure in the run-up to the General Election. In an attempt to get over some of the false dichotomies, I tried unsuccessfully to engage Tory spokesman Michael Gove in a debate about the core ideas underlying his eloquent and profound critique of most modern teaching practice.
The RSA will continue to try to shed light on the complex and challenging issues facing our education system and the varied and often exciting ways schools are responding. Sadly, I fear ours will be a quiet voice drowned out in the crude and destructive slanging match we can expect to be played out on our airwaves between now and the election.