Gove and why schools are a ‘dragnet for lost feeling’

In the topsy-turvy, highly politicised world of British education, there are a dizzying array of contradictory accusations. Today, it’s Michael Wilshaw’s assertion that schools ‘fail’ two-thirds of the brightest pupils, which hovers awkwardly over his organisation’s own assertion that two thirds of schools in the UK are good or outstanding.

Ah well, so it goes as Kurt Vonnegut once said.

The detail of the current round of contradictory unpleasantness coming from the DfE and Ofsted is less interesting than the underlying idea revealed in the exchange between Gove and Dianne Abbott during the GCSE debate.

“No-one needs academic rigour more than working-class children,” said Abbott, writing the next day in The Guardian. “I owe everything in life to my string of A Grades and O- and A-Level and my Cambridge degree.”

The important word in that sentence is ‘I’.

Politicians seem incapable of seeing beyond their own individual experiences at school. They regularly confuse what worked for them with what might work for thousands of young people from an entirely different generation. “It worked for me” appears to be the basis of policy and responses to policy and it’s just not good enough.

I once heard an Assistant Head turned leadership coach explain this phenomenon. “Whenever any adult goes into schools, they bring their school bag with them. And their school bag is full of shit.”

For politicians, the shit is usually good shit. Most of them will have been successful at school, and will have felt the halo glow of achievement. Parents who don’t turn up to parents evening, or who kick off when they do come into school, are also responding to their school experiences, which were probably poor. And it’s the same for the rest of us. We can only put our own experiences into their rightful historic place by either spending a lot of time in schools (like teachers do) or by recognising the tidal emotional pull of our own school days.

School is intense and time-specific. The five years or so we all spent as pupils at secondary school will have contained a lifetimes-worth of friendships, fallings out, stress, comedy, drama and occasionally, the kind of teaching you remember for ever. Schools are huge, complex, emotional machines with many different moving parts that exert a lasting effect.

It’s powerful stuff. Michael Gove, for example, had a wonderful time at school. I once read a piece in which his mother described a teacher giving up and just letting him lead class. Gove himself even wrote an open letter of apology to his French teacher, saying that he cringes when he thinks of his ‘clever-dick questions’ and ‘pathetic showing-off’. The precocious schoolboy lingers in Gove’s pronouncements, and he needs to be replaced with a wiser adult who can survey the landscape without always allowing himself to be psychologically pinged back to his own experience at school.

To paraphrase Carson McCullers, schools are a ‘dragnet for lost feeling’. Politicians, however, should be able to get beyond that.

A Very Short Post

I saw a letter in the new edition of TES that has really stuck in my mind. It pointed out that there are 17,835 community comprehensives in the UK, although I assume this figures cover both secondary and primary schools.

There are only 2,309 Academies.

And only 79 Free Schools.

So why, as Dr Janet Dobson, senior researcher at UCL, asked in her letter, don’t we get proportionate cover of the vast majority?

And where’s the pride and interest in our successful, non-corporate state sector?

London Festival Of Education 2012 #Gove

I went down to the inaugural London Festival Of Education yesterday, with Live Magazine politics editor Omar Shahid. It was clear it’d be an interesting day when we turned the corner onto Bedford St to the end of a queue that snaked all the way to the Institute of Education and to the expected handful of protesters in Gove masks, handing out leaflets with suggested questions for the Secretary of State for Education.

The attendees, a mix of students, teachers, heads and the miscellaneously interested, didn’t need much help with questions for Mr Gove, the best of which was one from the front which asked the famously erudite Scot whether he was aware of the truism that weighing the pig doesn’t make it fatter.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m going to blog about the festival in two parts because there’s a huge amount to reflect on. First up, then, the opening session, where Michael Gove was in conversation with journalist and writer David Aaronovitch for a talk titled ‘What does an educated person look like?’

The festival was opened by a Year 10 student, who spoke eloquently about wanting to be a barrister. It was the right note to open on, as you really can’t talk about 21st Century education without involving students, and the Festival did a good job of starting to get the recipients of education involved – although I hope next year they get more students running or adding to sessions, interviewing big names, and being visibly at the centre of things.

Gove came on stage to a few muted boos. “Don’t boo me,” said Aaronovitch with a neat line in diffusion. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”

I’m waiting to hear if the session will be hosted online, but it was fascinating, depressing and vaguely tragicomic all at the same time. At the start, Gove used an unlikely example: the British Communist Party of the 1950s, with their libraries and demand for education, was, he said, “quite admirable” . I imagine this was the quote bone he was throwing to waiting journalists, and he even brought a book along as a visual prop should this be required for photographs.

There were a few specifics points worth commenting on. It looks like he wants to introducing individual purchasing power into sixth forms, saying that every student over 16 should have cash and be able to say to schools and FE Colleges ‘you have to tell me which course will get me a job’ and chose on this basis. He claimed that the EBacc is the encapsulation of what happens in other countries that have been successful at raising achievement, particularly Poland, and said that his proposed examination system would not preclude the teaching of arts, although @localschools_uk claimed that 187 schools have dropped Art GCSE in the last year which may suggest otherwise.

Gove was unrepentant, as you’d expect, on Academies, claiming that he’s never met an Academy head who wants to go back, although I imagine that the increasing use of Non-Disclosure Agreements for staff in both academies (and in the state sector) may be influencing this. “Resistance to academies is with people who want to swim at the edge of the pool, not strike out to the centre. To them I say come on in, the water’s lovely.”

He appears not to believe that schools focus aggressively on exam results to the exclusion of everything else: “Someone people say some schools are exam factories and are prisons of the soul. These schools do not exist”. The audience murmured and occasionally heckled their dissent.

It also looks as though education will remain ring-fenced after the Autumn budget. “The Lib Dems have helped me argue that education remains well-resourced.”

The most instructive moment (apart from when Gove experienced what body language experts call ‘leakage’ during a discussion about the sense of making hormonal teenagers do exams, when he talked about things ‘going wrong hormonally’ during teens and stiffened his left leg in a most peculiar fashion) was during the Q&A session. He was asked about over-assessment.

Gove: “You can’t have education without assessment.”
Audience: “Why not?”
Gove: “We need it. Education without assessment is just play”

As someone pointed out to me later, what does he think happened in Primary Schools before SATs?

It’s a classic example of why politicians shouldn’t get involved in the content and mechanics of education. Governments need assessment, in order to prove they’ve raised standards, and whilst students need some assessment, there’s plenty of evidence, particularly at Primary Level that too much assessment is bad for students.

For what it’s worth, my cod-psychological take is that Mr Gove is involved in a powerful psychological projection in which he wants to replicate his own schooling. I once read an interview with his mother who described her son being so brilliant that teachers would invite him up to the front of the class to take the rest of the lesson.

I think it’s ego leading this, not evidence about how young people learn, nor 21st Century requirements. This is a shame because on today’s showing he’d be a most entertaining conversational companion – and a damn dangerous person to have in charge of education for a generation which is more diverse, in all senses of the word, than any before.

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