Michael Gove’s ruinous plans for education

7 October 2009
The Guardian
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Today’s speech showed a party committed to micro-managing schools, using policies that have no empirical backing

Michael Gove delivered a speech at the Conservative party conference which played to the prejudices of his audience. His oration was peppered again and again with talk of how the Labour party has failed the country in creating schools which lack discipline and high standards and fail to make our children literate or patriotic. Funnily enough though, he failed to mention that the academy that he felt was a beacon shining in a world of dross was in fact created by the Labour party.

Throughout his speech, he referred to the Labour initiative of academies as a panacea for our educational ills. If in power, the Tories would enable any school to become an academy. In this sense, this flagship policy is no different from Labour’s.

What both parties have not mentioned though is that the academy programme is far from a proven success; while there are some good ones, increasingly Ofsted, parents and teachers are blowing the whistle on some pretty terrible academies. There are currently 40 academies that are failing to meet the government’s benchmark figure of 30% five A*-C grades at GCSE. In other words, a high proportion of these so-called great schools are really sink schools. Since Gove has promised in his first 100 days to sack the managements of such failing schools, he could find himself in the embarrassing position of disbanding a great many of the very schools that he wants to see more of.

Most troublingly, his promise to create 20,000 extra school places by enabling parents, charities, religious groups and businesses to set up schools at the drop of hat could well mean that every crackpot fundamentalist group – from extreme Islamists to creationist Christians – will be setting up educational institutions. Gove, like this current government, is very supportive of faith schools, sending his own children to one. I believe this will create massive secular divisions in our society at a time when we really need schools to bring our society together, not fragment it even more.

Furthermore, for all his rhetoric about leaving teachers free to teach, I think the Tories will bring even more central control to bear on schools. The level of micro-managing will be phenomenal: Gove is proposing to insist that all schools put children in classes of similar ability, in other words “set”. There is still no firm research evidence that this works and indeed decades of evidence that it doesn’t: setting makes the children in the bottom set feel demoralised and alienated, switching them off learning.

Yet Gove is going to insist this happens in every school: the Labour party for all their meddling never micro-managed at this level. Moreover, Gove is going to insist that every school has a uniform and follows strict codes of discipline. Again, there is no real evidence that this works. I would say my son’s current state school is one of the best “disciplined” schools I’ve ever seen and yet there is no uniform, teachers are called by their first name, and the atmosphere is very far from the regimented “army” regime that Gove is suggesting should be put in place. The school is very well disciplined because it is “inclusive”, it values talking problems through, making the teachers approachable and creating an environment where everyone feels valued. The very antithesis of the school that Gove seems to love so much.

In fact, Gove seems determined to silence the voices of the marginalised and disenfranchised, the very people he says he will help. His proposal to stop excluded children from appealing against their exclusions is probably against the UN declaration of human rights and definitely will create a huge problem for our society by chucking out very disturbed and angry children onto our streets. We already treat our excluded children shockingly badly, but this proposal is positively barbaric, playing to the worst instincts of our society.

The evidence from charities such as Save The Children suggests that we need more than ever to keep excluded children in school in positive and productive ways. We need to be creative and forward-looking. Above all, we need to catch these children at an early age, motivating them to learn by giving them intensive “communication” lessons. Gove’s plans to give 6-year-olds reading tests they must pass will only exacerbate these children’s sense of alienation. All the research suggests we need to teach our poorest children to communicate in the widest sense of the word, starting with their speaking and listening first, and then working on their reading. Once again, Gove’s plans could create even more problems than they solve.

Gove’s speech proves that the Tories’ plans are utterly contradictory and extremely muddled. Listening to his speech and looking at the detail of his proposals, I believe the Tories will unleash chaos on our schools and wider society – far worse than anything the Labour party has done. And that’s saying something!

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