Michael Gove offers social justice in reverse. That’s why I back the strikes

2 October 2013
The Guardian
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Gove’s conference speech was misleading – his education policies give more power to the privileged and fuel social segregation

The main claim made by Michael Gove at the Conservative party conference was that his education policies are focused on “social justice”. It was a lacklustre speech that sounded more like a list of acknowledgements. For a large section of it, he thanked his ministers: Edward Timpson for helping children with special needs; Liz Truss for shaking up childcare, school meals and the exam system; John Nash for extending the free schools and academies programme; and former minister Nick Gibb for championing reading in schools. He praised the pupil premium for helping children on free school meals and predictably attacked the “militant” unions for striking on the day of his speech.

He didn’t convince me, though, that his policies amounted to a radical programme that is going to close the huge attainment gap between rich and poor pupils. Indeed, for teachers such as me who see the destructive effects of his policies in the classroom, much of what he said was misleading. His policies are, in reality, social justice in reverse: his game is giving more power to those who are already privileged and stripping away existing safeguards for poor and vulnerable children.

His claim that his policies are helping children with special educational needs (SEN) is laughable: the money that was there to help many thousands of children struggling with SEN has vanished, and the introduction of “do or die” tests on grammar and reading across the age range, starting with five-year-olds, will inevitably mean that SEN children will be labelled failures from a very early age. His obsession with exams is misguided on many levels, as this week’s letter signed by nearly 200 experts, including the poet laureate, points out. I know as a teacher that many of my students fail to show what they can do by scribbling manically in an exam hall for a few hours. Gove doesn’t understand that we need to assess the whole child, that a student’s speaking and listening skills, their ability to problem-solve, their facility to think creatively, are more important than rote-learning. This is a lesson that even countries such as Singapore and China, which Gove frequently praises, are taking on board, and are making radical changes to their testing regimes as a result.

At the moment, in many schools, the “exam tail” is wagging the dog: much of what goes on, particularly in years 5-6 (ages 9-10) and years 10-13 (ages 14-17), is all about “prepping” for very high-stakes tests.Even private school headteachers such as Tim Hands don’t like it. Gove’s policies have made what was a bad situation even worse. Just this week he announced that the first GCSE grade a child gets will be the only one that counts for the school league tables. While the situation of endless GCSE resits that some schools were doing was not great, most teachers feel this is the fault of the school league table system, not the concept of having a “resit”. If you have a system of high-stakes exams solely determining pupils’, teachers’ and schools’ livelihoods, you are always going to get people “gaming the system” in whatever way they can. Gove’s policy of closing schools with “below par” exam results is turning schools into exam factories.

His free schools and academy programme, which he congratulated himself on in his speech, has amounted to giving billions of pounds to the privileged. Most free schools, schools set up by parents or special interest groups, take fewer children on free school meals on average than maintained schools, and many academies generally admit children from wealthier backgrounds, thus fuelling the very social segregation that Gove says he is solving. Furthermore, his claim that the pupil premiumwill help poorer students is not being borne out by the evidence. A recent study has shown that it has having a limited impact: that’s potentially £2.5bn wasted on a dysfunctional programme.


Gove claimed in his speech to be very grateful to younger teachers in the profession and headteachers pushing through his policies – although he neglected to thank middle-aged teachers like me. But the fact is, most teachers I’ve spoken to don’t like his policies or his belligerent tone – that’s why we are backing the strikes that are happening throughout the country. We aren’t militants, as Gove claims, but teachers who feel battered by the way he has eroded our pay and conditions, drastically curtailed our freedom to teach, and exacerbated the very social segregation he purports to be eradicating.

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