What I want from Labour education policy: a little bit of Gove | @JamesTheo

3234520B-8564-4DF7-9C85-F50D2677125EJames Theobald is an English teacher in Hampshire. In his spare time, he complains about his lack of spare time.

It all started with The Young Ones.

Hearing Rick rail against Thatcher, whoever that was, piqued my interest in politics and tilted me portside.

Then came the musicians. Firstly, through politically engaged indie bands of the early 90s, like the Manic Street Preachers. From there, I traced back the genealogy through Billy Bragg and Red Wedge to The Clash and the A.N.L.

I can’t remember a time when I haven’t leaned to the left.

So, you can imagine my own sense of self-doubt and confusion when, in the midst of all of the hatred of Michael Gove, I found myself agreeing with a lot of what he said and did.

I mean, it seemed to me that no matter what the wider intentions of the Tory party were, Gove himself was trying to raise standards of education. And even if that wasn’t his prime intention and in reality he was secretly manipulating galactic politics to establish a blockade of Naboo by the Trade Federation in order to gain election as Supreme Chancellor… even if that was his true aim, the upshot is that a lot of the education policy he introduced along the way will raise standards.

So how could this have happened? How could I have agreed with [spits] a Tory?

Maybe I had succumbed to that old prophecy that you become more right wing as you get older?

But I knew that wasn’t true: I still got angry at what Jeremy Hunt was doing to the NHS and how Cameron and Osborne were cosying up to the bankers. All of my card-carrying leftie credentials were still in place: belief in the welfare state, concern over climate change, mistrust of nationalism, affection for the colour red…

Then it struck me. The reason I had agreed with a lot of what Gove had given us: Conquest’s First Law of Politics.

Conquest’s First Law states that, “Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.”

It’s true. I am (small ‘c’) conservative about education. And what’s more, I don’t think I’m alone.

It’s for this reason that I worry about Labour education policy. I worry that they might reverse some of the good that has been put in place to raise education standards in the past five years, and that they might do this because they think it’s what all Labour supporters want.

What I want from Labour education policy is a continuation of the drive to raise standards and to build on a lot of what has been done in the last 5 years – even if it has been put in place by their ideological opposition. Whilst I’ll concede that Gove may not have got everything right, I’d hope that Labour would be keen to ensure that there is a continued focus on an improved curriculum and a scrupulous assessment process.

Whilst I still laugh at The Young Ones’ Scumbag College changing the questions so that they can cheat on University Challenge, there’s part of me that recoils at their attempts to attain par with their Oxbridge peers on the opposing team by gaming the system. The only true way for comprehensive education to match private is through a better standard of curriculum and higher expectations of pupils.

Of course, I now realise that The Young Ones’ Rick was always more conservative (small ‘c’) than he wanted people to know. That is what made the character funny. For all his railing against Thatcher, when the chips were down in the very last episode, the students found themselves homeless and turning to crime. In his last mention of the Iron Lady before the gang drove their bus off a cliff, his words were extolling rather than scolding: “That’s one thing I’ll say for Thatcher, she definitely has put this country back on its feet.”

Whilst I’ll admit some conservatism over education, I don’t think I’ll ever confess any admiration for Thatcher. But what I would hope for is that, should Labour gain power in May, they don’t undo some of the good work of Gove purely because they were Tory policies. They might do well to know that some of us, whilst Labour supporters, are also fairly conservative about what we know best.

29 thoughts on “What I want from Labour education policy: a little bit of Gove | @JamesTheo

  1. Michael Gove’s major unacknowledged policy error was his unquestioned support for Andreas Schleicher’s OECD Pisa tests. The methods used by Pisa were exposed in 2013 as fundamentally flawed and useless in the @tes. However the tests are now mandatory in England and will be used to link to GCSEs & create a global league table with no validity or reliability. Dominic Cummings was the spad (special advisor) behind many of Gove’s initiatives but despite his claims to the contrary will hide behind the use of Richard Feynman’s “Cargo cult science” as a means to avoid admitting Pisa’s flaws.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Firstly, the TES piece by William Stewart was a digest of various academics work on PISA reporting and scalability – it didn’t prove anything, merely asked very valid questions.

      Secondly, Dominic Cummings has been very candid about his work in DfE and has written some very revealing blog posts since leaving his position as SpAd for Gove. I also think Gove’s “unquestioned support” (as you put it) for PISA tests were used to as ‘evidence’ to implement policy in raising standards. Are you suggesting that there was no need to raise education standards and that there is some data out there that suggests the UK is sitting pretty at the top of the world education standards tree?

  2. I actually agree with so much of what you say. I think that Gove did hit the nail on the head about academic standards in schools. The truth is that the progressive agenda which has been linked to the left has become reductive and regressive for the most deprived children in our country.

    As the pastoral element has been emphasised it has come at the expense of higher standards and expectations. The smokescreen of inclusion has meant a prevalence of do gooders in primary schools who want to be the personal saviour of the most disruptive child in the school. Underneath it all is a thinly veiled layer of contempt towards the poor – ‘they’ are like…. (insert prejudice). These people then hire teachers and TA’s like them -academically insecure, excusing poor behaviour and using children as a constant supply to meet their neediness.

    I remember my primary teachers as intellectually secure individuals who were kind and caring but nevertheless made it clear that we were there to learn. As a teacher I look in horror at the situation – and am very glad I did not go to school under a progressive regime. I would never have gone to university but apparently the ability to naval gaze is more important.

    In one of the schools I left the head actually made it clear that she couldn’t stand me and the only thing she could say to me was that ‘your results were always excellent’ – this was practically spat at me… In an inner-city school in Brixton where the children are more likely to end up in a juvenile detention centre or fall pregnant before they hit 16 – you think that results and a love of learning would be seen as a good thing.

    The single failure of the progressives – which the Conservatives quite rightly will challenge – is their fundamental inability to support social mobility. Ridiculous that this should be the conservative agenda and the labour one would be one of maintaining the status quo.

    1. ‘The progressives’; this would be people with empathy then, those ‘do-gooders’ who support children who are not emotionally ready to cope with rigorous academia inhabited by those with supportive home backgrounds. But let’s pretend that everyone should be able to shape up, shall we? I’m sure your results were excellent, you would probably have crucified those who showed signs of falling short of it. Do you have any humanity? A love of learning is laudable, but for some children it is an extravagance when their basic needs are not met.

      1. Someone who truly cares about children will be able to see beyond their immediate ‘wants’. A truly caring teacher will place a high value on academic education because it has the power to release children from a cycle of poverty as well as unlocking fascinating avenues of academic interest that would otherwise remain permanently locked and unseen by a progressive teacher.

        1. I agree with everything you say here about the power of an academic education for all, but be careful about slipping into ‘no true Scotsman’ arguments to make this point. I’m sure that all teachers care.

          1. I just think the whole “progressive” v “academic” usage here on this thread is a false dichotomy. As it is in so many of these discussions at the moment.

            I’ve seen so many lessons this year which were impoverished because the “academic” focus of the teacher prevented them seeing that the most effective way to secure that academic progress might be through techniques which some might stereotype as “progressive”.

      2. I think it is utterly unfair to suggest that empathy and humanity are the exclusive to progressives and that traditional teachers lack these qualities. In fact, asking someone if they “have any humanity” just because you disagree with their views leaves a very bad taste. It’s a shame because much of your argument is clouded by these personal attacks, and I’d be very interested to see the discussion around Tarjinder’s perceived failures of progressivism.

        1. Note my use of ‘the progressives’. I don’t accept the pigeon-holing of teachers into one of two camps. In 28 years of teaching I have met very few who would fit the caricature images of ‘traditionalist’ and ‘progressive’ which seems to fuel much of education debate these days.
          My point is that some children are not as ready to learn as others, and need emotional support. The idea that any teacher would sacrifice high aspiration on an altar of pity is an offensive one; but to imply that emapthy and emotional support is unimportant is more so.

          1. Yes but where should that emotional support come from? At whose expense? In what way? There are too many in education who think that teachers are best placed to act as unqualified psychologists. Children who are suffering from a traumatic experience may very well need specialist help but teachers are not in a place to give it to them. Where is the humanity in favouring one child with behaviour problems over 29 others? Where is the humanity in assuming that only those throwing chairs have problems and deserve additional time from the teacher? Having grown up in a dysfunctional family with problems I was that child who needed school as a safe place. However, it was the boundaries and high expectations that I sought – the stability. Why is this whole notion of pastoral care over academic achievement so prevalent in schools with the most deprived children? My problem with the self anointed progressive and their ilk is that they are substituting what works with what they want to work. When these strategies fail it is blame the teacher time. Where is the revisionism based on reality? Where are the adjusted strategies to support children to learn? Even as late as two years ago I was being given a presentation to deal with behavioural problems based on John Bowlby’s attachment theory – which is normal for those who are starting nurture groups still (a much discredited theory from the 1950s).

      3. A love of learning is an extravagance for some children? No. No, it’s not. It’s an absolute necessity. If their basic needs aren’t being met, then address that, but never do just that: never consign children to the academic scrap heap, simply because of their personal circumstances.

        That doesn’t mean you don’t care, very much, about the children you teach: it simply means that you believe completely that every single child, regardless of economic or social status, regardless of personal need, has an absolute right to the best education possible. For some it will provide a natural progression; for others it will provide chances that otherwise would not have been available and for others it represents a kind of salvation.

        1. The idea that any teacher would sacrifice high aspiration on an altar of pity is an offensive one; but to imply that emapthy and emotional support is unimportant is more so. That was my point.
          The trads vs progressives battle has shifted focus from the core purpose of the teaching profession.

      4. Love of learning is never an extravagance and it is precisely those views that I take truck with. There are assumptions made by adults which are not based on reality. Progressives follow an ideal which is based on a figment of their imagination. ‘Not emotionally ready’ – who decides this? what qualifications do they have? By the same people who think shifting their boundaries over and over again will help support the child. Except… that I have never actually seen this work! Meeting the emotional needs of a child is seen as an end to itself and rarely have I seen any strategy that supports the child to grow emotionally or is even intended to.

        You talk about humanity – how is it humane to deny children the best education they can receive based on fantasy and idealism?

        I see you do not touch the social mobility issue with a bargepole. The truth is that the progressive agenda which started off as a means of giving all children an equal chance to succeed academically has turned into a babysitting enterprise which academically insecure teachers are happy to provide leaving the hard work to others.

        As for the comment about crucifying the children if they failed – what an assumption – were you in any of my classes? No. Actually I have always valued hard work and effort over attainment and I have made that clear to all children. I also made it clear that it was my job to help them learn but I needed to know what they could and could not do so I could plan for them properly. I was a consistent teacher and when I said it was ok to make mistakes I meant it – the children understood, put the effort in, were happy with the boundaries I provided and excelled. But that’s not how it is supposed to happen according the progressive agenda hence the only crucification was saved for me despite achieving well with the children.

    1. You are right – and I didn’t intend to in this post, as there is a 700-word limit. I mentioned that I agree with much of the curriculum changes, including the more scrupulous approach to assessment, though.

      1. So, you rambled on, made references to the young ones in an attempt to be funny and you didn’t actually make an argument about why you agree with Mr Gove?

          1. Thanks. That would be much appreciated.

            You could try the following sentence starters:

            One thing on which I agree with Mr Gove is…..
            Another thing I agree with is….
            However, I don’t agree with him on …….. because…….
            Overall, I think that….

            Just thought I could help.

  3. For me this is a sad blog because (as already mentioned) you praise Gove without specifically stating why. You also praise systems rather than the experience that young people might have . The “scrupulous” assessment system is driving good teachers out of the profession. Your own subject is still important in schools but the Arts have been marginalised- that’s one of the worst things to happen under Gove. A narrow curriculum model when the country needs innovative and creative thinkers.

    1. Hi Susan. As mentioned, it was not my intention to talk specifics in this post.

      I chose to write about systems, rather than the experience that young people might have. Are you suggesting that any and every piece of writing on education needs to address this? Even your response didn’t talk do this.

      It is also a huge assumption on any adult’s part to write about the experience of young people – we simply can’t assume we understand young people’s experience, not to mention that fact that there are thousands of young people in education all having very different experiences. Any piece that addresses this, does not speak for all young people. I can write about my experience, though.

      Perhaps you might like to write a blog for this site where you cover your concerns and address “the experience that young people might have”?

  4. Thank you for your response. It is, I’m afraid, typical of those made in attempts to avoid detailed examination of OECD Pisa problem. You agree that the concerns about the Pisa instrument are valid but fail to acknowledge that Gove & his DfE totally ignored the concerns. Raising the aim of high education standards while ignoring the misleading effects of the Pisa method is akin to a pilot flying the aircraft into terrain even though the problem had been highlighted by engineers. Ignoring genuine, valid concerns while reassuring the customers that all is well inevitably lead to major problems. The effect in aviation is immediate & catastrophic, in education potentially much more expensive and damaging.
    William Stewart has not returned to the fundamental flaws in Pisa tests since 2013 in the @tes despite committing to do so His employer continues to promote Schleicher and Pisa.
    Michael Gove’s office punted communications off to third level officials working in the International Division who offered no reply to detailed critique of Pisa methods and attached a paper from Ray Adams from Conquest, the software used to power Pisa which predated the papers cited in the TES.

  5. I’m an ‘out’ Gove supporter. I’ve read his speeches and essays and agreed with what he said. It seemed that he cared very much about the life chances of all children. I also support his policies (except performance pay seems to have not gone to plan) even if they are pretty tough to implement. It was also very clear that he had done an enormous amount of research and was very clued-up about matters educational both past and present.

    I do find myself having to correct Labour supporters’ assumptions about him though. Quite often I have heard “Oh what does he know? He’s some toff who has no idea about the needs of children from working class families.” I will admit it does give me a wry smile when I inform said prejudiced person that Gove was in fact adopted at 4 months and grew up in an ordinary working family (The father ran a fish processing business). Gove was also initially educated in the state sector but won a scholarship to a private school.

    If Gove isn’t an example of how it is possible, through hard work, to improve one’s lot in life, then I don’t know what is.

    Thank goodness his state school teachers weren’t prejudiced and made some decision ‘because he’s adopted and his father smells of fish’ to not let him acquire the academic skills that enabled him to go to Oxford.

  6. Excellent post and really agree. For me, it’s a sadness that all I seem to be hearing from Hunt at present is “Ken Robinson, flipped learning, digital revolution, blah blah blah.” I am a Labour member, and am like you a classic lefty on many issues, I’d love to see right-to-buy and the bedroom tax scrapped, and think an EU referendum would be a big mistake, so a Tory government isn’t something I want to vote for.

    But… so many of the reforms of the last 5 years have been positive and it’d be a huge shame to see them undone. The new, more rigorous GCSEs, the replacement of controlled assessment with terminal exams, the July 2014 changes to the Ofsted observation framework, and the moves to stop schools gaming the system with early entry and dodgy qualifications. All of these structural changes should make secondary education more fit for purpose.

    It’s a tricky one. Let’s see what happens after May 7th!

    1. I agree that some of Gove’s rigour and challenge to raise standards was needed-any Secretary of State for Education would prioritise that but surely the strength of any education system is how the weakest and most vulnerable are supported. Academic resilience married with pastoral support are crucial for all but true equality of opportunity won’t happen in a system which still allows independent schools to exist, free schools to set up with huge funding and a divisive system of accountability which certainly doesn’t favour schools with an intake skewed towards a high % of low/middle KS2 levels.

      Isn’t this more of a classic lefty response? Of course we should be relentless in our pursuit of providing the best education in the world for our children but I wish that the Labour party would lead the drive for that to include all regardless of wealth, faith or gender.

      Support state education, don’t send your own kids to private schools -and if you claim local schools aren’t good enough-do something about it so other people’s kids who can’t afford the same as you benefit. I’ve been teaching for 3 decades and I’ve never known such a creative teacher work-force who will collaborate and who want to make a huge difference-rally them to the cause of great state education for all! If you don’t they will split more than they have done and look to their own careers forced down the paths of employment in chain academies, free schools and indep sector because you didn’t care enough.

  7. I find this blog really sad.

    I feel incredibly lucky that I had probably the pinnacle of lefty education, Haringey, early 80s. Our teachers taught us about the Tolpuddle Martyrs. They taught us about respecting diversity. About empire, from the perspective of the colonised. They taught us (aged 7) that ‘just because something’s written in a book, doesn’t make it true’. They taught us that competition wasn’t to be valorised. In short, they taught us lots of things that teachers now would be terrified to teach, that would bring down the wrath of Ofsted, and that Gove would have shuddered to see.

    Oh, and they also taught us to enjoy books, spell, do times tables, grasp basic scientific concepts, etc. And we even got tested on these things, occasionally, informally, without any song and dance or league table being created, without anyone being driven to tears (kids) or cheating/suicide (teachers and heads).

    In fact we thrived on it. Most of my class did pretty well, from mixed but often poor backgrounds. I was on free school meals all my childhood and ended up with a 2:1 from Cambridge University, so not too dusty.

    My brother is a teacher and shows me in despair the kind of grammar questions he has to set his 8 year olds. I can’t do them. And I think when I was a bright 8 year old, this boring and rigid approach would have made me want to rebel.

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