Ashley Pearce is a secondary school economics teacher in a comprehensive school just outside of Reading. Last year he was elected as a councillor for the Labour party for an area in South Reading. He is also a Reading FC fan and keen reader of educational literature.
I was recently at a conference where Estelle (now Baroness) Morris gave a speech on recent changes in education policy and its landscape. She went from a classroom teacher to education minister to now a school improvement partner, so she has a wealth of knowledge to share on the issue. One thing she said really made me think, and that was what Michael Gove’s vision for education was. Now hear me out and please keep reading. He may not be the most popular man on these pages but he has obviously had a big influence on education policy and its way over the last few years. I go through stages on how I view Mr Gove and Tory MPs, sometimes I just see them as cold, heartless and uncaring. But in my kinder moments I know this is not true. Many wish to help, they view the world very differently to me and I believe sometimes lack the experiences to empathise but many are starting from a position similar to you or in that they want improvement.
Baroness Morris wondered what the 5 points above Mr Gove’s office door were; his vision, if you like. She came up with: Freedom, choice, market, differentiation and inspiration. This doesn’t seem too far fetched or that unreasonable. As an economist I look at what’s called unintended consequences within government policy, that is what it aims to do and then the reality of it or the negative offshoots (creating a toll road to ease congestion may just lead to congestion on nearby roads for example). There are many unintended consequences with these statements if they were, indeed, above Mr Gove’s door.
Firstly choice. The negative view on Tories in me sees this as the marketisation of education that would ultimately lead to its privatisation. But it may not have been. Choice means choice for parents to send their kids to a different type of school. We now have academies, free schools, technical colleges, private schools, independent schools, local authority schools, colleges, chains…..it goes on and on. But there is no real choice. Parents are restricted by geography. Most kids will still go to the most local (or near local school), catchment areas are shrinking so the more well off move schools to get into these areas. This option is not open to the poorest. If this choice was Mr Gove’s aim then increasing inequality is the unintended consequence. The poorest are barred by geography and house prices from the best schools.
Another unintended consequence is the under subscription and in some cases closure of schools. If parents do have choice and the school nearest to them is failing, they will try and get their kids to another school, quite understandably. It’s all very well saying “give parents choice” but for every booming retailer in Amazon there is a closed one in Woolworths. The aim is to make all schools booming but parents don’t have the time to hang around to find out, their child only gets one chance. What this leads to is over subscription of one school and massive falling rolls in another.
Freedom is another great idea in principle. Academies and free schools are trusted to get on; it’s teachers and heads that are the professionals. Only academies and free schools are more likely to be failing than LA schools. This was not envisioned when they were set up. So the freedom had no checks from the LA and there was a chasm between the schools accountability and the department for education. Trust in schools was fine until something went wrong.
Inspiration is what many of us are in teaching for and I do believe Mr Gove wanted teachers to do this. He just really didn’t understand how. To be an inspirational teacher I need to know my subject, read about it, study new developments, review plans and schemes of work to make it enjoyable and applicable to every student that comes through my door. But I can’t do this if I am writing a report, or a case study; if I’m in a meeting or conducting more tracking. I can’t do this if my admin burden has risen because the admin budget is cut. I believe there is an easy future for politicians’ relationship with education (and bear in mind the public’s trust in teachers is second only to Doctors, whilst the trust in politicians is below that of estate agents)- trust us and leave us alone. Of course this is easier said than done and no matter how many government changes I see in my life, I fully expect each one to have a bright idea that was very similar to the last.