Why those of us on the left should support Michael Gove’s efforts to “clever-up” the curriculum

First published January 2013.

Apologies for the length of this post, particularly as it is just an opinion piece, but I thought it worth giving plenty of background before I launched into a rant about something I really care about.

I’m not a big fan of the label “The Left”. It is usually used either by Tories to attack all their opponents, no matter how varied, as one ideologically homogenous, middle-class mass, usually made up of well-off public sector professionals and Guardian journalists, or by those at the other extreme to assert that they are the true representatives of an entire half of the political spectrum. I have even less time for it in education debate where attempts to apply left/right labels to the spectrum of educational opinionare used to conceal a much richer variety of positions. For these reasons I rarely blog about my personal political opinions. But I think it is important to make it clear in what follows that I am (literally) a card carrying member of the Labour Party and that if I am attacking Labour’s education policy it is because I want it to be better, not because I want the Tories to win the next election. However, I do want to add my voice to a couple of other teacher bloggers (also definitely not Tories) here and here, who have been expressing their frustration at the increasing habit of opposing ideas or proposals because they are seen as the work of Gove regardless of the merits, popularity, or even egalitarian ethos, of those ideas.

Those on the British left have always been philosophically split on education. There has been a predominantly (but not exclusively) working class tradition that saw knowledge as something, like healthcare and job security, which the working class were entitled to and should fight for. My favourite example of this attitude is probably from “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”:

‘What do YOU mean by poverty, then?’ asked Easton.

‘What I call poverty is when people are not able to secure for themselves all the benefits of civilization; the necessaries, comforts, pleasures and refinements of life, leisure, books, theatres, pictures, music, holidays, travel, good and beautiful homes, good clothes, good and pleasant food.’

Everybody laughed. It was so ridiculous. The idea of the likes of THEM wanting or having such things! Any doubts that any of them had entertained as to Owen’s sanity disappeared. The man was as mad as a March hare.

‘If a man is only able to provide himself and his family with the bare necessaries of existence, that man’s family is living in poverty. Since he cannot enjoy the advantages of civilization he might just as well be a savage: better, in fact, for a savage knows nothing of what he is deprived. What we call civilization–the accumulation of knowledge which has come down to us from our forefathers–is the fruit of thousands of years of human thought and toil. It is not the result of the labour of the ancestors of any separate class of people who exist today, and therefore it is by right the common heritage of all. Every little child that is born into the world, no matter whether he is clever or full, whether he is physically perfect or lame, or blind; no matter how much he may excel or fall short of his fellows in other respects, in one thing at least he is their equal–he is one of the heirs of all the ages that have gone before.’

But there has also been a contrasting progressive education tradition, which if not explicitly anti-knowledge, was more concerned with how children learned. This can be found in the work of that old Etonian, George Orwell, who describes sympathetically the doomed efforts of Dorothy to transform teaching at a small private school:

She had seen at a glance that what the children most needed, and dividing them up into three separate classes, and so arranging things that two lots could be working by themselves while she ‘went through’ something with the third.  It was difficult at first, especially with the younger girls, whose attention wandered as soon as they were left to themselves, so that you could never really take your eyes off them.  And yet how wonderfully, how unexpectedly, nearly all of them improved during those first few weeks!  For the most part they were not really stupid, only dazed by a dull, mechanical rigmarole.  For a week, perhaps, they continued unteachable; and then, quite suddenly, their warped little minds seemed to spring up and expand like daisies when you move the garden roller off them.

Quite quickly and easily Dorothy broke them in to the habit of thinking for themselves.  She got them to make up essays out of their own heads instead of copying out drivel about the birds chanting on the boughs and the flowerets bursting from their buds. She attacked their arithmetic at the foundations and started the little girls on multiplication and piloted the older ones through long division to fractions; she even got three of them to the point where there was talk of starting on decimals.  She taught them the first rudiments of French grammar in place of ‘Passez-moi le beurre, s’il vous plait’ and ‘Le fils du jardinier a perdu son chapeau’.  Finding that not a girl in the class knew what any of the countries of the world looked like (though several of them knew that Quito was the capital of Ecuador), she set them to making a large contour-map of Europe in plasticine, on a piece of three-ply wood, copying it in scale from the atlas.  The children adored making the map; they were always clamouring to be allowed to go on with it.  And she started the whole class, except the six youngest girls and Mavis Williams, the pothook specialist, on reading Macbeth.  Not a child among them had ever voluntarily read anything in her life before, except perhaps the Girl’s Own Paper; but they took readily to Shakespeare, as all children do when he is not made horrible with parsing and analysing.

Historically, this difference became most important with the move to comprehensive education and away from selection.  Although a consensus was achieved on the left (and far, far beyond) over the need to end the tripartite system (academic grammar schools for the most able fifth of the population; a sprinkling of technical schools, and “vocational” secondary moderns for the majority) there were severe philosophical differences which were often not clearly expressed. Some wanted to move to a system where working class kids were able to succeed academically in large numbers and move up the social ladder. Others wanted to move to a system where working class kids were encouraged to feel good about themselves regardless of their academic success or lack thereof. For the latter, the progressive tradition, focused on feelings, interests, self-expression, social integration and abstract and immeasurable intellectual qualities was a far better match for working class children than the rigours, discipline and demands of a traditional academic education.

Fierce conflict took place on the left, most noticeably over William Tyndale school and Jim Callaghan’s Ruskin speech condemning progressive ideology. Greater unity was achieved after Labour lost office in 1979 as a divided Labour Party found many other issues to disagree over while the Tories managed to unite the left on education (particularly when Kenneth Baker was education secretary) by offering any number of contentious policies and a newly acquired, and quite unprecedented, hostility to the teaching profession. However, once Labour returned to electability in the mid 1990s conflict broke out again when Tony Blair and David Blunkett pushed forward an agenda, framed in impeccably modern terms, based on academic standards, setting and whole class teaching. Howls of outrage emanated from those in the progressive education tradition on the left. Ideological spasms from university lecturer Tedd Wragg and backbench MP (and later Lord) Roy Hattersley were particularly memorable. However, Labour’s “standards” agenda was soon abandoned after Blunkett left education in 2001 and under a succession of weak education secretaries the policy shifted back towards a progressive curriculum. Every Child Matters marginalised the academic aspects of education. Languages ceased to be required. Progressive teaching methods were promoted, and then mandated by OFSTED. Vocational qualifications expanded to replace GCSEs. Various exams were abolished, apparently with the intention of replacing them with a criteria-based system known as “Assessing Pupil Progress”. Most of this happened, however, without great fanfare and often with great confusion over the point or objective of the changes that were happening. Less progressive-oriented initiatives were also introduced at the same time, such as a push for phonics and the removal of coursework from many GCSEs, and a certain amount of structural reform alienated many of those who would otherwise have embraced the general drift towards progressive education.

By the time the Conservatives (and their Liberal Democrat allies) took power in 2010, they faced a Labour Party absolutely incoherent on education and rapidly made the area their own. Conservative ministers, now willing to praise Blunkett and Blair and distance themselves from support for selection, pushed ahead with an agenda that left Labour mystified about how to react. Further structural reform along lines not dissimilar to that of the preceding Labour government left Labour politicians utterly confused over where they now stood. More importantly, a push for higher standards left Labour conflicted between winning the support of the educational establishment and trying to retain some credibility with a public appalled at years of lowering standards. It is here, where Labour now faces a stark choice. Michael Gove has pushed forward an agenda based on ending “dumbing-down” and instead “clevering-up” the curriculum. The key elements so far have been:

  • Removal of many non-academic aims from the curriculum, most noticeably the various strands of Every Child Matters;
  • Introduction of the English Baccalaureate, a performance measure for schools which counts students gaining grade C in a handful of the most clearly academic GCSEs;
  • The encouragement of phonics (i.e. teaching children to decode words rather than guess) in primary schools along with moves to test spelling and grammar and introduce a knowledge-based curriculum;
  • Removal of “equivalences” which allowed coursework based vocational non-qualifications to count towards performance measures;
  • Plans to reform exams further, including the introduction of new, more rigorous EBCs to replace GCSEs in certain key subjects.

Much of this has been met with sheer delusion from much of the left. It must be a trick. It must be unfair that educationalists and schools didn’t get to veto it. It must be about privatisation. It must be about the reintroduction of selection. It must be about declaring war on teachers. It must be about everything other than what it blatantly is an attempt to ensure that our schools are making a marked effort to make all children cleverer. The most recent delusion is that nobody supports this and, particularly, that nobody in education supports this direction of travel. This reached its most absurd with this story. Kenneth Baker, the former Tory education secretary, is reported to have attacked the EBacc for being too ambitious for most children:

“The EBacc is very similar to the exam I sat in 1951 when I was 16, the School Certificate. It’s exactly the same, exactly!…I was the last year that took it, because it simply wasn’t broad enough for most children. Only seven per cent of young people went on to post-16 education, I was part of a privileged elite. And the EBacc is a throwback to that.”

Here we have an arch right-winger, a one-time bogeyman to the left. Here we have somebody who had promoted selection through the creation of Community Technology Colleges and been marked out during his time in office by his hostility to the teaching profession. Here we have him claiming that the mass of the working population simply aren’t suited to the sort of exam that he himself did. Here we have a perfect example of a right-winger with utter contempt for the academic aspirations on the part of anyone outside of his own social class. If there is anything the left could unite against it should be this. However, the only reaction I saw from the educational left on social media was a widespread declaration that it showed nobody supported Gove’s agenda.  Worse, Stephen Twigg, the shadow education secretary is quoted as saying:

“When even Conservatives say that Michael Gove’s exams are a throwback to the 1950s, you know he’s got the wrong approach. We need an education system that prepares young people for the future, not a narrow and out of date exam system that risks undermining our economic strength in innovation and creativity.”

Now let’s be quite clear about this. This is a right-wing Tory attacking another Tory for attempting to provide the opportunities he had to too many people . This is a Tory who believes that an academic education is not suitable for the masses in much the same way as their party once believed free health care or good housing was not suitable for all. This is an attack on Gove for not doing enough to support selection. And we have Labour’s education spokesman welcoming it.

Is this the agenda Labour is to go to the general election with? Will Stephen Twigg (PPE, Balliol College, Oxford), Ed Milliband (PPE, Corpus Christi College, Oxford) or Ed Balls (PPE, Keble College, Oxford) actually be putting it to the public that an academic education is bad for the economy and unsuitable for the working class? Will they actually be declaring that Michael Gove is simply too ambitious in his plans for the electorate’s children? Will the dividing lines be that some kids (presumably not their kids) are simply not academic and should know their place? Will Labour’s position be “non-academic” kids need to be spared from the rigours of tough exams while Michael Gove’s position is that “non-academic kids” should be given the opportunity to become academic? Will they expect working class voters to agree with this?

Now Labour have much to attack the Tories on over education. Some of their structural reforms have encouraged the worst of the progressives. Their attitude to teacher’s pay and conditions is harming teaching on a daily basis. The EBCs, while good in theory, may be absolutely impractical to implement. But what Labour cannot afford to do is to declare its affiliation to the parts of the middle class left who have always felt that working class aspiration (whether it was for people to own their own homes, run their own businesses, or for their children’s quality of education) was somehow suspect and to be obstructed. A Labour Party which goes into the next election declaring that the important thing about education is that it recognises that we should shouldn’t worry about leaving working class kids ignorant because they are probably good with their hands and leaving the Tories to talk about social mobility is one which will lose. Not because everyone votes on education, but because there is no issue like it for revealing to the electorate the prejudices and priorities of a political party and how they match up with the aspirations and ambitions of voters.

Update (18:40 20/1/2013):

I hadn’t seen this blog by Kevin Bartle when I wrote mine.

Along with the two I mentioned, that makes 4 of us, distinctly non-Tory bloggers, saying things that, according to a lot of people on Twitter, are believed by nobody other than Tory journalists.

Also feel obliged to mention two blogs I had read that might have influenced the above:

E.D. Hirsch is no right-winger

You don’t have to be a Tory to be a traditionalist in education

Andrew Old

Twitter: @oldandrewuk   Blog: http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/

A response from Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher)


This is an interesting blog.  I re-joined last week and I am keen to engage in the process of shaping Labour policy.  Generally I agree with your position that traditional and academic orientated education should not be the preserve of the Tories. As Head of a Grammar School I encounter this issue continually.  Many parents, teachers and students at my school are non-Tories who feel that state-funded specialist provision for very able students from any background is, or should be, part of a social justice agenda.  I had a good conversation with David Lammy about this in relation to Haringey schools – where we both live.   I also agree that Labour risks being seen as a defender of low aspirations rather than the champion of academic excellence – unless the policies are right.

However, I don’t think Gove’s reforms will achieve this.  Fundamentally,  I disagree that an Academic Education is defined by a limited range of subjects.  There is no need to do this if our goal is to raise aspirations and engage all young people in the way you describe.  De-valuing the Arts by not including them in the EBacc is pointlessly limiting.  We gain nothing from that.  Of course schools will still offer them but Art and Music deserve more than being consigned to the side-lines.  Similarly with Technical/Vocational education.  For example, there is obviously value in some students learning about Design and Technology at school; it goes with Physics and Maths… and is entirely compatible with the idea of a strongly academic, challenging, enabling education.   Tech/Voc courses may need revisiting but, the Engineering Diploma, for example, is highly regarded.

The EBCs are very poorly conceived. It isn’t only a matter of principle that educationalists should be involved – it is to prevent cranky ideas being floated that are impractical.  But challenging EBCs is not about baulking at the additional challenge. As I have outlined here it is perfectly possible to set out a framework that could be more challenging, inclusive and academic at its core.  The Tories just haven’t taken the trouble to ask for any better ideas before launching into their campaign for EBCs.   Labour should start promoting a better alternative.

Finally, I say all this whilst also acknowledging that some of Gove’s ideas have been good:

Academy Conversion: I’m happy with that; in Essex, school-to-school collaboration has never been better and the LA has a good role in support.. but the majority of secondary schools are Academies now.  It works.

Diplomas:  It was the one thing that softened the blow of defeat in last election: Imposing the 14-19 ‘entitlement’ to diplomas in all areas was going to be disastrous – in my view.

Exams:  Ending modularisation.  The treadmill of continually preparing for tests instead of teaching (note the difference folks) was killing us.

Tom Sherrington

Twitter:@headguruteacher          Blog: http://headguruteacher.com

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