Is Michael Gove abdicating responsibility for education?

The stage is set for the wholesale sell-off of state education.

I get the sense that Michael Gove sees state education as a millstone around his neck. If you are the secretary of state, you are responsible for what happens in our schools. What if you could sell off this millstone? Responsibility will shift dramatically. Business is much easier to blame when things go wrong. You can take the moral high ground. Whatever happens in the schools to the children, it's not your responsibility. You can, in effect, blame everybody else for any educational failure. You remain safe from criticism.

Gove's recent behaviour, washing his hands of any political involvement in the marking down of English grades, or his blaming of "officials" when he reports erroneous figures on playing field sales or the major embarrassment of the Building Schools for the Future cancellation debacle speaks volumes.

But how do you persuade business to take on the thankless task of running what should be a state education system? What are the incentives - philanthropy? No. There has to be something more. First of all business won't like the idea of equal pay for teachers, high pension contributions or having to pay for true professionals. Gove needed to de-professionalise education. This he did in word and deed. It became a "craft" (Gove's word) that anybody can do just by copying others. He scrapped its ruling professional body (The General Teaching Council), immediately downgrading teaching to "just a job", setting it apart from law and medicine who retain their professional bodies. He's on course to demolish national pay agreements anand advocate locally negotiated pay with academy business sponsors and free schools.

Universities have been wrongly and derogatively condemned as hotbeds of "leftist" indoctrination, teaching "useless theories". When challenged, Gove declines to provide any evidence to support this, leaving the accusation hanging. Tory governments have long wanted to excise universities from teacher education. Those countries Gove says he "admires", Sweden, Finland etc seem to disagree. University involvement is key there and crucial in maintaining their highly educated and trained teaching workforce (remember, he scrapped the last government’s intention to make teaching a Masters profession). In a masterstroke, he also removed the requirement for academies and free schools to hire qualified teachers (but made sure the news was buried during the Olympic opening ceremony celebrations). I find it bizarre that he believes that removing university level education can result in a better trained, higher status workforce. The effect is to reduce a once noble profession to "just a job" that anyone can do with a bit of subject knowledge. The greatest expense in any school is the pay awarded to its teachers. Cutting the requirement for those people to hold any professional qualification, especially a higher degree, allows costs to be reduced.

Academies were not this government's idea, but what an idea to appropriate. To encourage Academy sponsorship, grants to sponsors to take on schools are now paid - remember those heady days when sponsors actually had to pay £2million to be allowed the privilege to take on a school? Where schools, parents and local governors disagree with converting to an academy, just sack the governors, put in a new leadership team and press on regardless of parents want - so much for parental choice.

Paradoxically, if parents choose to buy into Gove's ideology, they can set up their own school, a Free School. Millions are diverted into this pet project. It has the desired effect; businesses sit up and look at this new, attractive way of getting a slice of the education pie. Again, if things don't go well and local authorities deny planning permission for buildings, Gove can overrule them - business likes that - decisive no-nonsense planning that can always be in their favour. Where free schools are not wanted or needed by the local community no matter. Even if they only have a handful of pupils, like the Beccles Free School, they will still be supported - a loss leader perhaps in business terms. When it comes to teachers transferring from existing schools to ideologically driven Free Schools, legal protection of employees through TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings - Protection of Employment), is undermined with claims that, as new entities, Free Schools do not have to accept TUPE. This leaves teachers potentially with no employment, no redundancy and problems with claiming employment benefits.

The stage is set for the wholesale sell-off of state education. Declining exam results, with increased targets for schools to meet, will now place hundreds more schools in the situation of being classed as failing; ripe for forced conversion to academy status. For those academies whose results have fallen and who may not meet the target set there is no effective punishment, other than more inspection or some sackings of the workforce (teachers rather than leaders I suspect). Academes may fail, but Gove's answer - academy conversion - is an empty threat when you already are an academy.

Any hint of dissent, any hint of criticism of these policies is simply met with being labelled as a 'Trotskyite, lover of failure'.

But where next? Business exists to profit. Academies cannot make profits - or can they? As Gove shrewdly stated some time ago, academy sponsors are not allowed to make profits from their schools, yet. So profiteering from the children and staff in our schools was never ruled out completely - there may well be plenty of avenues and business opportunities for making good profits for shareholders, if not now, in the (near?) future.

Gove sees privatisation as the saviour of education, but as Jeremy Hunt, Culture Secretary and Philip Hammond, Defence Secretary, have openly stated, the G4S Olympic debacle tells a different story. Private business may not be the saviour of what should be a state provision for all. But press ahead Gove surely will.

What next for the privatisation of our state education system? I predict that profiteering from schools that are part of academy chains will be allowed. Big business will be lined up to take over the new examination system (I see Pearson, for example, schmoozing and posturing in the wings ready to bid whatever it takes to be the sole exam board, if Gove decides to go down that road). In the USA the state of California has awarded a teacher certification contract to a private business (Pearson) for the next 5 years. While I don't want to put ideas into Gove's head, I can see this as an attractive notion for business. Accomplish this and Gove truly will have destroyed any vestige of state responsibility for education in England.

*The writer works in teacher education in England and has chosen to remain anonymous to avoid his institution being labelled as a hotbed of leftist Trotskyites indoctrinating its students with "useless theory".

Michael Gove. Photograph: Getty Images

David Harris is a pseudonym. The writer works in teacher education in England and has chosen to remain anonymous to avoid his institution being labelled as a hotbed of leftist Trotskyites indoctrinating its students with "useless theory".

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The view from Google Earth is magnificent - but there's a problem

Google Earth is spectacular - but it can give a misleading impression of the planet and the threats we face from climate change. 

 

Google Earth wants you to “get lost” in its updated interactive map. Collaborations with new media partners mean you can now climb Mount Everest, swim with sharks or visit Afghanistan with Zari the purple muppet. No, really:


Source: Google Earth

Yet as Trump slashes support for the science behind satellite imaging, is Google’s emphasis on spectacle leading us down the wrong path?

Google Earth's new look all starts well enough. Opening the new site on your browser takes you to an image of a blue earth floating through the blackness of space. Back in the 1970s, similar images taken from the Apollo space missions helped kickstart the modern environmental movement. As the astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle put it: “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”


Source: GETTY and Google Earth

And it gets better. Enter a destination in the search bar and you are greeted with the option to link directly out to the Wikipedia page: nerds of the world, rejoice! 

A guided tour from NASAearth is also on hand for anyone whose nerdery is in need of a prompt: “Geostationary satellites in geosynchronous orbits. Greenhouse gases and global warming. Glaciers... going, going, gone,” says the Bob Dylan-esque entry on its "ABCs from Space".

You can then choose to orbit your landmark of choice in 3D. And let’s face it - who doesn’t want to glide around the top of Mont Blanc, pretending to be an eagle? It’s almost as good as the BBC’s actual eagle-cam

But then it hits you. This is no soaring eagle, buffeted by wind currents and having to constantly adjust its flightpath in the face of real-world obstacles. This is a world surveyed at a safe and sanitising distance. Tourism for the Trump age – focused on providing “a consumption experience”. Certainly it is the opposite of “getting lost”.

In fact if anything has been lost or downplayed, it is the principles of scientific enquiry. The program is littered with human choices. Local versions of Google Maps, for instance, have shown different national borders depending on where in the world you log in. And while new, open-data imagery from America's Landsat 8 program is helping bring many regions up to date, other high-resolution imagery comes from commercial providers, such as Digital Globe. And as this Google 'help' page implies, there are issues of time-lag to face. 

You can’t even be sure what you’re looking at still exists. In 2015, Bolivia’s second largest lake vanished - a combination of climate change, El Nino, and irrigation withdrawal caused 2,700 square kilometres of water to evaporate into a dry salt pan. (It has not recovered, and seems unlikely to do so.) Yet on the new version of Google Earth the lake is still a healthy green:


Source: GoogleEarth

The much lauded film clips from the BBC’s Planet Earth II are similarly short on context. As I've argued before, David Attenborough's latest TV series did little to explain the stories behind the spectacle – there was no mention, for instance, of the arctic anthrax outbreak which caused thousands of reindeer to be culled, nor the role of climate change in worsening locust swarms. 

Finally, the new update actually shows you less of the world than it did before. Gone is the “Historical Imagery” tool that allowed you to see how a place had changed through time. Now, the Citadel of Aleppo in Syria is only visible as a bombed-out ruin. A surreal street-view reveals two women cheerily taking a selfie – with debris all around and their legs spliced out of shot:


Source: GoogleEarth

So why do these omissions matter? Because they take users further away from the evidence-based approach of earth science. It turns out that satellite images on their own are of limited use when it comes to quantifying change. Instead researchers must turn the raw pixels into numbers, which can then variously represent everything from forests to cities, glaciers and farms.

As Dr France Gerard at the UK’s Centre for Hydrology and Ecology explains, this process enables us to live in a better managed environment – be that by measuring air pollution or the impact of fertiliser on soil. The centre's landcover map, for instance, has been mapping British land use since 1990. Similar methods allow Sam Lavender’s company to provide Ugandans with a Drought and Flood Mitigation service, as part of the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme.

Sadly, the need for public engagement has never been more urgent. Brexit and austerity have cast doubt over important projects in the UK. While in Donald Trump’s America, funds for earth monitoring are set to be slashed. Two missions already under the knife are PACE, a spacecraft set to track global ocean health, and CLARREO, which would have produced highly accurate climate records. Trump has also called for the earth-viewing instruments on the DSCOVR satellite to be turned off. Phil Larson, a former space advisor to President Obama, describes this decision as “baffling”.

So what can be done to reverse this trend? Experts I spoke to believe that collaboration is key. With government programs being squeezed, the earth monitoring industry may come to rely increasingly on the trend towards smaller, commercial satellites. These are great for increasing the quantity of data available but their accuracy needs to be constantly checked against the data from the larger and more reliable state-launched equipment.

There’s also still more data out there to share. As Bronwyn Agrios from Astro Digital points out, many countries have been gathering region-specific data – which could, in future, be made open source. “The neat thing about space is that there’s no border,” she concludes.

To help this process, Google Earth could do far more to raise public awareness of the science behind its special effects. Yet at least in one way it is already on the right path: its own new range of collaborations is impressively large. As well as the BBC, you can take interactive tours with The Ocean Agency, the Wildscreen Arkive, and the Jane Goodall Institute – all of whom put conservation up front. The Goodall journey to Tanzania’s Gombe National Park even describes the use of satellite imagery to measure conservation success.

 

More links with other citizen science projects around the world could turn the program into something truly ground-breaking. If it can incorporate these, then desktop-tourism may yet save the planet from Trump. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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