Gove reforms are far from radical

Gove's White Paper promised real reform, but consists of reheated policy and headline grabbing gimmi

The long wait is over. Michael Gove's White Paper on reforming Britain's education has arrived, with its flagship policies dominating much of today's coverage.

Sadly, Gove's White Paper contains nothing new and nothing radical. It's a mixture of reheated policy announcements and headline grabbing gimmicks.

The more substantial (if not original) policies included the reclassification of schools as failing when 35 per cent of pupils fail to achieve five A*-C. "I don't think it's right that you can have a school where two-thirds of children aren't getting five basic GCSEs," said Gove, and he is right. When a school fails to get more than half of its pupils to a basic educational standard, it has failed.

There is a certain disjuncture, however, between Gove's rhetoric of freeing teachers from cloying targets and bureaucracy -- but then introducing even more stringent targets than before. Zoe Williams pointed out the self-defeating nature of this policy.

So a government appoints people who aren't teachers to set targets; those same people then attack schools for being too target-driven; and a new regime sets new targets to break the spell of the old targets.

All schools, including special schools, will be able to become academies. The jury is still very much out on whether academies are a success. This policy is bold, but offers no guarantees that schools will immediately improve if released from the control of local authorities.

Aside from these two major policies, most of the White Paper is simply tabloid-friendly tinkering.

For little discernible educational reason, former troops will be encouraged to take their PGCEs. While this gave the Daily Mail a hard on ("battle-hardened former troops will be recruited to... drive out 'trendy' learning methods encouraged under Labour"), turning troops from Taliban-trashers to teachers does not strike me as thorough, well thought-out policy; it strikes me as a gimmick.

The same applies to the English baccalaureate -- a new award to be given to pupils who get good GCSEs in English, maths, science, a modern or ancient foreign language, and a humanity. It is at best a fudge, designed to compensate for Britain's failing exam system.

In an editorial this morning, the Times chastised Gove for failing to deal with one of the major issues for education in England today: incompetent teachers and how to get rid of them.

Bad teachers should not be allowed to cling on to their jobs, dragging down attainment. They are two sides of the same coin: removing bad teachers, by raising the prestige of teaching, will help to attract new, better ones...The exclusion rate for teachers is alarmingly low. The General Teaching Council for England (GTC), the body responsible for improving the quality of teaching, has failed to champion penalising failure. Three-quarters of complaints are dismissed with no further investigation, and only eight teachers were barred by the GTC between 2001 and 2008.

Gove promised much before coming to power. He was a forthright and effective critic of Ed Balls and Labour's education failures. In power, however, Gove has consistently failed to come up with the real, radical reform that is required in English schools. The White Paper won't make schools worse, but it won't make them much better.

Getty
Show Hide image

How the Brexit referendum has infantilised British politics

Politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. 

Ancient Greece is the cradle of modern Europe.  From its primordial soup emerged so much of our culture, our language and our politics. Of the three, it seems to be the politics that has made the least progress over the centuries. In fact, if you dropped an Athenian into the middle of politics in the UK today, they would find themselves right at home. This is not because of the direct democracy, the demagogues or the xenophobia, though all are worryingly familiar, but because of the style of the debate itself.

To understand politics in ancient Greece you have to grasp that they had no concept of ‘the truth’. This is not to say that they were liars, simply that the framework by which we judge credibility was not one they would have recognised. The myths and legends that dominated their discourse were neither thought of as being ‘true’ or ‘made-up’, they simply were, and the fact of their being known allowed them to be used as reference points for debate and argument.

Modern politics seems to be sliding back towards this infant state, and nothing embodies this more than the childish slanging match that passes for an EU referendum debate. In the past six years the UK has had three great exercises of direct democracy and it is safe to say none of the campaigns have added a great deal to sum of human enlightenment. Who remembers the claims that babies would die as a result of the special voting machines needed to conduct AV elections? But the EU referendum has taken this to new extremes. The In campaign are executing what is a fairly predictable strategy, the kind of thing that is normal fare in politics these days. Dossiers of doomsday scenarios. Experts wheeled out. Statistics embellished to dazzle the public. One can question the exact accuracy, but at least you feel they operate within certain parameters of veracity.

What is happening on the Out side, in contrast, is the collective nervous breakdown of a large section of the political establishment. Just this week we have had Penny Mordaunt, a government minister, flat-out denying the UK’s right to veto new accessions to the EU. We have seen the fiercely independent Institute for Fiscal Studies denounced as a propaganda arm for Brussels. Most bizarrely, Boris Johnson even tried to claim that the EU had banned bananas from being sold in bunches larger than three, something that nobody who has actually visited a shop in the UK could possibly believe. These kind of claims stretch our political discourse way beyond the crudely drawn boundaries of factual accuracy that normally constrain what politicians can do and say. Surely the people peddling these myths can never be taken seriously again?

But they will. You just watch as Johnson, Mordaunt and the rest slide effortlessly back into public life. Instead of being ridiculed for their unhinged statements, they will be rewarded with plush offices and ministerial cars. Journalists will continue to hang on every word they say. Their views will be published in newspapers, their faces will flit ceaselessly across our TV screens. Johnson is even touted as a plausible future leader of our country, possibly before the year is out. A man who over his meandering career seems to have held every possible opinion on any topic you care to name. Or rather, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the character we call Boris has no opinions at all, simply interests. The public, who have scant regard for a political class they believe to be untrustworthy, seem to have taken a shine to a man who is perhaps the most fundamentally dishonest of Westminster’s denizens.

What does all this say about the state of our politics? If it is true that we are seeing the advent of ‘post-truth’ politics, as some have argued, then it has grown out of the corrosive relationship between politicians and the public. It is both a great irony and a great tragedy that the very fact that people distrust all politicians is what has permitted the most opportunistic to peddle more and more outlandish claims. Political discourse has ceased to be a rational debate with agreed parameters and, like the ancient Greeks, more resembles a series of competing myths. Claims are assessed not by their accuracy but by their place in the grand narrative which is politics.

But the truth matters. For the ancients it was the historian Thucydides who shifted the dial decisively in favour of fact over fiction. In writing his Histories he decided that he wanted to know what actually happened, not just what made a good story. In a similar vein British politics needs to take a step back towards the real world. Broadcasters launching fact-checkers are a good start, but we need to up the level of scrutiny on political claims and those who make them. At times it feels like the press operate as a kind of counterweight to Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, going easy on much-loved characters for fear of upsetting the viewers.

But politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. If politics is the art of the possible, then political discourse is the art of saying what you can get away with. Until there are consequences for the worst offenders, the age of post-truth politics will continue suck the life from our public debate.