Michael Gove wants longer school days because . . . reasons

Teachers must wish Michael Gove worked shorter days and took longer holidays - then his department might stop coming up with so many ill-considered changes to the education system.

 

Here’s an idea for a competition: Find a random statistic relating to a country with a highly-ranked schooling system, then present it to Michael Gove as evidence of where England’s going wrong.

Perhaps too few of our dinner ladies wear blue socks on a Wednesday. Or maybe more of our head teachers need gerbils. Whatever it is, chuck it Michael’s way.

You never know, it might be useful. Even if it’s not, he may act on it all the same (that’s assuming, for instance, that Gove once had a blue-socked dinner lady who only worked mid-week, or a favourite headmaster whose gerbil, Sir Nibbles, inspired him to become the baffling creature he is today).

First prize in this competition is an EBC (after all, who’d want to see an unworkable concept go to waste?).

Gove’s latest madcap “someone else is doing it, so why aren’t we?” proposal is to make school holidays shorter and school days longer. My partner, a primary school teacher, notes that if nothing else, Gove now has the rare achievement of being a hate figure among the kids of Key Stage Two (and yet he considers these youngsters out of step with British culture and values!).

As ever, the education minister doesn’t seem to care; as ever, change is deemed necessary because we’re just not a competitive country any more. He says:

“If you look at the length of the school day in England, the length of the summer holiday, and we compare it to the extra tuition and support that children are receiving elsewhere, then we are fighting or actually running in this global race in a way that ensures that we start with a significant handicap.”

Argh! Not the global race again! Hand me the economic Lucozade! To tell the truth, I’ve never quite grasped this global race idea and how it relates to education. If that’s how it is – if we’re all competing so openly – then sod compulsory foreign languages at KS2 and terminal exams at 16. That’s just fiddling while Rome burns (an insufficiently British event which I suspect is now excluded from the history curriculum, but which may now be covered in Year Six Latin classes).

None of that will help us win the race. What Britain needs are military invasions leading to the physical and cultural enslavement of entire continents. Failing that – let’s say we’re not quite up to getting off the sofa these days – we might as well scrap employment regulation and become a nation of sweatshops. I mean, that is what we’re probably doing, bit by bit. But does it have to take so long?

I suppose the longer school day/shorter holiday model is a step in the right direction. It is, Gove claims, “family-friendly” and “consistent with the pressures of a modern society”. That is to say it is employer-friendly and consistent with the panic faced by a government with no idea how to rescue the economy. And yes, it may mean that some parents – at least those parents fortunate enough to work “normal” hours – find it easier to fit childcare around their work (since we’re now being invited to blur the boundary between education and childcare).

It wouldn’t make much difference to me personally; my son’s school already has a fantastic breakfast and after-school club which accepts childcare vouchers. And no, I don’t mean that in a smug, I’m-alright-Jack way. I mean to point out that there’s already a very workable solution to this issue – one that simply involves childcare and not more lessons – that could do with being extended to other schools and communities where needed. It means children get to play. Is that so bad? Let’s face it, we won’t “win the race” by force-feeding them more reading schemes. Let them be happy now. We all know how grim things will be by the time they’re our age.

As far as long holidays go, I have to admit I can see the attraction of dispensing with them. They’re not that much fun for kids, at least as far as I can recall, otherwise why would I have spent so much time watching badly-dubbed re-runs of runaway circus boy saga Silas while waiting for September to come? While teachers do make good use of the holidays for preparation, many of the ones I’ve spoken to say that children do forget things and/or lose confidence over a six-week break. So perhaps there is something in that part of the proposal (unnatural as sort-of agreeing with Michael Gove might feel). 

But as for the longer day? Where will this extra teaching come from? What does Michael Gove think teachers do with their time? (Yes, they pin up posters of him in the corner of the staff room and throw darts. But that takes mere minutes. I mean the planning, progress tracking and marking, all the stuff that’s so boring we’d rather pretend that no one actually does it. And the more contact time teachers have, the more prep there will be.)

The truth is, Michael Gove doesn’t half mess about and some of what he proposes seems unlikely to happen. As Suzanne Moore writes, Gove’s Mastermind specialist subject would be “looking busy”. Perhaps none of this will come to pass. And yet, it’s the randomness of the thing that rankles. I wince every time the phrase “high performing jurisdiction” is mentioned. It reminds me of study only insofar as I recall bodging together late-night essays, plucking quotations out of books I hadn’t read to back up arguments I’d decided on in advance. “High performing jurisdictions” have become the sources you treat with no respect; I wonder if there’s now some kind of database where you simply enter the policy you want and it spits out Finland, Singapore or wherever as your retrospective justification. It’s meaningless.

Plus it’s irrelevant whenever Gove’s own jurisdiction - here - is doing okay because the rule that something must be tweaked still applies. The UK might be ranked 28th in the world for secondary maths, but when you look at the figures for primary in England, for instance, the picture’s far from bleak. Doesn’t matter, though, does it? It it ain’t broke then smashing it to pieces might allow you to work off some nervous tension.

And so the tinkering and tweaking continues. And yet education, even if it won’t win us global races, still has the power to enrich lives. Whatever else I think of Gove, I suspect that deep down, he believes this, too. Something’s got lost in translation. For all the Latin and Greek, we’re losing a grip on the basics, no longer vouching for the power and joy of knowledge. Two extra hours in the classroom each day won’t ever be able to make up for that loss.

 

Quick! Those children look like they're enjoying themselves! Photo: Getty

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle