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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit